The President's Analyst
Writer/director Theodore J Flicker’s The President’s Analyst was released at the tail end of 1967, a year which, in retrospect, appears to have been the peak moment for a generation who believed they could bring about real and lasting societal change. Flicker’s film refracts the spirit of the times through the prism of comedy. And the result, as is often the case with great satires, endeavours to have its cake and eat it too. So its ideas and themes are dressed in a recognisably ‘60s style, from the saturated colours of the widescreen cinematography and the jazz-pop score by Lalo Schifrin to the climactic set piece straight out of a Bond film. The President’s Analyst’s approach is to gleefully revel in a landscape of absurdly amped up psychedelia while swiping at its façade.
Dr Sidney Schaefer: If I were an analyst, which I am, I would say that I was turning into some sort of paranoid personality, which I am!
“Ted” Flicker’s background was in improvised theatre and comedy, and he had previously worked with two of this film’s actors, Godfrey Cambridge and Severin Dardin, in that context. Contemporaries included Elaine May and Mike Nichols. Flicker brought the irreverence and sharp wit he honed during that period to this, his second feature. But he also carried the sensibility of the artist gazing upon a changing world, one that he was a generation too late to fully embrace. Flicker and his main co-stars were nudging towards their fourth decades and the film is conscious that, for likely the majority of Americans attached to the weekly grind and without expansive aspirations and ideals, the “prevalent” mood of the youth of their country (as portrayed in the media) must have seemed like it was taking place on some distant shore.
From the seeding of such fractured perceptions, greater schisms would be identified and grow. Bedfellows of The President’s Analyst on release included Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, films which embraced the wave of looser censorship of the era and instinctively recognised that all would not end blissfully in this grasp for a better future. Indeed, the bitter after-taste of those films, of inevitable defeat or conformity, would spawn the grit and despair of 1970s filmmaking. Perhaps because the majority just weren’t positioned to “feel” it, the era was over almost as soon as it could really be reflected and validated, and it left the artists (those central to it) bruised, battered and bewildered (or distracted, deluded or dead).
The depiction of the Quantrills, “typical” American suburban family, is perhaps the film’s most direct reflection of this distance. But the apparently scattergun satire, which takes shots at governments, corporations, political ideologies, conformity, non-conformity, materialism, fashion, belief systems (however, curiously, it is only really the burgeoning modern religion of psychiatry that comes under the spotlight, Sidney’s possible leanings toward Eastern wisdom left dangling) and raises themes of nationalism, violence and racism, is not as unfocussed as it may first appear.
The approach is distilled in the film’s opening monologue, as related to Dr Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn) by (soon to reveal himself as) CEA Agent Don Masters (Godfrey Chambers), during one of the regular analysis appointments of the latter.
Don Masters: I was five. And I knew there were coloured people and white people. But then Mama took me to school, and it was almost all white kids. And nothing much happened on the first day. But on the second day, I was walking to school alone - my big brother, he was already in the third grade, and when you got a kid brother in kindergarten it can be kind of an embarrassment. So he ran on ahead to be with his buddies. Anyhow, there was a group of white kids on the street up ahead, and as I came up they started laughing and running and yelling, "Run! Run! Here comes the nigger! Run, run!" [softly:] “Here comes the nigger.”And I looked around, and I didn't see any niggers. But if they wanted to play, so did I. So I started laughing and running and yelling, "Run, run! Here comes the nigger!" [Whispered:] Run, run. Here comes the nigger.” Suddenly there was my big brother. And I ran up to him, and I started yelling, "Run, run, here comes the nigger!" And he hit me. Then he did something worse - he told me what a nigger was.
The couch confessional was apparently based upon a true story told to Flicker by actress Diana Sands. Touchingly performed as it is by Chambers, the tone and delivery might wrong-foot the first time viewer into thinking that this is setting the scene for a more direct and grounded endeavour than the one that follows. What it actually does is to identify the theme of the subjective perception of reality that will come to assault Sidney from all quarters (despite being someone trained to identify subjectivity) and show that, despite his learning and acute perception of “sanity”, he is woefully ill-equipped to deal with each new crumbling paradigm he encounters.
Dr Sidney Schaefer: Did you ever hear of Doctor Chang Hu and his electro-dynamic process of thought reform?
Flicker sets up Sidney’s profession as hubristic from the outset, so confident is the shrink of the supremacy of his interpretive mind. It’s quickly made clear how naive he has been to rely on this, assuming his status equips him to deal with the apparatus of government. Sidney is as cushioned from accurately interpreting the “real” world as those he encounters on his couch or during his eventual odyssey of discovery. As his methods are stripped away, he finds that it is he that needs instruction on how to respond appropriately.
Sidney’s psychiatry skills are not presented as especially insightful either (his analysis of Kropotkin’s relationship with his father only really illustrates that Kropotkin is deceptively lacking in self-awareness not to have realised the cause of his hang-ups himself), but he remains our gateway (as a man who at least positions himself as willing to have his eyes opened to “reality”) to discovering an apparently insane world of conflicting forces vying for supremacy. The posturing of psychiatry during that period as a magical fix-it is evidenced in the playful dialogue given to Coburn:
Dr Sidney Schaefer: I love you, and it's my professional opinion that you love me.
Additionally, Coburn’s knowing performance judges the shifts in tone perfectly, never slipping into ham or parody but presenting the character broadly (and pompously) enough, and with effortless comic timing, to make the heightened world which he encounters believable. And it helps that he is armed with his ever-dependable gnashers.
Ethan Allen Cocket (CEA Director): My dear Mister Lux, no man is an island; most of us require the warmth of human companionship.
Henry Lux: Poppycock!
Willingly called to serve his nation (the President is never seen in the film), it becomes evident to Sidney that the FBR and the CEA do not agree on the appropriateness of his appointment. The FBR, headed by Henry Lux (Walter Burke), disapproves of psychiatry, and consider Sidney a moral degenerate (on account of his sinful relationship). Lux’s name refers to a popular brand of vacuum cleaner of the period. He is also on the diminutive side... It is interesting to note (from the vantage point of four decades) how the CEA is viewed relatively benignly by the film (perhaps because there was absolutely no doubt about the damage that Hoover had inflicted on the artistically minded or vaguely free-thinking during the previous decade).
Sidney becomes increasingly desperate (as reflected in this article’s headline quote), as he learns that he is no longer allowed to spend the night with his girlfriend because he talks in his sleep; that he is subject to presidential summons anytime, anywhere (most disconcertingly whilst consuming a bowl of soup); and that he is under constant surveillance, by possibly everyone he knows. Waking from a dream that his girlfriend (Nan, Joan Delaney) is a spy, he calls her, then refrains from telling her this, at which point we see that she is a spy. His paranoia (although, it is only paranoia if they aren’t out to get you) reaches a climax when he feigns being shot at a restaurant, only to observe that the entire patronage is composed of agents of various governments.
Dr Sidney Schaefer: Oh, well. The President will be very pleased to hear that.
Wynn Quantrill: Ah, that’s great. If I do say so, it took a little courage. The Bullocks, next door? Real right-wingers. American flag up every day. Real fascists, ought to be gassed. You know the type.
Escaping the White House in the company of the Quantrills, Sidney is invited to their “typical” American home. Patriarch Wynn Quantrill (William Daniels), cheerfully expands on his progressive views to Sidney (“When I say liberal, I don’t mean left-wingers, or anything like that. I mean, we’re for Civil Rights”). Schyuler W Henderson comments of the film,
... its view seems to be that liberalism, or an American liberalism, is conquering America and that conservatism is on its last legs. These themes may be naïve, or satirical themselves, and in the latter case, are certainly ironized by the pending decades-long conservative backlash that would see figures like Nixon, Reagan, and Gingrich crush the druggy, sexual optimism of The President's Analyst.
I would argue that these themes as they presented in the film are intended satirically, as those in the film commenting on liberalism as a positive force also display clearly the traits of conservatism. But it is the Quantrills’ desire to be ahead of the Joneses (or Bullocks) that requires them to embrace more than simply gadgets, fancy cars and mod cons. The Quantrills’ superficiality, highlighted by their embracing of materialism, is unapologetic. Further, this requires that their expected place in society - the neighbourhood - be learned by rote and accepted without self-awareness. Their “understanding” of Civil Rights relates directly to their need to contrast with, and prove superior to, their neighbours. Wynn is enormously proud of his music system in both car and home (“Total sound!”) and that he can serve Sidney beer in plastic cups (!) made at his factory.
For all their apparently civic-minded sponsorship, wife Jeff (Joan Darling) considers it acceptable to refer to the Chinese restaurant as “Chinks” (they frequent a variety of restaurants as she is “a gourmet”). On discovering that Wynn has an arsenal of weapons and that Jeff takes Karate lessons, Sidney enquires why. He is informed, "Right-wing extremists. Disarm them, and us liberals will disarm." Values are superficial, learnt from magazine articles, and Sidney’s reactions signal that they do not stand up to serious interrogation. Son Bing Quantrill (Sheldon Collins) is instructed not to use his mother’s bigoted language by two visiting FBR agents. However, such respectfulness does not extend to human life:
With Wynn and Jeff having seen off attacking FBR and enemy agents, he flees to the safety of a van full of hippies, where the only prerequisite is his confirmation that he is not a “man of violence”. Sidney has passed from consumer culture to counter culture, and while it might appear that the latter would be preferable to the former, the superficiality remains (Snow White (Jill Banner) comments of Sidney, “I like him, he’s pretty”). As welcoming as Old Wrangler (Barry McGuire) and his commune/band are, their perception of the world is one that is blissed out and intoxicated. They cannot protect Sidney from the dangers of a turned off, tuned out, thrown up, “real” world.
Sidney survives, oblivious, the film’s most famous, and justifiably feted, set piece. In which a variety of foreign agents, within sight of Sidney making love to Snow White, successively kill each other as they are about to attack him – to the tripped out strumming of Barry McGuire singing about “The changes that keep going down”. The sequence achieves a thematically similar dissonance, through conflicting aural and visual cues, to the machine gun massacre to the strains of The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” in Fall Out, the finale of The Prisoner (also 1967 and also made by an artist approaching his fourth decade).
Attending a gig with his new friends, Sidney then (giddily) beats a gong at (we saw him sounding one, apparently engaged in meditation, in his first scene) but is kidnapped by The Pudlians (“Canadian spies?”) who succeed where others have failed by dosing all present with LSD laced-punch (given the FBI’s later interest in John Lennon, The Beatles-by-another-name Pudlians are an interesting choice as fake counter culture figures).
Kyodor Kropotkin: This isn't a case of a world struggle between two divergent ideologies, of different economic systems. Every day your country becomes more socialistic and mine becomes more capitalistic. Pretty soon we will meet in the middle and join hands.
Whilst the sentiment may not quite have played out as stated, there’s an idea deposited here that pronouncements of Cold War frostiness are, to some extent, window-dressing. The introduction proper of Kropotkin (“Please, no Russian – I’m spying!”) brings into focus the film’s central conceit, that no one really seems to know what is going on. The CEA and KGB are as surprised as Sidney to learn that The Telephone Company is out to (or already does) control the world.
But before returning to that theme, what of Sidney himself? In his opening appointment with Don Masters we heard the following exchange:
Dr Sidney Schaefer: Fascinating, Don. I suppose it's the conditioning of motion pictures, or television, or maybe it's just it's the times we live in, but... killing is serious business. Yet this little card makes it somehow less shocking... Acceptable in a way! You mean to say you can actually legally kill someone?
Don Masters: Yeah, and it bothers me sometimes that I don't feel guilty about it. Don't you think that's psychotic behaviour?
Dr Sidney Schaefer: No, I don't! It explains your utter lack of hostility. You can vent your aggressive feelings by actually killing people! It's a sensational solution to the hostility problem.
Don Masters: Doctor, are you trying to tell me it's all right to kill people?
Dr Sidney Schaefer: It's simply a moral question. Morality is a social invention, and in this case society has decided it's not only acceptable for certain people to kill other people... it's even commendable. Don! I've got to write a paper for the Institute on this!
Don Masters: I don't think the CEA would like that.
At this point, violence is an abstract that Sidney can address intellectually. After his encounter with the Quantrills, this is no longer possible. Finally, convinced of the malevolence of The Telephone Company (in contrast to Don, Sidney diagnoses the Company as psychotic), Sidney tells Masters and Kropotkin that the Company must be destroyed in order to prevent the insertion of the Cerebrum Communicator device into the brains of the population. The Communicator, designed to work like the old fashioned telephone, requires only that the subject thinks of a number in order to dial up instant communication with the recipient. Of course, pre-natal insertion of the device will be essential.
Kropotkin: You want to be the great humanitarian? You want to save the world? Take the gun!
Convinced, Sidney is revealed, from amidst a shroud of smoke, exclaiming, “Take that, you hostile son of a bitch!” as he gleefully blazes away with a machine gun in the direction of Telephone Company employees. So, through taking up violence (and metaphorically laying down the tools of his trade) Sidney appears to have found peace. Even though he may not really have saved the world - the pull back reveals the omniscient Telephone Company watching him and his friends, which NBC apparently cut from TV showings of the film in the early 1970s - he has experienced a catharsis of sorts. At least, he is no longer paranoid.
In one respect, setting up The Telephone Company as the Illuminati-like power behind the throne(s) loses something to a modern audience with no experience of the monopoly-rule that was exerted in the ‘60s by Bell telephones. What is no longer present in a direct sense may easily be replaced by the modern stand-in; the pervasion of the internet, and the ubiquitous presence of Microsoft in that context. The Machiavellian scheme involving the Cerebrum Communicator doesn’t seem quite such a leap in a world of ever-advancing connectivity and microchip implants. It isn’t really that important to identify who specifically is pulling the strings (the Telephone Company itself appears to be presided over by plugged-in, smiling, soulless automatons). Nobody has the tools to make sense of a system of control that, if followed to its conclusion, will lead to paranoid despair or madness.
Friends Kropotkin and Masters, servants of apparently ideologically conflicting regimes, are comfortable with the absurdity of their situation; they know that such matters are illusory from a certain perspective. They are not really in charge, and they themselves are observed and monitored. Such a sentiment is perhaps more pervading in today’s world, where there is common acknowledgement (because the evidence is clear in the corporate appointments and shareholdings of our elected, and ex- elected, representatives) that the government is a tool of the corporation’s quest for dominance and ever-escalating profit. We arrive at a destination of science fictionalised absurdity, if not nihilistic then indicating at best a state of blithe impotence.
Sidney’s celebration of his appointment to the Whitehouse was accompanied by a blissed-out rendition of “Joy to the World”. As we take our leave of him the same song is used to altogether more ironic effect. The sentiment it contains becomes a mask of ignorance, the only sane defence against the madness of impenetrable and unbeatable systems.
According to Larry Karazewski (Trailers from Hell),
At a party for Washington bigwigs, Flicker met a nervous, sweaty bald man who didn’t quite seem to fit in. He later discovered that the man was a psychologist working for the military and the CIA. He had the highest clearance. If any four-star generals or spies were having mental problems, they’d talk to him. Flicker thought this was fantastic and decided to write a screenplay. He kicked it up a notch, added some 1960s satire, and it became The President’s Analyst.
James Coburn was also a producer on the film:
Ted Flicker I met while we were shooting Charade in Paris. He’d come over to meet his friend Peter Stone, who’d written the picture. So Ted was sitting in the background with his big black shades, watching us shoot. So Peter introduced us… Feorge Peppard and Elizabeth Ashley were having a Christmas party a few years later. Ted was there. He said, “I’ve just finished a script called ‘The President’s Analyst’” I said, “That’s an intriguing title. Do you have a deal on it?” He said, “No.” So I took it home, read it, and wanted to do it. Ted said he wanted to direct it, so I said, “Let me talk to Paramount.” I had just done Waterhole No. 3 over there. Robert Evans had just taken over, he loved it. Peter Bart read it, loved it. They said, “Can he direct?” I said, “I dunno, let’s find out.” So they put the whole deal together in five days! It was Evans’ first film at Paramount. There are some great scenes in there. It was named one of the finest political films of the decade by The Sunday Times in London… Ted Flicker never did another movie. He moved out to New Mexico, did one hit TV show, the name of which escapes me, and sculpts, paints. Just finished a script about the Civil War.
Robert Evans recalls in his autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture that he was visited by the FBI who did not want the film made due to their unflattering portrayal. Evans refused, but eventually compromised after further pressure was brought to bear by the studio. This resulted in the (obvious) dubbing of any mentions in the film of the intelligence agencies to FBR and CEA respectively. Evans thought the FBI monitored his phone following the visit, but it would seem like a given that they were doing that anyway.
Larry Karazewski again:
The Paramount brass found the film to be anti-American. They took over the movie and threw Flicker out of the editing room. They assembled their own cut but Flicker managed to sneak back in, just before it was sent to the negative cutter, and restored his own version. By the time they found out it was too late. They were locked into a release date. The film opened to big business and great reviews but apparently the portrait of the FBI as incompetent had pissed off G Man J Edgar Hoover, who called the White House. The White House called Charlie Bluhdorn over at Paramount and the studio buried the movie.
Frequently referenced by commentators on the film is a “missing” scene, in which Sidney goes to see an experimental art film and meets Nan for the first time. Whilst this scene certainly appears to have been filmed (there are stills from the sequence, see below), and it is reported that it has been included in various TV versions of the film, it was apparently not reinstated in a July 2010 screening at American Cinematheque in Santa Monica.
Whilst the critical reception of the film tended to be positive, there were other factors in the mix preventing success. The precise sequence of events relating to the removal of the film from circulation is unclear. Flicker records on his website that Hoover had the film banned in 1969, which would have meant it was in circulation for a year prior to this.
An interview with Flicker on youtube (or, rather, a trailer for an unexpurgated interview/ documentary) sees him comment:
He (Hoover) said, “I’m pulling your damn picture out of the theatres”... My film career was over... I lost my house... My agent stopped calling me... It was my time in Siberia.
Cast and Crew
Theodore J Flicker’s (b.1929) background was in improvisational theatre. His first feature, The Troublemaker (1965) was a comedy concerning a New Jersey chicken farmer who moves to Greenwich Village to open a coffee house. Larry Karazewski, comments that, after the film, Flicker was blackballed from movies. Certainly, he mostly wrote and directed for TV following this, both TV movies and series, ranging from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery to Mod Squad and The Streets of San Francisco. He did direct one other cinema release, Up in the Cellar (1970), a campus-culture satire concerning a college student who seeks revenge on Larry Hagman’s college president after he loses his scholarship by sleeping with his wife (Joan Collins), daughter and mistress. After the success of sitcom Barney Miller (1974-82), which he co-created, Flicker retired to sculpting in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
James Coburn (1928-2002) should need no introduction. The President’s Analyst was made within a year of his big break as a leading man in Bond spoof Our Man Flint (1966). The next decade saw a variety of fine work, including Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker aka A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Hard Times (1975) and Cross of Iron(1977). Coburn’s screen presence was limited over the next decade was limited due to rheumatoid arthritis, which he claimed to have cured himself through holistic therapy. He returned to the screen in the 1990s in films including Hudson Hawk (1991), Maverick (1994) and his Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning role in Affliction (1997).
Actors Severin Dardin (V.I. Kyodor Kropotkin) and Godfrey Cambridge (Don Masters) were friends of Flicker’s from working together at The Premise.
Cambridge (1933-76) featured in Flicker’s earlier feature The Troublemakers. He went on to star in Melvin van Peebles’ Watermelon Man (1970).
Dardin (1929-95) has a long list of film and TV credits including They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), Vanishing Point (1971), post-Easy Rider vehicles The Hired Hand (1971) and The Last Movie (1971). He’s perhaps most recognisable for his role as Kolp in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).
Joan Darling (Jeff Quantrill) (b. 1935) had previously appeared in The Troublemakers and would go on to be cast in Flicker’s Up in the Cellar. While she continued to act, she would concentrate on a career as a TV director.
Barry McGuire (b. 1935) is best known as the writer of the song Eve of Destruction.
Playing the insanely upbeat and instantly recognisable Wynn Quantrill is William Daniels (b. 1927). Aside from Voicing K.I.T.T. in the original Knight Rider, he would be a mainstay of television, including recurring roles in St Elsewhere and Boy Meets World. He also appeared in The Graduate (1967), The Parallax View (1974), Black Sunday (1977) and Reds (1981).
Cinematographer William A Fraker worked on more than 40 films, including Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt, Heaven Can Wait, 1941, Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Tombstone.
This was editor Stuart A Pappe’s first editing credit for a feature. He went on to work on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The Wanderers, and Enemies: A Love Story.
Howard H Koch (1916-2001) was a former production head at Paramount who, with his own production unit, went on to supply Paramount with pictures including The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and Airplane!
Stanley Rubin’s (b. 1917) other producing credits included The Narrow Margin and White Hunter, Black Heart.
December 21, 1967
Reviewing the film for Time Out, Rod McShane observed that the film envisions “an America whose psychological landscape is every bit as absurd as Hunter Thompson’s Las Vegas.”
Mark Bourne suggested of the film, “If Philip K Dick worked for MAD Magazine, he might have come up with The President’s Analyst.”
In the same review, Bourne comments, “While leading us to the fade-out's sardonic absurdist sight gag, Schaefer essentially "takes the red pill" and stumbles into a demented backstage reality that predates Wachowskian Matrix head games by 30-odd years.” Although, given the “acceptance” of the final scene, it’s questionable whether Sidney has not just reset himself, accepting a looser (but no less artificial) paradigm.
The Star Trek bridge doors sound effect is used when Sidney takes the White House lift.
The animated sequence explaining the Cerebrum Communicator was apparently modelled on Bell Telephone’s own promotional films. Appropriately the company DePatie-Freleng, who designed the animation for The President’s Analyst, also produced animations for Bell Telephone.
Psychiatrist Dr Sidney Schaefer is overjoyed to find out from one of his clients, Don Masters (a CEA agent) that he has been selected to attend to the brain care requirements of the US President. That is, despite the reluctance of the FBR (headed up by Henry Lux) but at the instigation of the CEA. His world quickly descends into a paranoid nightmare, whereby his every move is monitored and his every moment is subject to the whims of the President’s 24-hour needs. Sidney makes a run for it, first to the home of an typical American family. When the FBR and agents of other governments, who want Sidney’s prized and privileged information, close in on him, Sidney escapes to the countryside with a group of hippies. Here, he is oblivious to another attack by agents of various nationalities. He remains with the hippies until he is captured by the Canadian secret service, disguised as popular beat combo The Pudlians, who leave with him on their ship. Sidney is then rescued by KGB agent Kropotkin, whom Sidney analyses. Kropotkin persuades him that he has to return to the US. Once there, Sidney is again kidnapped by The Telephone Company, and learns of their plan to install Cerebrum Communicators in the brains of the entire populace. He persuades Masters and Kropotkin, arrived to rescue him, that the Telephone Company must be destroyed. Although they destroy the HQ, the film’s closing moments indicate that the Company lives on.
Time Out Film Guide (2008 edition), Rod McShane
Larry Karaszewski (Trailers from Hell (Jan 17, 2011):
Ted Flicker Trailer:
Interview by Alex Simon with James Coburn (Venice Magazine, Feb 1999):
Robert Evans, the Kid Stays in the Picture p.133
Ted Flicker's website:
Schuyler W Henderson:
Hal Erickson, Rovi: