Bartleby (1970) Poster

(II) (1970)

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An interesting and unusual film.
DC19773 August 2005
Unlike other reviewers I haven't read the book and can't comment on its success as an adaptation.

The story is very, VERY basic. A mysterious young man, Bartleby (John McEnery) applies successfully for the position of audit clerk at a small accountancy firm in London.

At first he works well but doesn't socialise at all with any of his colleagues. Things start to slip when the Accountant (the fabulous Paul Scofield) asks him to do a task and Bartleby replies 'I would prefer not to.' This becomes Bartleby's response to every request from now on and the Accountant becomes increasingly exasperated with his new employee. Instead of dismissing him, the well-meaning accountant shares Bartleby's work amongst his colleagues and hopes to get to the bottom of the problem.

In allowing him to stay, the Accountant sees Bartleby's behaviour become more bizarre as he takes up residence in the office.

Even after dismissing Bartleby, the Accountant is unable to get rid of him and he re-locates the firm to a new office in the hope of getting away from this curious young man.

If The Accountant felt he would have heard the last of Bartleby by this stage, he is sadly mistaken.

A story like this could result in an extremely dull film but the inventive direction from Anthony Friedman (why hasn't he done any other films?) and Scofield's superb performance prevent this from happening.

Scofield is one of the more enigmatic figures in cinema history. Primarily a stage actor, and a highly distinguished one, he has made relatively few feature films, less than 20 in fact.

However his limited filmography has not stopped him from winning an impressive array of screen awards including the Best Actor Oscar and three BAFTA's.

It is very typical of Scofield that, having already won the Oscar, he turned down the Robert Mitchum role in Ryan's Daughter (a part he was better suited for than Mitchum) and opted to do a tiny little film like Bartleby.

Although McEnery is very good in the film, he has fairly little to do and it is Scofield who carries the picture. His portrayal of a kindly yet increasingly bemused employer is excellent and the delivery of his lines e.g.

'You're living here; you're ACTUALLY living in my office!' is superb and adds the humour needed to make this film succeed.

I can't imagine this film getting any kind of publicity when it was first shown, no premiere at Leicester Square and subsequent nationwide release. In many ways it resembles the American Film Theatre productions of the 1970's but with a little more cinematic flair.

Its difficult to see how this film could be expected to turn a profit and although there have been 3 subsequent film adaptations of Melville's story, I doubt very much that movies of this style and small ambition would be given the go-ahead nowadays.

But I'm glad that Bartleby was made and that it is now available on DVD (but not yet in the UK), it's an amusing little curio that deserves to be better known.
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Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
valis194927 September 2010
A dry and deadpan tragicomedy of nihilism based on a novella by Herman Meville. BARTLEBY demonstrates what happens when, "I would prefer not to", becomes the answer to every action and reaction. A similar motif is also found in the more profound film, VAGABOND, by Agnes Varda. These works seem to critique the capitalist economic model without proposing the usual socialist reply, but offer up something more akin to complete non- acceptance. Although Anthony Friedman, director of BARTLEBY, has chosen a significantly different storyline from that of Melville (the film is set in late 1960's London), the tale does encapsulate his theme of the dehumanization of the modern workplace and presents a whimsical, yet unwise response.
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A 'Must see' classic !
dave9999-15 February 2007
Warning: Spoilers
*****May contain spoilers******May contain spoilers****** *****Does contain spoilers******Does contain spoilers****** Best to Go get a copy of the film NOW before reading any more Bartleby reviews.

It has taken nearly 35 years to finally find out the identity of this haunting, mesmerising classic. I can remember seeing this film in the early 1970's on British TV on a B/W TV not yet even in my teens. Never been able to forget it since. It has haunted me. I have only ever seen it the once. The blackness of this film has attached itself to my inner-core ever since.

The film as I recall portrays a sad slow decline into debilitating Mental Illness and Infirmity, set initially in a lively functioning office workplace. It is a very disturbing film, portraying the slow death of a man. With nobody, really noticing or caring much about 'Bartleby's' problem, until it was too late. (The Manager did show some interest towards the end, no doubt due to some kind of loyalty or guilt).

His office staff colleagues were of course shocked and disturbed by his increasingly incredible behaviour. Wanting him to be out of their environment for convenience sake. Not knowing how to deal with him. Not knowing how to deal with death.

A classic film, in the same off beat genre as "Abigails Party" Et-Al. Though never receiving the same widespread recognition. This film is as bleak, cold and heavy as it gets whilst still being a drama.

It may only be available on DVD Region one though at present. So unless it turns up on the TV sometime, all those outside of North America may never get to see it. If you ever do, I'd turn the colour down to B/W to get the full effect.

Thinking about it, I started a 35 year spell of depression around the same time as I viewed THAT film. To be honest, just lately, I feel I'm going the same way as Bartleby did.

(This review updated 22/12/2009).
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Sad and unusual.
spg-43 June 1999
A somewhat sad and unusual film. John McEnery is marvelous as Bartleby, you cannot help feeling sorry for him even though he does not want to be helped in any way. Paul Scofield is also perefectly cast as the sympathetic boss.
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A film adaption of "Bartelby the Scrivener" by Melville.
Irving Warner2 September 2007
I do agree that though this story by Melville just might be unfilmable, this isn't even a credible try. To move the story into the 20th century just outrages the original story's intent and nature; possibly you might have been able to move it over to England, but it must be a period piece. Even our story narrator--the proprietor--tells it in a flashback, going back even further, somewhere around 1800. Towards the end of the 19th century, a strangely disobedient worker would be discarded without a thought. And the 20th century? Come on! Give me an expletive deleted break!!! Even around 1800, such behavior didn't work very well, in view of the ending. And the movie's ending? I don't know what it was, because I didn't watch the entire travesty--I had to stop. This was like setting "Streetcar Named Desire" in Elizabethan England.
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Nice Try
Ephraim Gadsby2 February 2004
An odd but interesting updating of Melville short story that has a superb cast. Colin Jeavons (Inspector Lestrade to Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes) does his best Tom Courtenay impression. Thorley Walters is his typically distracted self (though he hasn't much to do). Paul Scofield has one of the greatest challenges of his career: playing an ordinary employer, and he rises to the challenge with a superb performance.

The weak link is John McEnery. A fine actor, he was a stand-out as Kerensky in "Nicholas and Alexandra" (and perhaps the only actor who wasn't swamped by the affair) and his Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet" was more interesting than either Romeo or Juliet. But his Bartleby is too soft-spoken. I don't read Melville's Bartleby as being so apologetic when he says "I prefer not to." McEnery seems to want to strip any sort of emoting at all from his performance -- and that he comes so close proves that he is a fine actor -- and he comes off as merely bland, and Scofield acts him off the screen.

Gratuitous scenes of '60s folk on the street PERHAPS try to tie Bartleby in with the spirit of revolt, in his own way. But it that's what they meant, it doesn't seep through. The growing weirdness and sadness of Bartleby is diluted (for instance, by putting the dead letter office gag up front). McEnery's Bartleby is sad throughout and there's no explanation offered.

Though it doesn't quite capture the essence of Melville, it's worth watching for Scofield alone.
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Misguided update of Melville classic
kenmore6 November 1999
A noble effort, I guess, but ultimately a poor one. Before seeing this film, I felt "Bartleby, The Scrivener" was unfilmable. After seeing it, I still do. Unfortunately, I think only those who have read the story will understand what is going on, and they will be upset at the film's needless revisions (updating from 1850 to 1970, moving from New York to London). Even the superb talents of Paul Scofield can't salvage what looks to me like a well meaning but misguided effort to film Melville's metaphysical classic.
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Response to the other review of this version
menacing_giraffe1 August 2005
This is a terrible production of Bartleby, though not, as the other reviewer put it because it is "unfilmable," but rather because this version does not maintain the spirit of the book. It tells the story, almost painfully so. Watching it, I could turn the pages in my book and follow along, which is not as much fun when dealing with an adaptation. Rather, see the 2001 version of Bartleby featuring Crispin Glover. That version, while humorous, brings new details to the film while maintaining the spirit of the novel. What's important is the spirit, not the minutiae of things like setting, character names, and costumes. The difference between these film versions is like night and day, tedious and hilarious. This version is a lesson as to what can go wrong if an adaptation is handled poorly, painful, mind-numbing schlock.
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Hard to like
hwg1957-102-2657043 March 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Directed by Anthony Friedman, director of...well nothing else, this is an adaptation of a story by Herman Melville. A firm of accountants takes on an employee, Bartleby, who starts to behave differently to everyone else, mainly by not doing what he is told, often using the phrase, "I prefer not to", which does get rather boring. Eventually the firm moves offices to escape Bartleby and he is carted off to an asylum. Where he dies of something.

It is hard to warm to the film because Bartleby is almost a complete blank. No background is suggested, no motives are given and a lot of the time he is either silent or he says something cryptic without context. He wanders around 1970's London (nicely photographed though) in his spare time and looks at things but there is no indication of why or what he feels. John McEnery as Bartleby has a pinched, haunted look but speaks all the time in a quiet monotone that eventually begins to grate. The other main character is the head accountant played by a subdued Paul Scofield who tries to understand and help Bartleby.

One is left wondering what the film is about though it does encourage one to perhaps read the original story and compare.
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Brave Attempt To Do Justice To A Great Character Study
krocheav15 April 2013
There have been a few un-complimentary reviews for this limited but fine, offbeat film. Most tend to come from book readers who often, unfairly, compare a 'Screenplay' with a 'Novel' (or in this case a Novella) expecting it will be the same as the book. It's rarely possible to transfer a book directly to the screen (although I admit it's good when it happens)

I applaud any film makers who take on subject matter as challenging as the great Herman Melville's, near prophetic story, of "Bartelby the Scriverner". On one level this story can be seen as simple, on another, a character study of immense depth. I've only had the opportunity to see this work once, many years ago. It still haunts me as if it were just weeks ago. It's most unfortunate this film is rarely screened.

From this first time teaming of independent feature film makers, Producer: Rodney Carr-Smith (akf: 'Lolly Madonna War' '73) and Director: Anthony Friedman (ex TV film editor:'The Fugitive') comes this thoughtful adaptation of Melville's study of personal disintegration and loss of identity.

While this movie may have been better as an hour long TV show, these two filmmakers also co-wrote the screenplay, choosing to update the era from the 1800's to a 1970's workplace. This decision I felt offered brought the story closer to that interaction destroyer, the Computer - along with the coldness of the modern office cubicle. It also didn't bother me that they transposed the original Wall Street setting to London. Such decisions would obviously have been made for several valid reasons, among them, budget and the difficulty of getting such a non-commercial project off the ground.

Performers don't come much better than Oscar winner Paul Scofield ('The Train' 65, 'Man for all Seasons' 66) His portrayal of Bartelby's sympathetic employer is superb. As much as he tries to help Bartelby, he is challenged to the utmost of emotional distraction. Scofield seems to have been drawn to this role, as he's known for having passed up parts in bigger productions. John McEnery's Bartelby is also well measured and convincing.

The Cinematography is the work of Ian Wilson ~ who gave such a good look to the Award winning small budget film: "The Crying Game". He then went on to give us the Eye Poppingly beautiful "Emma" ~ Here, he and Director Friedman offer the viewer a well designed dose of claustrophobic involvement. The Art Direction of Simon Holland also adds to the feeling of personal separation. Holland, later helped create high class atmospherics for such striking films as "Greystoke" in '84 and "The Emerald Forest" '85. The Music of Roger Webb, while sparse, adds small elements of excitement where possible.

I think many will have felt a little like Bartelby at some stage in life, and been very glad to rise above it. The original writing of Melville --was he a visionary or just highly tuned to the human condition?-- has been given a neat treatment in this film version. And while the Director Anthony Friedman won a 'Special Mention Award' for Bartelby at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, his film won't please everyone...but many could still find it compelling. KenR.
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