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.