1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Monday, June 25, 2012

The President's Analyst

As an antidote for all the dystopian gloom of the early 70s, Digression Week steps back to the mid 60s for some sci-fi humor. First up is Paramount's The President's Analyst (TPA) from 1967. The sci-fi part is scant, but it's there. Written and directed by Theodore Flicker, this satire comedy has ardent fans, and viewers who just don't get it. James Coburn stars as the troubled psychiatrist who gets what he thinks is a plum job, but later regrets it. Flicker's script spoofs just about everyone -- right-wing extremists, left-wing extremists, corporate America, the counter-culture, psychoanalysis and international politics. Not all the humor survives 40 years, but some does.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Sidney Schafer is a NYC psychiatrist with the usual clientele. One of his patients, Don, (played by Godfrey Cambridge) is actually a CEA agent (thinly disguised CIA). Sidney has been chosen to be the President's analyst. With the weight of the free world on his shoulders, he needs someone to talk to. Sidney is thrilled, as is his girlfriend, Nan. They move into a tidy suburb of Washington. Henry Lux of the FBR (FBI) is all negative about the whole thing. Sidney begins to get a bit paranoid that enemy agents are all around him. He also tires of the President's frequent and irregular summonses to talk. The FBR send Nan away because Sidney talks in his sleep. Overwhelmed by it all, Sidney schemes to escape. He goes home to New Jersey with a tourist family who were doing a White House tour. The Quantrill's are self-professed liberals, but tote many guns to protect them from the right-wingers. After a meal at a restaurant in the city, agents try to grab Sidney. He runs, eventually hiding in a bus belonging to hippy musicians. They drive out to the Great Lakes. Dressed as a "hippy", Sidney enjoys some quiet and some free love from the vacuous hippy babe: Snow White. While Sidney and Snow are "busy" in the meadow, various agents try to kill him, but are in turn killed by other agents, etc. etc. Sidney and Snow leave, unaware. The hippy band plays in a remote club. Hallucinogenic drugs in the patrons' drinks turn the room full of poorly disguised spies into mass ineptitude. Yet, some spies grab Sidney and escape. He awakens on a yacht on a Great Lake to find he's been abducted by Canadian spies. They are killed by an FBR man sent to kill Sidney, but he's out of bullets. The chief Russian spy, Kropotkin, kills the FBR man and steers the boat to international waters to meet a Russian trawler. En route, Sidney befriends, then psychoanalyzes Kropotkin. Eventually, he realizes he actually hates his father and the spy business. Kropotkin wants Sidney to cure him, so he agrees to let Sidney be rescued by the CEA (Don). However, when Sidney gets stuck in a phone booth, a telephone truck comes and swaps out the booth for an empty one. He is taken to a high-tech bunker of The Phone Company (TPC). The Phone Company wants to implant microchip cell phones in the brains of all citizens -- replacing names with numbers -- thereby eliminating the need for lines, poles, trucks and excess personnel. They want Sidney to convince the President to get legislation passed to make this work. Sidney says no, so is tortured with mind beams. Don and Kropotkin break in and rescue Sidney. It turns out the phone company executive was a robot -- a recording. Kropotkin sabotages the central exchange and they all shoot their way out. Back in DC, it's Christmas. Don and Kropotkin are welcomed to Sidney and Nan's tidy home for festivities. While the congratulate each other, several rows of phone company robots watch it all on their big view screen. The executive robot smiles. Fade to black. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
It's a comedy! (That was easy.) While TPA drags in a few spots, some of the set piece gags are funny -- not in a slap-stick Three Stooges way, but with a bit more thought behind them. More on some of those below. The best part, for a sci-fi fan, is near the end, when The Phone Company executive reveals their plan to implant phones in everyone's brains, to reduce the need for human personnel. The executive turns out to be a robot. Silliness for 1967, but now? We're close. The chips are stuck to the sides of everyone's faces instead of in their brains.

Cold War Angle
Overall, there is the absurd spy vs spy satire of the secret agent genre. Telling, is the casual friendship of Don and Kropotkin. They're both just professional men in the same career. At one point, Kropotkin explains to Sidney, the foolishness of all the cloak and dagger business. "Every day, your country becomes more and more socialist. My country becomes more and more capitalist. One day, we'll meet in the middle and join hands." A nice deflation of the usual Cold War rhetoric.

Dated Humor -- Many of the small jokes were products of their time. As such, people unaware in the mid-60s are likely to never get them, or at best, not think their all that funny. For instance, unless you were well aware that the head of the (real) FBI was J.Edgar HOOVER, and that Hoover was a vacuum cleaner brand, and that Lux (as in Electro-Lux) was a rival vacuum cleaner brand, having the head of the FBR be Henry Lux, just wouldn't be a joke. As such, some viewers find the movie terribly funny, while younger ones might not even know there was one. That's humor, though. 40 years from now, will people born after 2000 get jokes about Ross Perot, Jay Leno or? Probably not.

Lasting Humor -- Some of the set pieces have a surprising (if not slightly eerie) relevance to today's world. For example, the Quantrills. They are self-proclaimed "Liberals, like the President…all for civil rights and all." Yet, they exhibit all the traits of the "right-wing extremists" they supposedly loathe. (a remarkably relevant satire, even today). The best part is when the Quantrills are ambushed by many spies and agents outside of the Chinese restaurant. "Muggers!" shouts Mrs. Q with a Christmas-morning glee. Now she can use her Karate lessons. She chops and kicks and subdues many. Mr. Q whips out his big .44 and starts blasting an equal number. Dirty Harry was an underachiever by comparison.

Missing Scene? -- It is said that the TV cut omitted an important scene. Some evidence in the remaining film suggests this is true. In the TV cut version, Nan is Sidney's pre-existing girlfriend. But was she? The omitted scene comes when Sidney is all giddy and "on the town" at news of his promotion. He takes in a movie and meets Nan. They have a fling. (Resume Rest of Film) This explains why Nan was so taken aback at Sidney's proposal of marriage. They just met. She suggested they live together for awhile. This sort of thing would have already happened in an established relationshp. The omitted scene would also explain why Nan acts like an agent, recording Sidney's phone call. Odd, if she was his pre-existing girlfriend and "turned" so quickly, but natural enough if she was a CEA plant assigned to befriend Sidney.

The Real Enemy -- Despite all the spies of many nations, the real enemy in the film is The Phone Company. (This worked better when there was just one huge AT&T with their monopoly.) Hating the phone company was just a cultural thing -- like hating Mondays. Their insidious plot to get phone microchips implanted in the brains of everyone -- even babies in the womb -- is surprisingly relevant for today. It's almost in place today via cell phones (and angst over government tracking their every move and word). But, TPA had it in the mid 60s! A further element in the dark plot is how the phone company "men" are actually life-like robots. Their brain-implants harken to those used in Invaders From Mars ('53).

Bottom line? If you were alive and aware in the mid-60s, the humor and satire in TPC will be fun. If you were born after 1960 or so, TPC will likely seem odd and not particularly funny. (The Quantrills, excepted) The plot of The Phone Company -- staffed by robots seeking to expand their control -- is good ol' fashioned sci-fi stuff.

No comments: