Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: a twofer! With Paranoia, we have a thriller about a man whose job has unexpectedly thrust him into the shadowy world of espionage; with Lee Daniels' The Butler, a film about the life of one of the President of the United States of America's most trusted employees. Put them together, and you OBVIOUSLY have a '60s counterculture comedy with James Coburn. It could be no other way.
The President's Analyst opens with a shot that's so proudly mired in the aesthetics at the moment of its creation (it could have come from anywhere in the 1967-'71 window; it happens to be from 1967, which I suppose makes it a trendsetter) that it's indistinguishable from parody. We start on a super-close, grainy shot of a rippling American flag, and ZOOOOOM back to a wide shot of a New York street corner, with the building upon which that flag was located all the way in the distance; then we ZOOOOOM in close to an obviously Up To No Good sort of fellow standing on that corner, having a cloak-and-daggery conversation. Ain't no zoom like a late-'60s zoom, I always say.
As things progress, we arrive in the company of Greenwich Village psychotherapist Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn), a man well-liked by his clients, but especially by a fellow named Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge), who on this particular day reveals to his doctor a dream that he had, about a racial bullying incident from his childhood (it was when Masters first realised that the color of his skin made other people dislike him), and from there seamlessly glides into admitting that he's an agent with the U.S. intelligence-gathering organisation CEA (like its rival and sister agency, the FBR, the CEA was thus renamed in post-production dubbing, when it turned out that openly mocking the two real intelligence agencies in the United States was a good way to make enemies), and he hasn't been coming to Sidney for his own good, but because he's been assigned to vet therapists for the President of the United States himself.
Sidney jumps at the job, but problems start to crop up immediately: like how FBR director Henry Lux (Walter Burke) is convinced that his girlfriend Nan Butler (Joan Delaney) is a security risk, and after hardly any time in the job, being assaulted constantly by questions about his ability to keep a secret in light of his tendency to talk in his sleep and all, the President's analyst starts cracking up himself, convinced that he's being watched constantly (which he is), and that his life is in danger if he steps out of line even a little bit (which it is). So, politely shanghaiing a group of White House tourists, he disappears into the American countryside, and immediately becomes the target of the intelligence agencies of every nation in the world, with Masters and his old friend, the Soviet spy Kropotkin (Severn Darden, who doesn't even attempt a Russian accent, which is probably for the best), leading the charge to find Sidney and capture him. Or kill him. Or flip him. For his part, Sidney's cross-country trek has led him to run afoul of a most nefarious conspiracy even bigger than his wild paranoid fantasies ever suggested.
For a movie that never has anything in mind but to be a fleet, comic romp through the Cold War political scene and parody the paranoia thriller genre that hadn't technically been invented yet, The President's Analyst is shockingly difficult to parse, though some of that has more to do with watching it in the 21st Century, where it becomes a much weirder experience than it could have been in '67. Watching the movie, there is literally no chance of mistaking it for anything but a product of its time: not even a skillful pastiche of late-'60s filmmaking like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is that good, and the sheer glut of period-specific details dates The President's Analyst as much as any movie has ever been dated. There are aesthetic matters, like the zooms, the reliance on dissolve-heavy montages, the funky, poppy Lalo Schifrin score (and, in particular, the way the cinematography, score, and dissolves frequently work together to create what I can only call '60s funk music videos). There are plot matters, like the way that Sidney's flight takes him through a perfect cross-section of '60s types, including the obvious layover with some particularly dumb hippies (though it's safe to call it a left-wing comedy, The President's Analyst has absolutely no qualms about making fun of everybody in every direction), and the fact that the whole movie begins with the President of the United States needing a psychotherapist, which admittedly, could have been a plot point in the '50s as well. But it wasn't. There's the presence of Coburn, an actor whose comedies in the decade firmly established him as the perfect hybrid of countercultural instincts and arch-capitalist cool. There's the score, which I already mentioned, but I don't think you can possibly overestimate how fucking mired in 1967 Schifrin's score is. Have I mentioned lately that I adore Lalo Schifrin? Because it's not something you can ever say too many times.
This is the very opposite of a timeless movie, I mean to say, though it still has immense charm if you're not turned off by the very stuff of counterculture-era American film comedy, and that's a hugely defensible position to hold. They can be strenuously wacky, shrill things. But in this particular case, I find that Coburn's calm, intellectual presence keeps the silliest cartoon aspects in check, if indeed the way he grounds the film doesn't end up making the silliness work better: since it therefore exists in a world that has reality and context, instead of spilling this way and that without focus or wit or skill. The whole film, in fact, feels cooler (in both senses: hip, and subdued) than most other movies on the same model, with Cambridge and Darden giving unusually laid-back performances, and the best humor (like a sequence with a stern FBR agent correcting a boy in points of etiquette) is always played straight, rather than as slapstick.
There are problems here and there: there's an extended Beatles joke that, in the particulars, is at least two years out of date, the hippie scene drags, and Masters's therapy session includes a piercing, brutal discussion of a boy's awakening to racism in the world that is vastly out of place in a comedy, excepting that it is about the cultural climate of 1967, and The President's Analyst is deeply concerned with wallowing in that culture. But for the most part, writer-director Theodore J. Flicker (who almost exclusively worked in TV sitcoms - this was his first movie, in fact - and there's a faint mustiness of the television to his camera set-ups with DP William Fraker, who was just about to plunge into brilliance with Rosemary's Baby, the very next year) has a clean, efficient style that keeps the plot bubbling along, while giving the actors plenty of space to breathe and react and find the comedy, rather than pouncing at jokes. It's simply, breezy fun, but it always works, and that is always worthy of praise, not least in '67, when breeziness was often achieved with leaden joylessness.
All of that's well and good, but here's the really bizarre thing, and part of what makes watching it in 2010s so alarming: The President's Analyst is a shattering, merciless satire, and for all its impenetrable period trappings, it feels like it's speaking to the present day as much as to the moment of its creation; moreso, even, since the film's fantastic prediction about mobile communication technology seems so less ludicrously extreme than it did in the 1960s.
Breezy as it is, light as it is, silly as it is, this is a scorched-earth assault against the surveillance state, and the way that power is grabbed under the fig leaf of "we need to do this for your protection", shading into the even more vile "we're doing this for our profits, which you will surely not deny us, because you're not a pinko, are you?". It's mocking everyone across the board, from law-and-order fetishists, who blithely destroy the fact of personal freedom to preserve the notion of personal freedom, to self-described liberals who act just like the conservatives they claim to oppose, only with an ugly veneer of sanctimony on top of it. The President's Analyst finds American society - and Western society, and the world in general - broken and stupid, and instead of getting angry, it decides to laugh at everything miserable and awful, stripping it of its power by mocking it and making it seem like silly cartoon shenanigans.
Clearly, this is not an approach that worked; we still have a version of the society that The President's Analyst identifies. But for identifying the irrationality in human political behavior that was making the world such a dodgy place in the '60s, and continues to make the world a dodgy place now, the film is intelligent far beyond anything it looks like its doing; and by trivialising the people and beliefs it finds dangerous, it is an uncommonly brave political comedy. No, the film is not for all tastes, and carving out the satire from the loud period trappings takes work. But this kind of broadly likable, good-humored film being used as the vector for sharp, insightful satire is the kind of thing that simply does not happen anymore, and it's quite amazing to look back in time and seeing it done so remarkably well as it was in this instance.