The Unbearable Absence of Being: Bartleby (1970)

❉ Johnny Restall finds much to admire in Anthony Friedman’s 1970 film with a score by Roger Webb.

The plot of Herman Melville’s 1853 short story Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street is both simple and enigmatic. An aging and conventional New York lawyer advertises for a new copyist to join his stolidly respectable firm. The withdrawn young man appointed to the post promptly throws the lawyer’s orderly world into total confusion; whenever he is asked to perform a task which is not to his liking, he meekly but firmly states that he would “prefer not to.” Eventually, the copyist’s polite resistance extends to declining to leave the office building and even to eating, and he quietly fades away, leaving his bewildered employer in a state of existential despair.

Melville’s teasingly opaque, mysterious tale forms the basis of Anthony Friedman’s 1970 film Bartleby, released this month on Blu-ray by the Indicator label. Starring John McEnery in the title role with Paul Scofield as his employer, the adaptation, written by the director with Rodney Carr-Smith, updates the period and setting to then-contemporary London, and turns Bartleby into an audit clerk. Although the change in time and location may at first seem somewhat incongruous, it works surprisingly well. Ian Wilson’s bleakly beautiful cinematography captures an appropriately drab London of endless footbridges and brutalist tower blocks looming over historic ruins (ironically now largely gone themselves while the medieval fragments remain). The film presents a world of repressively muted colour, where everything from the Thames to the interior décor seems to be a washed-out shade of brown. The sun shines, but seems to give off little warmth. Its vision of a resolutely un-swinging, depressed London presages the better-known likes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy and Gary Sherman’s Death Line (both 1972).

The success of the film’s update is also testament to the universal nature and mutability of the short story’s themes – the drudgery of work, the lonely anonymity of crowded cities, the erosion of personality and free will, even the point (or pointlessness) of life itself. The office setting is uncomfortably apt at a time when many employers and government ministers are trying to force staff to return to their commutes rather than support home working. Robin Askwith’s nameless junior clerk offers up grimly witless office ‘banter,’ while Colin Jeavons’ unctuous Tucker grovels and bullies, desperate to remain in favour with the boss; both still unpleasantly familiar spectres in many working environments today.

At heart, the film is essentially a dual between Bartleby and his anonymous employer, credited only as ‘The Accountant.’ McEnery is quietly remarkable in the former part, perfectly embodying Melville’s “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” creation. With his flat expression, shuffling gait, and relentless monotone delivery, he is by turns intriguing, infuriating, and tragic, utterly unavailable and closed to any real communication. His outward conformity, with his neat side-parting and timid speech, make him an almost ethereally unlikely rebel, tepidly relentless in his “passive resistance.” Although at first glance seeming the more forceful of the two, it is Scofield’s Accountant who is eventually driven to query the values of his life. Initially existing in a nonchalant world of pipe smoke, certificates, and paternal authority, his journey mirrors that of the audience as Bartleby moves him from bemusement to consternation, before his rage finally gives way to some kind of pity and fellow-feeling. The actor expertly conveys the gradual undermining of his character’s complacent foundations, slowly uncovering a stunted compassion and a thwarted yearning to understand his implacably distant nemesis.

Friedman and Carr-Smith’s script steadfastly refuses any attempt to align Bartleby’s actions with any particular cause or psychological explanation, hinting only at a generalised desire for transmutation and escape via his mute observations of flying birds.

Although its runtime is only a brisk 79 minutes, the film’s approach is often as slow and passively watchful as Bartleby’s own, with many almost dialogue-free sequences carried largely by Roger Webb’s exquisitely melancholy jazz score (recently reissued in its own right by Trunk Records). This oblique style may frustrate some less patient viewers, and perhaps makes the film a slightly unsatisfying experience overall. However, Bartleby’s oddly haunting atmosphere retains a certain hold after viewing, with many moments and images lingering in the mind with an unexpected strength. There is much to admire despite its flaws, and its strangely moving qualities deserve rediscovery by a sympathetic audience.

Indicator have brought their usual high standard of care and attention to bear on this release, with a terrific new restoration of the film. The package also includes an audio interview with the director, a brief but informative feature on the locations used, a 1976 public information film made by Friedman on the subject of terrorist bombs (which proves as unnerving and weirdly fascinating as other PIFs of the era), and even a short 2017 stop-motion adaptation of Melville’s story for comparison.

❉ ‘Bartleby’ (Limited Edition Blu-ray) was released via Picturehouse/Indicator, 21 February 2022. Cat. No. #PHILTD240. BBFC cert: 12. REGION FREE. Limited edition of 2,000 copies for the UK (4,000 copies for the world). RRP £15.99. Click here to buy.

❉ Johnny Restall writes and draws inky pictures. You can find him on Twitter @johnnyrestall.

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