Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Favorite Satire

The President's Analyst.

If James Coburn made a better movie I don't know what it is.

Here, the President is under such stress a shrink is hired for him. That shrink just happens to be Coburn, who is a '60s hippie trapped in a suit and tie.

But there is a problem. A big, big problem. The knowledge in the good doctor's head is priceless, so every government in the world wants to kidnap him and put him the Brain Laundry. Worse, his own government wants to kill him so nobody else can get their hands on him. Not surprisingly he becomes paranoid, runs away, and encounters all kinds of, let's say, unusual people

The antics that ensue are hilarious.

You won't be disappointed.

And here's an article I wrote about it years ago.

The President's Analyst was written and directed by Theodore Flicker and released in 1967. This spoof is always right on target as it skewers the Cold War, psychiatry, the FBI, the CIA, the phone company, spies, conspiracies, every sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll excess of the '60's, and, most ominously of all, the paranoia that comes from believing an alliance of the State and Corporate Big Business is, in whatever way it can, Out to Get You (or better yet, your brains).

This movie is a telling comment on Stephen King's quote that humor and horror are the original Chang and Eng of literature. The on-screen antics, funny as a fantasy, would be a horror in life.

A quick description of what goes on? Imagine the Three Stooges as unblinking midget Terminators, dressed as identical 1950's insurance agents – cheap grey suits, narrow ties, buttoned-down shirts, hats traditionally worn by the thugs in a Bogart film – out to bump off some poor guy who has temporarily (but understandably) cracked up and descended into rightful paranoia.

James Coburn, in possibly his best role, epitomizes '60's cool as New York psychiatrist Sidney Schaeffer (he tells his girlfriend, "I love you, and it's my professional opinion you love me, too") who is recruited by the good-guy "CEA" (Central Enquiry Agency) to be the sponge that soaks up the (never seen) President's anxieties ("He hasn't slept in eight nights worrying about Libya!" sputters Coburn after the first meeting).

It turns out both the CEA and Schaeffer have a nemesis – the diminutive head of the "FBR" (Federal Bureau of Regulation), one Henry Lux (played by a stone-faced Walter Burke). He opposes the whole deal as a threat to national security, and when Schaeffer protests Lux prying into his love-life with, "My personal life is my own," Lux retorts, "Not anymore, it isn't."

Next thing Schaeffer knows, his comfortable little world of dinner martinis and ivy-covered townhouses simply evaporates. Unknown to him (at first), Lux has decided that Schaeffer has become the Man Who Knows Too Much. The solution? "Kill him...I want him dead...he must die..." Lux intones to a roomful of tiny, motionless FBR assassin clones.

Meanwhile, Schaeffer is noticing something very, very odd: everywhere he turns, he is being followed by foreigners wearing sunglasses and fezzes. It turns out nearly every country in the world wants him. Only they don't want him dead. They want to kidnap him and, as Schaeffer stutters to his girlfriend, "Put me in one of those brain laundries!"

When she suggests maybe he's imagining things, he tells her, "I'm not paranoid! They're all spies!" And he's right. They are. So he does the only thing a rationally paranoid man can do: he flips his lid and he flees. Right into the station wagon of the Bing Quantrell family, gun-toting, karate-chopping New Jersy "militant liberals." He flees from them, too, when spies try to snatch him in the street ("Muggers!" shrieks the wife gleefully, and with a series of "Hee-Yahs!" chops, kicks and flips the attackers to the pavement while her Hitlerish-looking husband calmly blasts the rest with his .357 Magnum).

There is a scene which is a bit hard to catch on TV. As Shaeffer is frenetically scurrying in circles, trying to escape his pursuers, he runs underneath a theater marquee advertising the movie No Running.

His next stop is the VW bus of Snow White (dressed in a very sheer, clinging, see-through gown that ultimately floats away on a balloon) and the Old Wrangler (Barry McGuire, of "Eve of Destruction" fame, who babbles some hilariously lame Kung-Fu-Grasshopper Eastern "philosophy"), both playing quintessential hippies who disguise Schaeffer in red-tinted sunglasses and a Neil Young wig.

From there things get really weird. He ends up chloroformed and on a boat, kidnapped by Canadian spies ("Canadian spies?" he giggles, strapped to a couch). FBR killer sheeple Sullivan (Arte Johnson, best known as a comedian on Laugh-In and for his role as the bug-eating myopic dwarf Renfield in Love at First Bite) attempts to remove his head with a 44. Magnum ("After I shoot you, I'll take your picture and prints."). When Schaeffer tries to talk him out of it, Sullivan, the quintessential hypnotized bureaucrat, replies, "No! No! Rules are rules!"

Next stop: Russia, courtesy of Russian secret agent Kropotin (marvelously played by Severn Darden, one of the original founders of the Second City comedy troupe). That's all of the movie I'll give away, except for one last thing: Schaeffer finally ends up in the secret headquarters of the most evil organization on earth, where he utters the only PG-word in the whole movie: "Take that, you hostile sons-of-bitches!"

Coburn, who in the '60's was best known for mocking spy films in his "Flint" series, here goes to the other extreme: instead of being an action hero, he's an overly cerebral innocent, one who's wound up just a little too tight. He chews up the scenery with an over-the-top performance, hugely grinning with a set of choppers that would do Bucky Beaver proud. And every time that huge, knowing grin spreads across his face, it's a sign he's gone just a little bit more wacky.

Holding their own against him are Godfrey Cambridge as a friendly CEA agent whom Schaeffer helps with his lack of guilt over being an assassin (the opening scene between Cambridge and Coburn, in which Cambridge relates his childhood shock when he discovered that he was a "nigger," is a classic), and a rumpled Will Geer (Grampa Walton), who shows up briefly as Schaeffer's elderly but longish-haired analyst.

What, ultimately, is the movie about? The ultimate threat to us is the State, and especially the collusion between State and Corporate Big Business. Maybe we should be paranoid about them. They certainly don't have our best interests at heart. What does it celebrate? The important things – family, friends, fireplaces, snowy Christmases.

There is one caveat. In the original version, there is a scene is which several spies attempt to grab Schaeffer in a grassy field (while Snow White's gauzy gown floats away on that balloon). Interspersed with this is McGuire singing and playing his guitar so intensely that he's flopping around on his back and kicking his feet. Yet, in some of the versions now available, McGuire and the song have been cut, and replaced with an annoying and totally inappropriate instrumental. It ruins what is the best scene in the movie.

The only thing that is out-of-date about this 35-year-old film are the fashions (and I'm sure someday they'll come back). Otherwise, it's smart, fast-paced and witty – and its message is timeless.

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