- Gareth Crook
Bartleby (1970) / Bartleby (2001)
I LOVE Bartleby. This 1970 original is marvellous. Based on Herman Melville’s classic novella, it’s a work of art. A cold delicate hug of a film. It’s slow meandering shots, it’s wistful jazz infused score. In the 20 years since I first saw it, I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. Every frame is a beautiful portrait of London character and mundanity. An ode to 60s design culture, geometric modernity. In the centre of all this is Bartleby (John McEnery), a likeable yet unusual young man looking for work, purpose, meaning. He’s painfully polite and good natured, but how shall we say, minimal with his communication skills. Despite this, he gets a job as an audit clerk in a drab office run by the friendly but stuffy Paul Scofield. This first interview between the two is typically awkward, but the boss has no idea what he’s let himself in for. Bartleby is like no other employee he’s ever had. Certainly nothing like office prankster Robin Askwith, the cheeky cocky chappy famed for his seaside titillation or Tucker (Colin Jeavons) who gives poor Bartleby such a hard time. They don’t understand him you see. He has his way of doing things... and not doing things. The first indications of this coming when he’s asked to bring some files and responds with the charming “I would rather not, just now”, leaving his slightly dumbfounded boss unsure how to deal with him. They think he’s being insubordinate, lazy even, “A bit strange”. He’s not though, Bartleby is focused, inquisitive, in tune with his world, his surroundings, his choices. Despite his boss’s patience. Bartleby’s “I’d prefer not to” refrain continues to confound his co-workers. He’s civil, dignified, utterly magnetic to watch. I know it doesn’t sound like it would be, it sounds totally nuts, but there’s something completely arresting about it. It’s partly down to the gorgeous cinematography of London’s concrete vistas, partly the effortlessly cool score that accompanies these interludes to the office scenes. Mostly though it’s Bartleby, McEnery is simply perfect with his unassuming poise. The tasks that Bartleby politely refuses to complete increase and his boss discovers that now not only is his employee refusing to work, he’s also living in the office. There’s no explanation for his behaviour, certainly none offered and the boss’ patience eventually runs out, but sacking him isn’t really going to work. Fair play to the boss (he really does deserve a name, such is Scofield’s lovely performance) he does everything he can to help, but at the end of his tether moves offices, leaving Bartleby completely unanchored and headed only he knows where. It’s an odd but captivating study of will, of social standing, of the modern workplace and our reliance on its structures. It’s brilliant.
Much to my horror and admittedly some intrigue, the story was revisited again in 2001. Now I’m not gonna dig in too deep again, but it’s worth noting that where the 1970 film is very much based more loosely on the book, this sticks a little closer. I’m not sure that makes it any better as a film though. It has a very distinct style, a bold colour palate and an almost Lynchian tone in its simplicity... the entire cast is odd. What’s most notable of course, is Bartleby, played by none other Crispin Glover. I remember seeing this on release and was really taken by Glover. He’s an unusual guy himself, take a look at his Letterman interviews and did you know he release an album? It’s on Spotify, have a listen. Anyway he’s great here and arguably does more than McEnery in the original. He’s not as haunting though. It’s funnier, like a Canadian TV skit show in the early 90s. This though for me distracts from Bartleby and his preferring not to. It’s almost slapstick in places. It’s still worth a watch, but doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessor.
Apparently there’s another version from ‘76 in French, but sadly I’ve not been able to hunt down a version with subtitles... yet.