Bartleby (1970) – Blu-Ray Review

Bartleby is the first feature film adaptation of Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby, the Scrivener, which was itself one of the first examples of absurdist fiction. Albert Camus wrote glowingly of Melville; how much Franz Kafka was influenced by Melville is debatable, but there is a clear line from Bartleby to The Trial whether Kafka ever read Melville or not. Melville is of that generation of American writers like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman who may not have called themselves “anarchists” but who for all intents and purposes were; all three died right around the time when anarchism was spreading in the United States.

The character of Bartleby (John McEnery) is a prime example of an anarchist character. He is an audit clerk in a bureaucratic office who simply refuses to work, and instead just keeps repeating the phase “I prefer not to” as his individualistic form of defiance against the modern world. The Accountant, played by Paul Scofield, doesn’t feel right firing him, and the office just descends into chaos because of Bartleby’s defiance. The situations become increasingly absurd at the story goes along until its tragic climax.

The film itself is a slightly mixed bag. The performances from the two main actors are solid—nothing amazing, but effective. The filmmaking from Anthony Friedmann is fairly pedestrian; he would never go onto make another feature film. The story is what keeps you engaged, the absurdity of the situations and how far Bartleby will go so he doesn’t have to work. The finished product is a little too dry to really jump out off the screen at you, it could have had some surreal flourishes, which the material would have lent itself to. I haven’t seen the 2001 adaptation with Crispin Glover, which seems to have gone more in that direction. 

The release from Indicator is solid, as you would expect, with a new audio interview with Friedmann, a featurette of the film’s London locations (the original story was set in New York), the shooting script, and an anti-terrorism documentary also directed by Friedmann. The disc also includes a short 2017 stop-motion adaptation of Bartleby by Kristen Kee and Laura Naylor, and a minute of timelapse photography shot for the short, a trailer and an image gallery, The booklet includes new and archival pieces on the 1970 film, including interviews with Fredmann and Scofield; there are also pieces on the 2017 adaptation and the anti-terrorism documentary.

★★★½

Ian Schultz

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