Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
In 1941 John Huston was making Across The Pacific for Warner Bros when he got called up,
up until then the film was a pleasing ship-set noir with many of the features, and cast members,
that made The Maltese Falcon a classic. Vincent Sherman finished the film and, rightly or
wrongly, the story seems to disintegrate from an atmospheric and coolly scripted piece into a
gung-ho shoot-em-up of anti-Japanese propaganda. In its defence the Japanese did bomb Pearl
Harbour in December of 1941.
There was no change of director on The President's Analyst, although there are rumoured to be missing scenes from the released print, but the film, as it approaches the end, goes from being an occasionally silly, but often sharp, satire, to being a pile of sticky fudge.
The film opens with a credit sequence showing psychoanalyst Dr Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn, Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round) attend his own analysis, and carry out consultations with a variety of his own clients. The Schaefer sequences are inter-cut with birds-eye-view camera work, following sharp-suited couriers in a busy city street, which culminates in a fatal stabbing by a Negro assassin who turns out to be one of Dr Schaefer's own patients Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge, Watermelon Man).
Masters proceeds to recount to Schaefer a harrowing juvenile experience of racism, which resulted in him hating his own brother, and how he is able to discharge his rage in actions like his recent killing of the courier. Masters reveals to Schaefer that he is an agent of the CEA (the Central Enquiry Agency) with a licence to kill. Rather than being shocked, Schaefer is enthused that sociopathic tendencies can be defused by harnessing them to the state's need for actions of extreme prejudice such as this. Masters reveals that Schaefer himself is required to work for the Intelligence Services on the recommendation of his own shrink Dr Lee-Evans, played by Will Geer, the grandpa in The Waltons. The President, weighed down with matters of state, needs to unburden himself through analysis, and Schaefer being young and hip has been chosen for the task.
Schaefer meets the head of the CEA the liberal urbane Ethan Allen Cocket (The Thing, 1951), and the uptight head of the FBR Henry Lux (Walter Burke), who ridicules the whole notion as a security risk. Schaefer is set up in a townhouse where he insists that his girlfriend Nan (the talented but enigmatic Joan Delaney) must be allowed to live with him. Lux objects to the arrangements on both security and moral grounds, but Schaefer intimates that physical love with Nan is the safety valve that will keep his own psyche in order. Inevitably Nan is removed from the equation when it is revealed that Schaefer talks in his sleep, although Lux's motives might be in question when it appears that Nan is actually a CEA agent. Deprived of emotional support, and freaked-out by the President's analysis, Schaefer descends into feverish paranoia and ultimately, believing himself to be in danger, goes on the run.
Cut loose from the protection of his own government Schaefer becomes a target, not only for the agents of the CEA, who want to save him, and the FBR, who want to eliminate him, but the agents of foreign powers who seek to kidnap him for the secrets in his head. Schaefer seeks sanctuary with the Quantrills, a suburban family who, despite their liberal values, are shown to fully endorse many of the most violent aspects of the American way. After a murderous attack, from which he is saved by the Quantrills self-defence skills, Schaefer takes refuge with a hippy rock band setting off on tour from Greenwich Village's Café Wha? Meanwhile, Don Masters has made a bet with his opposite number from the KGB, Kropotkin (Severn Darden, Vanishing Point), as to who will get to Schaefer first.
Making love in a cornfield to Snow White, one of the band's entourage, while band member Old Wrangler (rock and folk artist Barry McGuire) sings about The Changes, Schaefer is stalked by various murderous members of the world's security services, who have apparently shelved notions of kidnapping him in favour of execution. In a scene echoed years later in 1976's The Pink Panther Strikes Again, the killers eliminate each other in an attempt to make the hit.
Schaefer is rescued from imminent execution by the FBR by Kropotkin, who he succeeds in 'turning' by analysing his relationship with his father. It is following this highpoint that The President's Analyst goes seriously off the rails, with a plot twist, about the plans for world domination by The Phone Company, that abandons satire and out camps The Man From UNCLE.
That the film goes so horribly wrong only serves to highlight what a curious mix it is. Godfrey Cambridge's meaty monologue at the beginning, signals a very different film to where the plot eventually takes us. The portrayal of the two home security services, the liberal multi-ethnic CEA, and the sober-suited Thrush-style goons of the FBR, the magnum-toting Quantrills, James Coburn's toothy rictus as he is gripped by paranoia, are all delightful diversions amongst the rather self-conscious 1960s' hip. Coburn, as ever, is a delight, as are the under-used Cambridge and the amiable Darden. The film fizzles out into a broad replica of an episode of Get Smart, in a way that suggests that writer Theodore J. Flicker didn't know where to go next.