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THE TROUBLEMAKER (1964).

An innocent newcomer to the big city ends up battling The System and rampant government corruption in this offbeat cult comedy, which uses New York City's burgeoning Greenwich Village scene as a backdrop for scattershot social satire and several ingenious gags. The film's creative core were veterans of a Bleecker Street coffeehouse improv group called "The Premise," formed by Theodore J. Flicker in 1960, and although this cinematic offshoot (based on one of their stage sketches) was far from a hit -- mostly making the rounds at 'artsy' campus-area theatres -- many of its participants went on to more acclaimed (and lucrative) work. Director/co-writer Flicker made THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST and co-created BARNEY MILLER; co-scripter Buck Henry later adapted THE GRADUATE, CATCH-22 and CANDY; actress Joan Darling became one of TV's first female directors with MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN; James Frawley also moved behind the camera, directing THE MUPPET MOVIE and THE BIG BUS, and won a 1967 Emmy for THE MONKEES; and its star, Tom Aldredge, had an acclaimed, 40+ year acting career -- appearing on the New York stage in INTO THE WOODS, David Rabe's STICKS AND BONES and originating the role of Norman Thayer Jr. in ON GOLDEN POND, as well as gigs on acclaimed TV-shows like THE SOPRANOS (as Tony Soprano's father-in-law), BOARDWALK EMPIRE (as Enoch Thompson's dad) and DAMAGES (as shady "Uncle Pete")... Set in "an unidentified city" (immediately following a shot of the Statue of Liberty and the NYC skyline), Aldredge stars as Jack Armstrong, a gawky, naive ex-chicken farmer who moves to Manhattan with the dream of opening his own coffeehouse. He rents a rundown, ex-strip-joint storefront (adjacent to the Bitter End Cafe) and starts to renovate the shithole, but immediately encounters every form of municipal extortion. Buck Henry plays T.R. Kingston, an old college chum who's now a high-priced scumbag lawyer and offers to handle all of his municipal payola. Alas, honest Jack stubbornly balks at shelling out any bribes, which soon has him targeted for "subversive activities," with this "troublemaker" stuffed in a garbage truck and buried in the city dump. And when Jack attempts to speak to the Mayor, he instead winds up committed to a mental hospital and eventually concocts a half-assed plan to expose them all with audio recordings of their shady dealings. One huge problem with the film is that while Armstrong is obviously supposed to be an All-American good soul in the midst of urban villainy, he's so insufferably goofy and wholesome that it's difficult to stomach this bumpkin or his incessant mugging. His co-stars fare better, with Darling making her ingratiating film debut as Denver James, a kooky, sweet-natured bohemian artist who inexplicably falls for our hayseed; Frawley is amusing in a trio of cartoonishly-broad roles (a mobster landlord who fleeces Armstrong, his slow-witted goon cop-brother and a crooked judge); while notable supporting cast members include Godfrey Cambridge as a greedy Fire Inspector with an Irish brogue, Al Freeman Jr. as a hospital intern, and I'd swear I spotted Village-icon Tiny Tim in a split-second cameo as a stern "Liberal Nazi Party" protester. Flicker (who also cast himself as the city's quirky, Teutonic-accented Crime Commissioner) peppers the film with non sequitors, sophomoric slapstick and absurd visual throwaways (a New York City-style "picnic" on a blanket in a grassy meridian of a bustling avenue; a dirty old man luring a little girl into an alleyway with an ice cream cone); Buck's shyster repeatedly breaks the fourth-wall to speak directly to the audience, as he visits a scantily-clad Asian "masseuse" (August 1964 Playboy Playmate of the Month China Lee); plus we even get three different endings -- the first upbeat and optimistic, another from a more depressing "mature point of view," with the last one deeply, wonderfully cynical... The black-and-white cinematography by Gayne Rescher (A FACE IN THE CROWD) captures loads of great old Greenwich Village street footage, plus Broadway composer Cy Coleman (SWEET CHARITY, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY) was even hit up to write the score. Fueled by the wonderfully nostalgic idea that New York City is corrupt in every imaginable way, this eccentric little item has funny moments sprinkled throughout, but they rarely involve the central storyline.

© 2017 by Steven Puchalski.