Bartleby - Bartleby(Blu Ray) [Powerhouse - 2022]
From the early 1970’s Bartleby is a distinctive, at points puzzlingly glum example of British cinema- part lightly absurd drama, part tragic comedy, and part office work satire. The film focuses on the title character- an awkward and quiet twenty-something man who starts working as a clerk at a firm; then suddenly for a seemingly unknown reason starts politely refusing to do his job. Here from Powerhouse films is a region free Blu Ray release of the film- featuring a new 4k scan of the picture, directors’ interview and a few other things.
Bartleby is from the year 1970 and is set in the city of London. It was directed by Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire born Anthony Friedman- whose main credits were seemingly working in the editorial dept during 1966, on TV adventure/ drama show The Fugitive. He directed, produced, and wrote the screenplay for Bartleby which was his one & only film. It was based on a 1953 short story by New York City writer Herman Melville Bartleby, the Scrivener- which told of a Wall Street lawyer that hires a new clerk who, after an initial bout of hard work, refuses to make copies or do any other task required of him, refusing with the words "I would prefer not to".
The film shifts the story's location to 1970’s London, and we begin with the weedy and wavering voice of Bartleby (John McEnery) talking over footage of people making their way to work in the city, concrete overpasses, and grey office tower blocks. In time we get the first look at Bartleby- he’s wiry, stooped, with a slightly too small suit jacket on- with his white cuffs showing. He reads out application form questions, as he peers at jobcentre posts. Next, he’s ringing up about a job- making his way to an accountancy firm in the city, which is on the top floor of an office building. Here he’s interviewed by The Accountant (Paul Scofield) the moustached, and seemingly fairly reasonable middle-aged owner of the business. From the off, it’s clear Bartleby is a nervous and awkward character, but he seemingly has experience for the clerk post- so he’s given the job. To start with he seems to be a conscientious worker- but then one day he’s asked into the office, given a new task- that’s similar to what he’s done before. He says in a politely quiet manner “I would prefer not to” then goes back to sit at his desk. Initially, his boss tries to figure out how to get him back work, then starts to worry something is very wrong with him. As things progress we start to shift into the absurd/ lightly bizarre- as he still politely refuses to work, and in time moves into live firms’ offices.
McEnery plays the character of Bartleby with such focused acting talent- with his awkwardness felt well and truly, going from his general posture, his darting furtive eyes, and of course his waving voice. Scofield is a good fit as they trying to be understanding boss. There’s a small surrounding cast, which features a few familiar faces there’s Robert Askwith a cheeky chappie office boy, we have recognisable UK TV actor Colin Jeavons playing one of the company’s other clerks, whose patience with Bartleby runs thin very quickly.
As you’d expect with a work drama, much of the films one hour & twenty minutes unfold takes place in the office. But this is broken up with trips outside to London, where we get more amassed people movement, Bartleby watching flocks of birds shape/ dart, and later some darkly comic outside interaction- with the film moving to the glum and downbeat resolver, The film features a fairly dynamic, if at times slightly angularly moody jazz by Roger Webb, which is a great fit. I’ll certainly, say that it’s not a film for everyone- but if like me you enjoy awkward drama- that doesn’t give you all the answers, but leaves you with some interesting questions then Bartleby is for you.
This new region free disc features a 4k scan- and this looks great bringing to life the 70’s colourings, and of course London of the decade. We get a new audio interview with the film’s director Anthony Friedman- this is most worthy, as he moves from talking about how he studied at the London film school, moving on to how & why he focused on writing the script. He mentions that there was a 16mm US film version of the story that had a period setting, and why he decided to update the setting to then present-day London. He talks about giving the script to Paul Scofield, and how impressed the actor was by it. He mentions the films finance which was through the National Film Finance scheme, and how the budget was very tight. He discusses the lack of promotion for Bartleby when it first came, and how it only played in a few places.
Next, we get Bartleby’s London- this is a three and a half minute naming of the locations in the film. There’s Beat the Bomber – a 1975 public information film about bombing made by Anthony Friedman, which runs just over the sixteen-minute mark. It opens with a shop explosion, bloody bomb victims, before moving on to look at how bombs are planted in different locations. Dos and don’ts, and the use of a bomb disposable robot. There’s a 2017 stop motion version of the Bartleby story- this runs around the eleven and half minute mark. There’s also a trailer for this, timelapse footage, and an image gallery. The finished release comes with a 36-page booklet featuring a new essay by Jeff Billington, archival interviews with star Paul Scofield and writer-director Anthony Friedmann, an overview of contemporary critical responses, new writing on Beat the Bomber and Bartleby (2017), and film credits.
Bartleby really is a very original, if slidingly grim product of 1970s British cinema- that won’t be for everyone. But if you enjoy drama that blends in touches of the absurd, dark comedy, and light satire this will most certainly be your bag. To purchase directly from Powerhouse, drop by here.Roger Batty