Monday, October 13, 2008

James Coburn - The Accidental Auteur

According to the auteur theory, the director of a movie functions in much the same way as the author of a novel. He is the guiding intelligence behind a motion picture. But in regard to four hip movies that came out in the mid to late 1960s--Dead Heat on a Merry-go-Round, The President's Analyst, Duffy and Hard Contract--I wonder if the case can be made that their auteur is really the star of these movies--James Coburn. The young James Coburn trafficked in a certain kind of cool. It was not the same kind of cool as Steve McQueen possessed. McQueen's cool was an armor that protected the sensitive, broken, hurting man hidden deep inside the outwardly steely characters he usually portrayed. Coburn, McQueen's co-star in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape (both directed by John Sturges), had a cool that was much more abstract and zen-like. Coburn didn't need to be armored from the world, because his cool insured that he was never a part of this world to begin with. Coburn floats through these movies as though he didn't have a care in the world. A gifted character actor (Stanley Donen's Charade, Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee), Coburn graduated to the big time when he became a star through his appearance in the James Bond spoof, Our Man Flint, and its sequel, In like Flint. With his new found star power, Coburn was able to pick his next projects, which made him the accidental avatar of the sixties zetgeist.

Dead Hear on a Merry-Go-Round (1966) is a caper film. If it is known today at all, it's known as the movie in which a very young Harrison Ford makes a brief appearance as a messenger walking through a hotel lobby. The caper involves a plot to rob a bank at LAX timed to coincide with a visit by the Soviet Premier. The movie is timely, which makes it feel completely dated today. But watching it from this contemporary vantage point, one can admire the fact that the writer-director Bernard Girard had more on his mind than just making a thriller. It is also a commentary on a square society that was about to be swept away by the winds of change blowing across America (and the world). There is something definitely in the air and the movie picks up on the fact. Coburn functions as an unwitting agent of change, ushering us into a new world of sexual and other kinds of liberation.

The same holds true for Coburn's next film, The President's Analyst (1968), which is a spy film, of a sort. The premise is pure genius. Coburn is a Manhattan therapist whose latest patient is none other than the President of the United States. Because of the burden of his office, The President is considered the loneliest man in the world. But now that he is forced to carry the burden of his presidential patient's mental problems, Coburn finds himself the loneliest man in the world. And the most wanted, as spies from every alphabetic organization parachute in to capture him and find out what's on the President's mind. The movie is a satire of suburban comformity and urban paranoia and finds its true villain in the form of the Phone Company (whose evil presence is embodied by Pat Harrington, Jr., formerly Danny Thomas' buttoned-down, prospective son-in-law on Make Room for Daddy and years before his annoying turn as Schneider the grating super on One Day at a Time). Coburn is so zen that he relaxes by bangng his gong (an actual spare time activity that he demonstrated during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, who, in later years, actually came to resemble Coburn). The President's Analyst is entertaining and thought-provoking.

1968 also saw the release of Duffy an amoral English caper film that is also a satire of amorality. Two English brothers team up with Coburn to rob the yacht owned by their wealthy father. The anomic brothers are played by James Fox and John Alderton. Fox's girl friend is played by Susannah York. Tawny and tanned, Susannah York has never looked more radiantly beautiful. Coburn plays the eponymous hero, an outsider who is brought in by the brothers to help them with their piratical activities. Coburn ends up falling in love with York, and the movie ends with a disappointing series of double- and triple-crosses. Where Dead Heat on a Merry-go-Round and The President's Analyst ride the crest of a wave without once describing the wave, Duffy is awash in the detritus of the hippie era of love-ins, love beads and Carnaby Street fashions. And once again, fashionable Coburn glides through the proceedings without breaking a sweat.

Coburn ended the decade with Hard Contract (1969) a crime movie in which he plays a cold-as-ice professional assassin. The movie is so discreet when it comes to violence that it never actually shows the assassin at work. We only see the aftermath of his hits. The movie is set entirely in Europe and its international cast features Lee Remick, Claude Dauphin, Patrick Magee, Sterling Hayden and Burgess Meredith. The movie strains for effect and is pretentiously written and directed by S. Lee Pogostin. At one point, Meredith waxes philosophic about the nature of murder while standing, for ironic effect, in fromt of Goya's The Third of May. The movie also takes advantage of Coburn's well-honed cool as an assassin with no moral qualms about how he makes his living. In fact, the movie is so cool and elliptical that it borders on the existential.

James Coburn is not an obvious symbol of the counter-culture. But taken together, these four movies show that Coburn was a persuasive cinematic agent of change during the second half of that tumultuous decade. (On a personal note, early on a Saturday morning in the mid-seventies, I saw James Coburn standing on the sidewalk in front of an exclusive men's clothing store in Westwood Vilalge and he was every bit the epitome of cool in person as he appeared on the screen.)

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