Retro-View: The President’s Analyst (1967)
I remember seeing this odd film often on the late-nite movie show, always fascinated by the unique psychedelic vibe of this 1960’s satire starring James Coburn as the titular character. There was something strange and dazzling about the ever-changing tone of the scenes, from broad comedy to surgical insight to pop-art hallucinations. I gravitate towards satire in the DR. STRANGELOVE vein, and this archetypal 60’s film perfectly fits the bill. It took years for a proper unedited DVD release in 2004 after its first wide-screen appearance on laserdisc, mainly due to music rights issues, the bane of most unreleased films.
Rumored to have been the basis for a third film in the popular OUR MAN FLINT (1966) and IN LIKE FLINT (1967) features, THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST has a fascinating history with enough real life paranoia that parallels the film’s uber-conspiracy theories. Audaciously written and directed by improv comic Theodore J. Flicker, the premise is beyond high-concept: the overstressed president needs therapy and a brilliant psychologist is chosen to administer care — only to end up caught in a web of domestic and foreign agents on his trail. Throw in a prescient theme of total surveillance via the phone company, and you end up with one of the smartest and most visionary American films, with truly subversive wit and politics.
Of course, this was a time when J. Edgar Hoover was still in charge of the FBI and they had a bad unconstitutional habit of monitoring film scripts for signs of disrespect to their bureau. If anybody calls you a “conspiracy theorist” remind them that the FBI actually has a file on Otto Preminger’s SKIDOO (1968) and most likely, a bigger file on THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST. As others involved have attested, producer Stanley Rubin told me that the FBI harassed them, tapped calls, bothered the studio heads and generally made it known they didn’t appreciate the film naming actual names — like using the word “FBI.” Not to mention presenting its agents as short, impotent killers and showing the CIA as “good cop” to the FBI’s “bad cop.” That the script astutely points out the rivalry between the organizations is another of its political masterstrokes, especially the great visual gag of the FBI being comprised of very short men. The studio mollified the government by changing the FBI to the FBR and the CIA to the CEA through obvious ADR. They still didn’t get the joke.
James Coburn cemented his reputation as one of the hippest purveyors of 60’s cinema cool with his role as Dr. Sidney Schaefer, a “now” kind of therapist who plays a gong in his office and admires modern pop-art. Although some critics labelled Coburn miscast for this kind of satirical role, he’s perfect in the film and this is my favorite performance by him. He comes off exactly as his character should be, proudly objective with a self-satisfied exterior monologue in the virile clothes of a “What Kind Of Man Who Reads Playboy.” Boy does he look wicked in those Ray Ban shades. His most effective comic weapon in the film is his wolf’s smile, which never failed to get a laugh when I showed it to my appreciative 60’s film class at Berkeley (and what a class that was). Coburn is particularly funny as he get irritated with the president’s constant need for attention along with his increasing paranoia (I love the weird voice chorus that pops up whenever he gets suspicious). He is also very generous in the time given to the fantastic supporting cast.
Flicker brought along star members of his Village improv group The Premise to give the film more comedic depth and put his talented friends to work. Godfrey Cambridge gets a rare 1960’s co-starring role for a Black actor as CEA agent Don Masters, and steals all his scenes, especially the incredible one-take monologue when he tells how he first learned about the word “nigger.” It’s still a powerful moment and helps set the pliable tone of the film. Stealing moments along with him is Severn Darden, one of the most unique character actors of the 60’s and 70’s. As the Russian spy Kropotkin, Darden is charming and believable, his competitive relationship with the American agent quite lovely. Happily, THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST launched both of their movie careers, and Cambridge ended up the star of Melvin Van Peebles’ amazing THE WATERMELON MAN (1970).
There’s a panopoly of great character bits that’s almost Tarantino-esque, as is the episodic nature of the screenplay. My favorite scene is the suburban getaway with Coburn on the run from the FBR, the CEA and the KGB as he hijacks the typical American family played with LIFE magazine gusto by William Daniels and Joan Darling. With his repeated finger-pointing to the “total sound” muzak, Daniels is hilarious as the phony liberal who does “weekend picketing” and keeps a gun in the car and home along with the stereo. I must also praise Arte Johnson as an officious, stone-cold FBR killer, whose unexpected violence is one of my favorite cinematic shootings. Joan Delaney is a mixed bag as Schaefer’s girlfriend, starting out as a submissive sex kitten, but she shows more range later.
Throwing a sugarcube to the exploding counter-culture audience, “Eve of Destruction” songwriter Barry McGuire and his band of VW hippies show up (The Grateful Dead sadly declined) to bestow peace, love and liberation upon Dr. Schaefer, who now understands the wise Platonic adage, “Know when you don’t know.” This leads to one of the late 60’s favorite film tropes, the LSD Freak Out Scene, as Schaefer is kidnapped amid the haze of a disjointedly shot and edited sequence. After the psychedelic shenanigans, the story cruises back into satire as the doctor cleverly psychoanalyzes the congenial KGB agent into helping him escape so he can pursue further therapy. Coburn and Darden are terrific here and they look like they’re having a good time playing off one another.
However, Dr. Schaefer is captured by the masterminds behind the whole conspiracy, TPC aka The Phone Company. Pat Harrington excels as Arlington Hughes, the sinister, politely condescending President of TPC whose exchange with Coburn about phone service is marvellous. Even more brilliant is the educational cartoon shown to Coburn that highlights the wonders of the Cerebrum Communicator, basically a phone installed in your head. When asked for his professional opine, Dr. Schaefer tells Hughes that “You’re a megolomaniac and the phone company is psychotic.” “Getting back to our problem…” drones Harrington in a perfect deadpan brush-off.
The film’s climax is probably its weakest point, with what feels like the heavy hand of studio cutters at work. Or a rushed schedule. There’s a nifty gun battle that allows Dr. Schaefer to release the aggression he believes keeps one from being repressed. What that means in the bigger scope of the film’s politics is unclear, but the ending offers an ambiguous victory of togetherness at Christmas time — still overseen by the automated minions of TPC. Extreme prescience for 1967. Director Flicker said that the studio was more shaken by the complaints from phone company executives than by the government. There was even an article in the NY Times about the film being refused a helicopter shot on the White House lawn. However, fortune smiled and they got a great shot of Lyndon Johnson himself walking dogs on the White House lawn, combined with James Coburn laughing maniacally.
In terms of style, William Fraker’s anamorphic cinematography is quite stunning and gives the film much of its Panavision luster. I understand Danny Peary’s jibe that the movie looks “shot at wrong angles” but that’s an apropos visual design for such a paranoid view. I also adore Lalo Shifrin’s bright, jazzy score, almost the comedy version of BULLITT and is there a reason why this thing isn’t available as a sound track? I want the bouncy pop song that plays behind James Coburn as he strolls through New York after getting the job of President’s Analyst. That’s the moment that made me fall in love with the film and I can’t defend it at all, singled out by reviewers in the day as inexcusable, but that’s how I want to remember Coburn. The scene somehow makes you feel the decade and possibilities. It’s totally 1967, the year the era blossomed into the fabled, maligned “The Sixties.”
THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST was released on December 21, 1967 to a fair amount of critical goodwill and pans from others who didn’t know how lucky they were to be getting that film. Even though it opened well at the box-office, the studio pulled the movie after a couple weeks in response to the pressure from only the CEA, the FBR and TPC know who. When the film played on television, a scene featuring Coburn at an underground movie theater was included to pad out the running time. Of course, these scenes have not been included on the bare bones Paramount DVD. Criterion, Wherefore Art Thou?
Sadly, Theodore J. Flicker was basically blacklisted by Hollywood after the film and he found his revenge by helping to create “Barney Miller.” But I’m glad Flicker was able to get this one mad vision released by a major studio since THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST is unarguably one of the finest — and rare — American cinema satires. It’s certainly in my top ten film list of the 1960’s. I find the movie endlessly watchable, filled with a spirit of pop-paranoid fearlessness that seems fresh and timely today, as well as being a cultural time capsule to an era when some people actually feared that secret government agencies along with a glut of communication devices could lead to an automated, depersonalized, surveillance society ruled by corporations. Far out.