Herman Melville’s mordant novella about Bartleby the Scrivener (a sort of copyist/accountant) has such a strikingly modern tone, you turn the pages expecting to bump into Kafka, Camus or Beckett. The story could hardly be simpler; Bartleby, a young man, reserved to the point of near inertia, applies for a dead-end job at a small accounting firm. At first, he’s odd, if productive, but as the weeks pass, he ‘prefers not to’ do anything. He becomes something of an immovable object, both tolerated & resented. Melville offers no easy explanation or solution for what happens, it’s part of what makes the book so modern, but then he goes much farther, making it funny, off-putting & tragic, all at the same time. This version (like the one from 2001 w/ David Paymer, Crispin Glover & Joe Piscopo!!) moves the story up to the present, paradoxically decreasing its startling modernity. Still, if this version makes the story too consistently somber, barring a fine quick outburst of muderous black humor, at least it avoids the ‘wacky’ tone of the 2001 adaptation. (Which, in any event, is so poorly directed it’s hard to sit thru.) John McEnery makes a memorably gentle mystery out of Bartleby, but the film belongs to Paul Scofield as the boss who can’t quite give up on the lad. (He apparently turned down the Robert Mitchum role in David Lean’s RYAN’S DAUGHTER/’70 to make this tiny indie.) Director Anthony Friedman locates the strangeness in Melville’s story, yet never over-milks it, and he uses the milling crowds of ‘70s London to fine impersonal effect.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Don’t hold your breath for a straight visualization with its original narration and proper 19th century setting, but has anyone ever thought about turning this into an opera? If ever a phrase was made for a leitmotif, it was ‘I would prefer not to.’
READ ALL ABOUT IT: You guessed it, Herman Melville’s BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER. You can read the entire novella in the time it takes to watch this film. Don’t let MOBY DICK scare you off.