Jan 4, 2012

This Week's "Hard-to-Find Film" We're Seeking: The Troublemaker (1964)

The more one keeps discovering cinema, the more one realizes how much more there is to know. And despite how in the age of DVDs, Netflix and many other wide resources to instantly obtain almost any movie one can think of, there are always titles that have slipped through the cracks and remain elusive to us, despite our best efforts.  The Troublemaker (1964), and the filmography of its creator, Theodore J. Flicker, exemplify both of these points.

Although today Flicker is perhaps best remembered as the co-creator of the Barney Miller TV series, he had written and directed several quirky films in the 1960s and 1970s. Of these, The President's Analyst (with James Coburn) remains the best-known. He had started out in Chicago's Compass Theater (America's first venue of improvisational comedy), working alongside Elaine May. In 1959, he wrote the book for, and directed the world's only "beatnik" stage musical, The Nervous Set (in which the jazz standard, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" debuted). In the 1960s, he also worked in theater on New York's Bleecker Street, with such up-and-comers as Buck Henry, Joan Darling, Gene Hackman, George Segal, Godfrey Cambridge and Al Freeman Jr. (many of whom would appear in his subsequent film work) in the shows The Premise, and then The Premise in Living Color (which tackled the subject of racism).

Flicker and Buck Henry co-wrote the screenplay for his maiden directorial feature, The Troublemaker (1964). The synopsis (courtesy tcm.com):

"Jack Armstrong, a naive Midwesterner and former chicken farmer, runs into difficulties when he tries to open a coffee house in New York City without paying protection money to racketeer Sal and his associates. Armstrong's lawyer, T. R. Kingston, is also associated with Sal and is secretly paying off the mobster. Armstrong's moral indignation invokes Sal's wrath, and Jack is kidnaped and placed in a mental institution before he is finally able to obtain evidence that he is being harassed by criminals. Jack and his girl friend, Denver, discover that the crime commissioner is the real head of the graft racket, and, with the help of Kingston, they turn the tables on him. In the process, however, Jack loses his own integrity and becomes the biggest grafter of all."

I had actually seen this film during the Christmas break on Bravo in 1996. Canadian TV viewers were unknowingly living in a silver age during those times, when obscure films like this were still being programmed as filler on this arts channel, which has subsequently resolved to showing incessant re-runs of CSI.  However, dear reader, due fifteen years of clouded memory (and that I had the stomach flu while watching it), I can recall no other intricate details of the movie than to say that sadly, the movie is not a lost classic, as its attempted quirky humour is rather forced, and simply doesn't work. Nonetheless, this film is essential alone for fellow enthusiasts interested in New York-lensed films of the 1960s, which capture the era's Greenwich Village counterculture. It is also a valuable snapshot of the many future movers and shakers involved in its making: Tony-award winning actor Tom Aldredge (later in TV's Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos), Premise player (and future film director) James Frawley, future director Joan Darling (who blazed a trail with TV's Mary Hartman Mary Hartman), comedian Godfrey Cambridge (who is remembered for his biting stand-up comedy about racism), and of course, screenwriter Buck Henry, who personified the decade with his work on The Graduate.

The Troublemaker is a snapshot of the era, when social change was upon the horizon, and being reflected in the arts. For that simple historic fact, it is worthy of another look today. This was released in the 1960s by Janus Films, a name familiar to many connoisseurs of the Criterion DVDs. If the film still exists in a playable form (and it must, if I saw it on television fifteen years ago), and is under the umbrella of the Janus-Criterion family, they truly must put it out. (In fact, a boxed-set of Theodore Flicker's films would be a Godsend to those, like myself, who need to see much of his work for the first time.)

Although Flicker kept busy in the next two decades writing and directing television (not least a certain TV program about a police station), for the big screen he wrote the screenplay for the delightfully daft Elvis Presley vehicle Spinout, and wrote-directed the seminal The President's Analyst (1967) and the bizarre counterculture allegory Up The Cellar (1970). Before calling it a career in the film-television world, he also made the Canuck classic Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1977), and the hick flick, Soggy Bottom USA (1980).

Theodore J. Flicker turned to sculpting, legally changed his name to "Ted" Flicker, and for all that, still managed to keep with the pulse of change. His novel, The Good American, was among the first to be exclusively distributed on this new thing called the internet. He was also the subject for the 2007 documentary, Ted Flicker: A Life in Three Acts (which is now on my "must-see" list). With the creation of a documentary on the man's work, it seems we're not alone in thinking that the work of Theodore J. Flicker needs a second glance.  We can get started by making The Troublemaker accessible for us again.

Trailer for Ted Flicker: A Life in Three Acts

Stills for The Troublemaker

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