[Author’s Note: This is the second half of my January 1998 column, which covered three films. The first film was The Scent of Green Papaya. The second and third are included here, although my follow-up focus only covers the second film.]
What would life be without a couple of good paranoid fantasies to liven it up? Would the Sixties have been complete without Dr. Strangelove? For that matter, would the Sixties have been complete without The President’s Analyst? Say what? You’ve never heard of The President’s Analyst, one of the most off-the-wall, paranoid comedies of that off-the-wall decade? Welcome to the club. This was one of the many lesser-known gems recommended in an excellent “Movie-A-Day” calendar put out by Joel Heller Productions in 1993.
If you enjoyed the recent Mike Meyer’s Sixties spoof, Austin Powers: Secret Agent,The President’s Analyst will blow your mind. At least I think that’s the lingo. Written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker (who?), and starring James Coburn, The President’s Analyst holds up remarkably well after 30-odd years. Why not? Do we have less to be paranoid about nowadays? The real joy of Flicker’s flick is its utter unpredictability. The picaresque plot hinges around a psychiatrist (Coburn) who is hired to serve as a relief valve for an over-stressed American president. Coburn initially plays his role with the same sardonic grin, the savoir-faire, and the bulletproof sense of cool he displayed in another fine set of Sixties farces, the In Like Flint James Bond takeoffs. Soon the President’s doing much better, thank you, but Coburn’s character (Dr. Sidney Shaefer) gets saddled with all the President’s sloughed-off neuroses, anxieties, and global paranoid fantasies. Perfect patient-doctor transference. Shaefer has a nervous breakdown, and so does the movie. To tell you much more would be to spoil the sheer joy of the unexpected. But can you afford not to watch a film in which the Canadian Secret Service, disguised as a rock band called the Puddlians, kidnaps a foreign agent in the middle of a psychedelic rock festival attended by Snow White? Or in which a Soviet agent named Kropotkin has his loyalties turned through impromptu psychoanalysis, middle class families are your best defense against assassination, and the F.B.I. has been replaced by a federal organization of very short psychopaths in zoot suits? Besides, you want to know who the real enemy is, don’t you?
Last, and silliest, of this month’s triumvirate, is Robert Zemeckis’s 1978 slapstick comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand, about six teenagers trying to get tickets for the 1964 appearance of the Fab Four on the Ed Sullivan show. This is the director who gave us Forrest Gump and the Back to the Future series. Like most slapstick I Wanna Hold Your Hand has its hits and misses, but the Beatles scene really was this hysterical and the movie’s a healthier choice for a grey January day than, say, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. In one of my favorite scenes, a lightning bolt demonstrates that the Beatles had fans in very high places. Particularly recommended for teenagers, who will undoubtedly refuse to believe their parents could ever have been a part of this scene.
Sidebar #75e: Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“Logic is on our side: this isn’t a case of a world struggle between two divergent ideologies, of different economic systems. Every day your country becomes more socialistic and mine becomes more capitalistic. Pretty soon we will meet in the middle and join hands.” –V.I. Kydor Kropotkin
James Coburn, you sly dog, you! With Our Man Flint and In Like Flint, you gave us the only James Bond parodies worth remembering. With The President’s Analyst, you gave us one of the few worthy successors to Dr. Stangelove’s paranoid black humor. This time around the villain isn’t the military, it’s an organization even closer to home now that we’re at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. I’m not going to tell you who that villain is; the reveal is too much fun. Also too much fun is dipping back into the Sixties via some period music (courtesy of 6-time Oscar nominee & Mission Impossible theme music creator Lalo Shifrin), LSD trips, free love, hippies, mod clothing, and Cold War skulduggery.
James, you had one of the best smiles in the business, one that the Cheshire Cat might have envied. Mike Myers’ Austin Powers had to work pretty hard to get the groove going that just came natural to you. As for your effect on women, you were the cinematic equivalent of catnip. Your co-stars also had a chance to shine in this picture: Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden, Joan Delaney, Pat Harrington Jr., Will Geer, William Daniels. All of these actors, with the exception of Delaney, had long careers as character actors. Everyone looked they were having a good time as Coburn, with the same go-for-broke gusto that characterized the first Ghostbusters and the first Men in Black.
The President’s Analyst has some clever camerawork by veteran Director of Photography William A. Fraker (6 Oscar nominations), with shot compositions that match the off-kilter plotline. Speaking of the latter, the film earned its only award nomination from the Writer’s Guild of America for Best Written Original American Screenplay, for director/writer Theodore J. Flicker. Can’t say I’d ever heard of the guy. He had 28 credits as a director and 14 as a writer—mainly for work on TV series. His first show was in 1960, his last in 1981.
The film takes some good digs at the “average” American family, the CIA & FBI, gun mania, and pseudo-Liberalism. Early on, Godfrey Cambridge’s character tells a potent story about a childhood encounter with racism that could stand on its own as an object lesson. Finally, I still can’t resist a film that tosses the Canadian Secret Service into the wicked Spy vs. Spy brouhaha.