Dr. Sidney Schafer (James Coburn) is a therapist at the top of his game. He’s clever, probing, a master of his profession, and James Coburn gives his character a smirk of pride while his eyes probe his patients in this 1967 satire. His office is very sixties, abounding in modern art and decor, and set on a table is a Chinese gong. Why a gong? Memories of foreign travel? A way to summon the Emperor or expel demons? Schafer is, after all, an emperor of therapy.
Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) is a new patient, and relates his childhood trauma to Schafer. He was taunted by neighborhood kids who shouted “there goes the nigger” at him. Not knowing what the word meant, Masters gleefully joined them in the insult, happily crying out “there goes the nigger” all the way home, not understanding why his brother beat him when he said that. In turn, Masters knifed him.
Schaefer feels immediate empathy. In 1967, it was already that awful word that must never, ever, be spoken and never thought.
Masters then turns the tables. He confesses he just knifed an enemy spy, and is actually an agent of the CEA, America’s primary intelligence agency. We know this is so because, in the opening credits, Masters is shown in disguise as he kills an enemy agent. Schafer is more curious than shocked, intellectually intrigued by how Masters was given the legal authority to kill, but does raise his eyebrows when Masters tells Schaefer he’s been vetted for a special assignment to become the American President’s analyst. He’s the only one who can do it.
Schafer, the man with the Imperial gong, is humbled and awed. He goes to his own mentor and analyst, Dr. Lee Evans (Will Geer), who, in a white suit and thick mustache, looks like a Mark Twain of therapy. He tells Schafer that he recommended him for the job. They speak in a modern art museum displaying absurd contemporary objects that Schaefer enjoys and Evans shrugs off. He tells Schafer he is a new man, and new men are needed to deal with the President’s problems.
Schaefer glows with pride and soon arrives in DC, where he is warmly welcomed by Ethan Allen Cocket (Eduard Franz), the collegiate, bow-tie wearing head of the CEA. With him is the much less collegiate and ice-cold Henry Lux (Walter Blake), the dwarfish, black-suited head of the FBR, America’s chief crime fighting agency. He despises Schaefer on sight, and stares at him throughout the interview. When Cocket tells Schaefer that he is important to all of them, Lux sneers, “Poppycock.”
Cocket then cozily warns that Schaefer can never reveal his sessions with the President to anyone. National security, you know. Then Schaefer is officially hired. He is given his White House pass, a townhouse in Georgetown, a car, and Cocket’s best wishes.
“Good luck, my boy,” Cocket says, smiling.
Lux glares. “Watch your step.”
Welcome to our nation’s capital.
Schaefer is overjoyed because he’s living large. He gets immediate access to the Oval Office via a special elevator, where he strolls past Marine guards. Schaefer has Nan (Joan Delaney), his girlfriend and bunkmate whom he wants to marry, with him, and one can imagine how Lux feels about that going about at government expense. It’s a wonderful life – until the glow and beeping of the red phone comes on at all hours, since the President needs a lot of therapy. Schaefer is getting fatigued being on call and needs to unwind, and to talk to someone himself . . . but no. Never. He would reveal classified information, and Lux’s threat is very real.
Schafer finds he’s being followed by strange men everywhere. His workplace frustration increases his paranoia. He calls Nan for a heart-to-heart, and she admits she’s so concerned, and loves him soooo much . . . and then he realizes she’s taping their conversation.
They eat at a restaurant, and he sees spies all around him. Nan says he’s being silly. He pretends to be stabbed and falls. Men all around him flash guns. He almost smiles in wicked glee. It’s not paranoia. They’re real.
But he wakes up. It was only a dream. He needs Nan, but she has been sent away by Lux because Schafer talks in his sleep, and . . . well, classified information . . .
He has to escape. After another session, Schaefer uses the elevator to sneak into a tour group and leave the White House, then bonds with the Quantrills, a family visiting from New Jersey. They’re delighted he wants to come along with them.
They’re the typical affluent, suburban family. The husband keeps a variety of guns: the car gun, the house gun. He’s a liberal, of course, but there are conservatives nearby, and when they disarm, he’ll do so. He’s proud of his echt suburban house and its booming stereo everywhere. “Total sound,” he brags. The wife takes karate. Their son has a Junior Spy Kit and wiretaps Schaefer.
The world’s intelligence agencies want Schaefer and all the secrets the President has told him, especially our loyal allies. The Russians dispatch their top agent, Kropotkin (Severn Darden), a thoughtful, low-key man whose mission is to bring Schaefer to Moscow.
Cocket conducts a seminar at CEA headquarters, a collegiate, book-lined room where the staff, of all sexes and colors, agree that Masters is the man who must be sent after the AWOL therapist. Cocket is kind and concerned that Masters brings “Sidney” back. But, if things turn otherwise . . . Masters nods.
At a cold, anonymous room in FBR headquarters, Lux speaks to his agents; all, like him, short and wearing black suits.
“Kill Schaefer,” Lux almost hisses.
The Quantrills treat Schaefer to dinner in New York, and when they come out, men charge them. “Muggers!” the wife squeals in glee, and knocks them out with karate while the husband plugs them with his suit gun. Schaefer runs away.
He tries to make it to Dr. Lane for advice, but enemy agents are everywhere. He breaks into a VW microbus to hide. In the sixties, VW microbuses were the preferred vehicle of hippies, and sure enough, there are hippies inside. They are kind and peaceful and take him along on their concert tour. Snow White, a trusting hippie chick, warms to Schaefer, as they drive to the Great Lakes.
In New York, Masters and Kropotkin have a happy reunion. They’re very good friends and talk shop while they discuss how to find Schaefer, and who first gets to buy the other dinner.
FBR agents enter the Quantrills’ house while the parents are out. The boy adores them. “Where are they?” an agent (Arte Johnson) demands.
“They went to New York. A restaurant called Chinks.”
“Don’t say ‘Chinks,’” the agent warns. “It’s bigoted. Say ‘Chinese.’”
“Hey,” he says, “are you gonna kill Dr. Schafer?”
“Yes, son. We’re going to kill him.”
Schaefer, now in hippie clothes, a long-haired wig, and part of the hippie’s band (playing the gong) is on the run and enjoying it, as well as the affection of Snow White. The Pudlians, a British rock band, comes on the scene, sharing their dope with everyone. At a concert where LSD gets slipped into the drinks, Schaefer, delighted as he plays his gong, is grabbed from behind and drugged.
He wakes up on a yacht cruising the Great Lakes that is taking him to Canada. The Pudlians were Canadian agents, and their PM is very interested in what the leader of the lower forty-eight has in mind for the True North.
The Pudlians are wiped out by the FBR, but before they can kill Schafer, Kropotkin comes to the rescue.
He talks up life in Russia and his theory that spies are the last romantics. “Interesting,” Schaefer says, and begins therapy with him. Kropotkin is delighted, especially when he discovers that his father, whom he loved, he really hates. His mother was arrested by his father for being a revisionist.
“What was she like?” probes Schaefer.
“Oh, warm and caring . . . typical revisionist.”
Kropotkin loves analysis, and can’t wait to keep it up when they get to Moscow.
On the road, they have to make a phone call. At the phone booth, neither have enough dimes, and Kropotkin has to get change. When he leaves, a mysterious truck arrives, plucks Schaefer, phone booth and all, up, and drives off.
Kropotkin returns, as does Masters. Who could have taken Schaefer?
Who is all-powerful and able to do anything they want?
TPC. The Phone Company.
Schafer, still in the phone booth, is taken into a spaceship-like module that is TPC headquarters. In a film that glories in showing us all kinds of sixties life, architecture, and mores, the phone company’s HQ is ahead of everything else, almost an alien invader. The alien, however, is a smiling, friendly face and voiced by Arlington Hewes (Pat Harrington, Jr.). He wants Schaefer to help the phone company.
Why? They have a gosh-darn nifty idea which Hewes explains in an absurd, ridiculous animated presentation recalling the Our Mr. Sun, a cartoon we kids saw in sixties classrooms. To save expense on maintenance and costs, Hewes wants to install what is in essence a microchip in everyone, called a CC (Cerebral Communicator). You can use it by just talking to your finger and it will place your calls, since the CC will be directly wired into the brain. And if Schaefer could help persuade the President to go along with it, why, it would be so darned good for everyone!
Schaefer is shocked and outraged. He won’t do it.
Part of the reason for the CC is because people keep vandalizing TPC equipment. “They are fighting depersonalization!” shouts Schaefer.
Noise and gas are released into the phone booth to “convince” Schafer. Masters and Kropotkin burst in and rescue him. They try to capture Hewes, but discover he’s a machine, with a power cord connected to his shoe.
“He’s the voice on the phone,” shouts Masters, who pulls the plug, and as Hewes falls, TPC guards storm the room. Schafer, the cool, reasoning therapist, grabs an M-16 and blasts away, his smile wide and broad. He’s fighting depersonalization.
The film ends at Christmas as Nan welcomes Masters and Kropotkin, both with presents, and then Schaefer comes in after a hard day at the White House. The President has forgiven him and kept the TPC away. Nan has used security cameras to check each guest, and all four toast each other a Merry Christmas, this happy holiday scene being watched on camera by Hewes and a roomful of blank, smiling men in suits, TPC clones with power cords connected to their shoes. “Joy to the World.”
The President’s Analyst is an exceptionally and clever satire, which is a difficult think to manage – especially in America, because we don’t like satire. We like sentiment, dumb blondes, farts, and groin-kicking. The film didn’t do well at the box office after its December 21, 1967 opening. With a bouncy “Joy to the World” on the film’s clever soundtrack during the opening and the final scene, this was a kind of Christmas movie. The President’s Analyst remains well-appreciated by critics and has very favorable viewer rating.
The script is a gem, and casting James Coburn was a plus. Coburn played villains as often as good guys, and his Sidney Schaefer is proud, intellectual, a little arrogant, and capable of outrage. He’s a perfect alpha male, reveling in masculinity, definitely in love with Nan – telling her “you’re my woman” with no apologies. It is a very heterosexual movie. Coburn runs, cowers, climbs, creeps, rages, and his grin can be both patronizing and wicked. His ambiguity was excellent for an ambiguous period, and the film reflects those ambiguities.
The rest of the cast is likewise outstanding. Godfrey Cambridge, a popular black comedian of the time, is great as Masters, as is Severn Darden as Kropotkin, his Russian mirror. Walter Blake is a magnificent Lux, an obvious take on J. Edgar Hoover, but he is now almost a creepy shadow to Fauci; another short, bureaucratic megalomaniac. At least Lux’s hatred is honest. Fauci is like most of the cast in this satire in that, in true American style, their malevolence is hidden behind a smile. It recalls the 1980 book Friendly Fascism by Bertram Gross, where he said the future was not one of cattle cars and concentration camps, but smiling faces and maybe a TV show. Pat Harrington, Jr.’s Hewes is a true corporate monster, always smiling. I prefer Hitler’s frown.
The film brings up the point that the rivalry between the US and the USSR pales in comparison to that between corporate globalism and humanity. Kropotkin assures Schaefer he’ll be happy in Moscow because really, both countries are becoming more like each other. The US is becoming more socialist, and the USSR more capitalist.
In 1967, thoughtful people were beginning to see this, but it was a minority view at that time given that the Cuban Missile Crisis was in the recent past and we were at the height of the Vietnam War.
Another aspect of this satire is its commentary on the increasing surveillance of citizens, especially when we see, at various parts of the action, a blank screen following the action; this is actually the TPC, showing how globalism is slowly becoming authoritarian, as was America. After 9/11, both eventually bloomed into the national security state.
A running joke in the film is how annoying and incompetent the phone company is. Hewe’s plan to plant microchips into everyone seemed ludicrous and wacky in 1967; now, the real thing is here, with the Vaxx – which is simply the refined result of the Cerebral Communicator.
I also appreciated the film’s locations and feel. We’re in the deep sixties. The spanking-new architecture is of faceless concrete and high-rises. Transit buses take you from your jet to the terminal. There is a predominance of modern art: very incomprehensible, but very “now.”
I think of all those new (at the time) buildings displaying expansion and confidence, and by 2000, most of them were ugly and mangy as they cracked or crumbled, only to be replaced with updated mange. But in 1967, we were looking to the future: Astronauts to the Moon! War on Poverty! Suburbs! Green berets winning Vietnam! Therapy! It was a good show until the seventies broke up the party, but The President’s Analyst happily shows that world with a twist of sour lemon. This jewel of the sixties hasn’t dated at all.
If there is one flaw in the story, it is the idea that if someone could only get into the President’s mind, they could control the world. Now, we see that the presidency is only a piece on the board – and probably not even a queen.
Control Joe Biden’s mind? He has no mind to control. The smiling Hewes of our age are in charge, and we can’t unplug them.
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