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Comical and clinical

“I would rather not”

This week’s picks are meant to get us through this transitional period.

Bartleby (1970)

With all the movies in my mental Rolodex, surely there’s one tale of a lead character who refuses to budge even when a dignified exit is in order. Or is there? Thanks to Matthew Lickona for introducing me to Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and the myriad of screen adaptations it spawned. In Anthony Friedman’s 1970 big screen version, the setting shifts from Wall Street in 1853 to modern day London, where we find a disaffected Bartleby (John McEnery) wandering around town for a week before applying for the position of audit clerk. Regret sets in almost immediately after the boss (Paul Scofield) puts him on the payroll. In a fit of civil disobedience, Bartleby replies, “I would rather not” to every assignment sent his way. The chap’s too civil and dignified to sack, and even when he is let go and the company moves to new surroundings, the boss has to accept responsibility for his ex-employee’s squatting. There isn’t an actor better suited to sound Bartleby’s responsive chord of alienation than McEnery. And Scofield’s cracked-voice exasperation over his new hire’s insubordination (as he rehearses Bartleby’s dismissal in an empty office) could be viewed as comical if it didn’t end on a note of clinical depression.

The President’s Analyst (1967)

Coarse, barely perceptible fabric thrums beneath the irreverent disclaimer that greets us. Like the era it represents, the cloth won’t come into focus without the aid of a distanced perspective — in this case, a lyrical zoom out. After pulling back a good city block, we realize the object of our focus is atop a pole and flapping red, white, and blue. There’s no such thing as a bad lens. For all the times I’ve spent holding up to ridicule work-shy craftsmen who’d rather their cinematographers rotate a zoom ring than physically move the camera, it’s rewarding to see the effect put to good use. (One would expect nothing less from cinematographer William Fraker and his ace camera operator David Walsh.) The ensuing murder in broad daylight ends with government assassin Godfrey Cambridge remembering an upcoming encounter with his shrink. Seldom has improvised ‘60s satire come with this sharp of an edge. Eschewing the couch, hitman Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) sits and tells Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn, his “shark that swallowed the Steinway” grin never more paranoid) tha the was five the day he learned the difference between “colored people and white people and n.” Without skipping a beat, Don goes parasailing from the moment his world began to change to shop talk and the murder we just watched him commit. This is less of a therapy session, and more of an audition for the titular position. And that’s just the first five minutes. What ensues is a nimbly-paced, laugh-filled free-for-all, a sarcastic time capsule that makes its points with a knowing wink. Dig it!

The Don is Dead (1973)

After a heroin deal goes bad, Frank Regalbuto (Robert Forster) and brothers in crime Tony and Vince Fargo (Frederic Forrest and Al Lettieri) engage in a mob war against Don Angelo DiMorra (Anthony Quinn) and rival consigliere Luigi Orlando (Charles Cioffi). Rather than DiMorra, the Don in the title refers to a recently deceased crime-boss (and Frank’s father). Hothead Frank was unaware that he and DiMorra shared the same mistress (Angel Tomkins) on the night he beat her to an unrecognizable pulp. Prepare for a battle between old guard and the new when DiMorra comes gunning after Regalbuto with everything he’s got. One of a flood of crime pictures released in the wake of The Godfather. It marked Quinn’s return to the screen after a nine-year absence — in a plum role that, if it had met with audience approval, could have made him the next Don Corleone. It didn’t, but don’t let the Coppola comparison throw you: he set the bar for all gangster movies that followed. Veteran genre picture director Richard Fleischer does his best, but even he is strapped by the limitations of screenwriter Marvin Albert’s TV movie plotting. See it for no other reason than the cast of movie tough guy royalty and the great round of “Spot the Character Actor” it offers. With: Louis Zorich, Joe Santos, Frank DeKova, Abe Vigoda, Victor Argo, Sid Haig, Vic Tayback, and Ina Balin as the little woman.

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This week’s picks are meant to get us through this transitional period.

Bartleby (1970)

With all the movies in my mental Rolodex, surely there’s one tale of a lead character who refuses to budge even when a dignified exit is in order. Or is there? Thanks to Matthew Lickona for introducing me to Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and the myriad of screen adaptations it spawned. In Anthony Friedman’s 1970 big screen version, the setting shifts from Wall Street in 1853 to modern day London, where we find a disaffected Bartleby (John McEnery) wandering around town for a week before applying for the position of audit clerk. Regret sets in almost immediately after the boss (Paul Scofield) puts him on the payroll. In a fit of civil disobedience, Bartleby replies, “I would rather not” to every assignment sent his way. The chap’s too civil and dignified to sack, and even when he is let go and the company moves to new surroundings, the boss has to accept responsibility for his ex-employee’s squatting. There isn’t an actor better suited to sound Bartleby’s responsive chord of alienation than McEnery. And Scofield’s cracked-voice exasperation over his new hire’s insubordination (as he rehearses Bartleby’s dismissal in an empty office) could be viewed as comical if it didn’t end on a note of clinical depression.

The President’s Analyst (1967)

Coarse, barely perceptible fabric thrums beneath the irreverent disclaimer that greets us. Like the era it represents, the cloth won’t come into focus without the aid of a distanced perspective — in this case, a lyrical zoom out. After pulling back a good city block, we realize the object of our focus is atop a pole and flapping red, white, and blue. There’s no such thing as a bad lens. For all the times I’ve spent holding up to ridicule work-shy craftsmen who’d rather their cinematographers rotate a zoom ring than physically move the camera, it’s rewarding to see the effect put to good use. (One would expect nothing less from cinematographer William Fraker and his ace camera operator David Walsh.) The ensuing murder in broad daylight ends with government assassin Godfrey Cambridge remembering an upcoming encounter with his shrink. Seldom has improvised ‘60s satire come with this sharp of an edge. Eschewing the couch, hitman Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) sits and tells Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn, his “shark that swallowed the Steinway” grin never more paranoid) tha the was five the day he learned the difference between “colored people and white people and n.” Without skipping a beat, Don goes parasailing from the moment his world began to change to shop talk and the murder we just watched him commit. This is less of a therapy session, and more of an audition for the titular position. And that’s just the first five minutes. What ensues is a nimbly-paced, laugh-filled free-for-all, a sarcastic time capsule that makes its points with a knowing wink. Dig it!

The Don is Dead (1973)

After a heroin deal goes bad, Frank Regalbuto (Robert Forster) and brothers in crime Tony and Vince Fargo (Frederic Forrest and Al Lettieri) engage in a mob war against Don Angelo DiMorra (Anthony Quinn) and rival consigliere Luigi Orlando (Charles Cioffi). Rather than DiMorra, the Don in the title refers to a recently deceased crime-boss (and Frank’s father). Hothead Frank was unaware that he and DiMorra shared the same mistress (Angel Tomkins) on the night he beat her to an unrecognizable pulp. Prepare for a battle between old guard and the new when DiMorra comes gunning after Regalbuto with everything he’s got. One of a flood of crime pictures released in the wake of The Godfather. It marked Quinn’s return to the screen after a nine-year absence — in a plum role that, if it had met with audience approval, could have made him the next Don Corleone. It didn’t, but don’t let the Coppola comparison throw you: he set the bar for all gangster movies that followed. Veteran genre picture director Richard Fleischer does his best, but even he is strapped by the limitations of screenwriter Marvin Albert’s TV movie plotting. See it for no other reason than the cast of movie tough guy royalty and the great round of “Spot the Character Actor” it offers. With: Louis Zorich, Joe Santos, Frank DeKova, Abe Vigoda, Victor Argo, Sid Haig, Vic Tayback, and Ina Balin as the little woman.

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