The President’s Analyst Is a Strange Gem of a Film
In 1967, an odd little film was released: The President’s Analyst. It stars James Coburn as the title character, also known as Dr Sidney Schaefer. It’s a reasonably big budget film, released through Paramount Pictures. Like a number of other films at the time, it used an actual band, Clear Light, performing two of their songs in situ. The most notable one, “Inner Manipulations” (by Barry McGuire and Paul Potash), is used for perhaps the funniest segment in the film.
The President’s Analyst was the feature film directorial debut of Theodore J Flicker. He is best known today as the co-creator of Barney Miller. This was early in his career, however. But he was hardly a novice — having directed a number of television shows. The film also represented his first solo effort as a writer. Previously, he had co-written The Troublemaker (1964) with Buck Henry, and the Elvis vehicle, Spinout (1966), with another noted comedy writer, George Kirgo. So it isn’t too surprising that he would manage to attract James Coburn and a major studio for an outrageous and politically daring script.
It’s vaguely reminiscent of one of my all time favorites, They Might Be Giants (1971). And just like that film, The President’s Analyst has a feel for the times: we might be on the brink of nuclear annihilation, then again, the world itself might just be the opium dream of some Greenwich Village hippy.
As a viewer, you’ve just got to let the film be. What Bringing Up Baby was to people in the late 1930s, The President’s Analyst was to filmgoers three decades later. And for us today, both films retain their sense of barely contained chaos.
Sidney is a successful New York psychiatrist. But the president needs him. The film is careful to point out that the president has no notable neuroses; he just needs someone to talk to who doesn’t expect anything from him. This is a very exciting opportunity for Sidney. But it sours quickly. He’s caught between the FBR and the CEA. The FBR doesn’t like him, his modern ways, or his girlfriend (Joan Delaney). The CEA is defending him as much as it can.
(The film was shot with the two agencies being the FBI and the CIA, but Paramount head Robert Evans was apparently visited by FBI agents who told him they weren’t happy about the film. As a result, “FBR” was looped for “FBI” in post-production, as was “CEA” for “CIA.” Doubtlessly, the worse treatment given to the FBI in the film was a jab at J Edgar Hoover, who was still heading the agency.)
Quickly, the job wears on Sidney. His girlfriend is forced to move out because he talks in his sleep. What’s more, for national security reasons, he can’t have his own analyst. He feels trapped. And it only gets worse.
We never see the president, but we see the same exact shot of Sidney leaving their meeting room. The first time, Sidney looks like a man who has just conquered the world. But with each exit, Sidney looks worse and worse. When not meeting with the president, he sees spies everywhere. Whether they are real or not is unclear. We do, however, find out that Sydney’s girlfriend is a spy. Otherwise, what’s really going on hardly matters. Eventually, Sydney snaps.
He sneaks into a White House tour and escapes with a family at the tour, the Quantrills, by telling them that the president sends out emissaries to talk with regular Americans to find out what they really think. So soon, he is five hours, ten minutes, and 51 seconds away in a New Jersey suburb. The mother (Joan Darling) soon leaves for a karate class, so Sidney has a drink with the father (William Daniels) who tells him with some pride that they sponsored the first “negro” family in their subdivision (actually, something to be at least modestly proud of given the time). But it turns out that the family is what you might call left-wing radicals, very concerned about right-wing extremists.
Meanwhile, all the governments of the world know that the president’s analyst has escaped and they are keen to get their hands on him and find out what he knows. As a result, the FBR sets out to find and kill him. The CEA sets out to find and bring him back. But barring that, they too will kill him.
Everyone Wants Sydney
After going out to dinner with Quantrills, a number of spies come after Sydney. But Mrs Quantrill easily dispatches two them with her karate, and Mr Quantrill blows away two others with a calm lethalness that would make Paul Kersey jealous. Sidney runs away and hooks up with hippy band.
The following 20 minutes may well have been the inspiration for The Pink Panther Strikes Again where Dreyfus blackmails the nations of the world into killing Clouseau. One spy takes out another as he is just about to kidnap (or kill) the president’s analyst. Finally, Sydney is captured by Soviet spy Kropotkin (Severn Darden). But Sydney uses his psychiatric knowledge to get the spy to defect so that they can continue his analysis.
Enter: The Real Villain
But before he can meet up with CEA agent Masters (Godfrey Cambridge), Sydney is kidnapped by what we finally learn is the real power in the world: TPC — The Phone Company.
The Phone Company, which is run by robots that look like humans, want to blackmail the president so that he will push through a law mandating that everyone receive a number and a Cerebrum Communicator (CC) implanted in everyone’s brain. This will greatly reduce the costs of The Phone Company, by removing all that old fashioned infrastructure. But Kropotkin and Masters save Sydney.
Some time later, it’s Christmas. Sydney and his girlfriend (who turns out to have been a CEA agent) welcome their friends Kropotkin (who never defected, and is now head of the foreign section) and Masters. They discuss the president’s meeting with The Phone Company to provide better service at lower prices. Then the camera pulls back and we see the scene through a computer monitor, which is being watched by a group of happy TPC automatons.
The President’s Analyst Analysis?
There are lots of ways to look at The President’s Analyst. The best is probably just as a romp. And it is quite a fun — and funny — one.
But there are some serious things even on the surface of the film. At one point, Kropotkin points out that governments don’t matter, “This isn’t a case of world struggle between two divergent ideologies or different economic systems. Every day, your country becomes more socialist, my country becomes more capitalist. Pretty soon, we’ll meet in the middle and join hands.” But that idea is woven into the fabric of the film too. For example, even the United Kingdom wants to kidnap Sydney, despite saying that the two countries are friends.
One thing that may not be so clear to younger viewers is just how much people did hate The Phone Company. Until 1984, Bell System was it. It had a monopoly. And despite being regulated by the government as a result, service was terrible and prices were high. I remember when I was ten, making some very short long-distance calls to get comic book catalogs. In some cases, the cost was 25¢ per minute. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1.24!
So the film doubtless resonated with a lot of people when it said, “Forget the Soviet Union, it’s The Phone Company that you should fear!” It was just frosting to portray it as being run by automatons like Great Moments with Mr Lincoln at Disneyland. I remember reading some place that the producer, Stanley Rubin, said he figured that the FBI bugged him ever since — and probably The Phone Company too. (I can find no reference to this, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t dream it.)
The President’s Analyst Trailer
The film is really well made — professional from top to bottom. It’s also well planned. There’s one crane shot that results in a very funny sight gag. It’s beautiful to watch. It’s shot in 2.35:1 Technicolor.
The one downside is that it doesn’t use the widescreen as much as it could. Director Flicker’s background was in television. The camera operator, David Walsh, had very little experience — but he went on to become a great cinematographer — of particular note, he lit Cleopatra Jones (1973). And the cinematographer, William A Fraker — who also had a great career, including The Killer Inside Me (1976) — had mostly television experience up to that point. I’ve never seen the film panned and scanned, but I suspect it works pretty well.
Also of note is the editing by Stuart H Pappé. The President’s Analyst was one of his first films. But he went on to do such notable films as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), The Wanderers (1979), and George of the Jungle (1997). The film has a wonderful ebb and flow — never quite spinning off into insanity nor slowing to the point of boredom.
The incidental music by Lalo Schifrin is used sparingly — but well. It’s used almost exclusively for the action sequences and as sweetening to heighten Sydney’s sense of paranoia. But interestingly, there is no music used for the final action sequence. Regardless, when the music is there it is compelling — even on its own. That’s especially true of the credit music, despite it being almost Mickey Moused.
Finally, this film could have been a disaster if it didn’t have such a great cast. I’m not a big fan of James Coburn. He just isn’t that interesting. Yet he’s just perfect here. For one thing, he gets to have some fun over-playing the part while still being believable. But more than that, he’s surrounded by a great supporting cast.
Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden are comedic gold as the two protagonist spies. Joan Darling doesn’t get a lot to do, but she’s very funny doing it. William Daniels is hilarious and believable as the gun-toting, badass liberal. I could see a whole film built around him. Will Geer makes a brief appearance as Sydney’s analyst. Walter Burke is brilliant as the constantly disgruntled head of the FBR and J Edgar Hoover stand-in. Eduard Franz makes a good counterpart to him, even if his role isn’t as good. And most of all there is Pat Harrington as the face of The Phone Company. It’s easy to forget that he isn’t animatronic.
I didn’t like The President’s Analyst that much the first time I saw it. But it was one of those films that grew on me as I thought back on it. And my second and third viewings improved my appreciation of it. I’ve now seen it a half dozen times and it still works for me. But it isn’t a film that will be forced into a genre; you just have to accept it as it is. And that is despite the fact that the film is, in many ways, a pretty standard story: innocent man is plucked from his comfortable life, chased by assassins, and finally gets his life back. It may just be that the film gets steadily more bizarre as it goes on. But if you just let it take you where it will, I don’t see how you can help but enjoy it.