Tuesday, 24 July 2007

The President's Analyst

If Theodore J. Flicker is known for anything, it is his work in television. After all, he was co-creator of the classic sitcom Barney Miller alongside Danny Arnold. Most of his work was in directing TV shows. Over the years Flicker directed everything from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to I Dream of Jeannie to The Streets of San Francisco. He wrote for television as well, writing episodes of Nichols, Night Gallery, and, of course, Barney Miller.

That having been said, Flicker did some work in feature films. He co-wrote the screenplay to The Troublemaker with Buck Henry and directed the movie. He also wrote the screenplay to the Elvis Presley vehicle Spinout. He directed such films as Up in the Cellar and Soggy Bottom U.S.A.. For the most part, however, Flicker's feature films have been forgotten. Not all of them have, as The President's Analyst, directed by Flicker and released in 1967, has been remembered as both a cult film and one of the funniest films of the Sixties in the opinion of many.

The President's Analyst was produced at the the tail end of the spy fad that swept America and Europe in the mid-Sixties. The President's Analyst is largely a a parody of the myriad spy films produced from 1964 to 1967, but it is also so much more than that. Essentially, it is a political and social satire, which takes jabs at everything from the United States government to middle class suburbanites to, well, the phone company. Indeed, The President's Analyst was among the first films turned out by Paramount with Robert Evans as Head of Production. Not long after Evans agreed to go forward on The President's Analyst, Evans claimed that he was approached by two men from the FBI who let him know that J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau felt that the picture would be detrimental. Evans told them in no uncertain terms that they were going ahead with the picture. Whether Evans went ahead with The President's Analyst due to FBI objections is something ultimately known only to Mr. Evans and the Bureau. That having been said, it is notable that through out the film FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) were replaced by FBR (Federal Bureau of Regulations) and CEA (Central Enquiries Agency) respectively.

A pet project of James Coburn, The President's Analyst was the film on which he was a producer, being made through his Panpiper Productions. Coburn's first roles which attracted attention were in the ensemble action films The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. The two Derek Flint spy parodies, Our Man Flint and In Like Flint, arguably made him a star. It was a natural step for Coburn, then, to start producing his own films. Coburn played the lead role of Dr. Sidney Schaefer, the psychiatrist who gets the unfortunate job of analysing the President. The cast also featured comedian Godfrey Cambridge as CEA agent Don Masters, Joan Delaney as Dr. Schaefer's girlfriend Nan, singer Barry McGuire as the hippie Old Wrangler, and Pat Harrington as Arlington Hewes, President of TPC (The Phone Company).

As I said earlier, The President's Analyst is both a spy spoof and a political and social satire. Its plot is starkly original for its time. Not long after accepting the position of analyst to the President of the United States, Dr. Sidney Schaefer soon becomes paranoid about constantly being watched and flees Washington. The only problem is that Dr. Schaefer is being watched, and soon every spy from seemingly every country in the world is out to get him.

The President Analyst is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. Indeed, I suspect the only film from the Sixties that matches it in irreverence is Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The list of institutions The President's Analyst sends up is a long one: psychiatry, the Federal government, foreign governments, the middle class, suburbia, liberals, conservatives, and spies. In fact, the only characters presented somewhat sympathetically in the film are Dr. Schaeffer, spies, or Barry McGuire and his merry band of hippies! As a measure of just how sharp the satire in this film is, reportedly when NBC first aired the film in the early Seventies, they cut the movie's punchline!

What makes The President's Analyst so effective, however, is that it is actually a very carefully structured film. At first glance the film appears to be a set of skits loosely interconnected by Dr. Schaeffer's flight for his life, largely a product of Sixties style improvisational comedy. On closer examination, however, its plot is much more closely knitted than on the surface. It is one of those films that expects the viewer to be intelligent enough to catch the numerous bits of foreshadowing (not to mention some funny sight gags) that are peppered throughout the film. I suspect that The President's Analyst became a cult film largely because it benefits from repeated viewings.

Sadly, The President's Analyst did not fair well on its initial release. It bombed at the box office and quickly disappeared from theatres. I rather suspect that many older people saw the film as a bit too sympathetic to the counterculture of the time. At the same time, it must be remembered that the spy fad of the Sixties was coming to an end. Many seeing its trailer may have concluded that this remarkable movie was simply another spy spoof.

While The President's Analyst would be aired regularly on television (I first saw it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies as a very young child), it did not precisely fare well in that format. As I mentioned earlier, when it first aired on television on NBC, the network cut its punchline. Something even worse would occur later, as for a time a copyright dispute prevented Barry McGuire's originals songs from appearing in television prints of the film (fortunately, this was resolved before its DVD release). The President's Analyst was further altered from its theatrical version when a scene cut from the the original print of the film was added in television prints to pad out its air time. This scene has Dr. Schaeffer running into his girlfriend Nan by chance at a underground film of the sort so popular in the Sixties. Some fans of the movie believe the scene is important, while others simply see it as out of place.A picture from this scene can be seen at Roger Ebert's web site. Quite simply, it appears for some time that The President's Anaylst was aired on television in a different version from that of its theatrical release, without McGuire's music and with a scene between Dr. Schaeffer and Nan in an art cinema. Reportedly, there is something else that has been cut, although I have my serious doubts that it was part of the theatrical release or even television prints. There are those who claim that there was a segment during Dr. Schaeffer's collapse into paranoia involving disembodied, glowing eyes. I have not even seen clips from this segment and I have to wonder if reports of the segment aren't apocryphal. At any rate, given how the film has fared over the years, it is surprising that The President's Analyst ever achieved a cult following.

The President's Analyst was easily the funniest film of 1967 (arguably The Graduate is a better film, but does not match it for comedy). It is an equal opportunity satire which pokes fun at nearly every important part of the Establishment of the Sixties. What is more is that it holds up remarkably well. Indeed, if anything else, The President's Analyst may well be more relevant now than it was in the Sixties.

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