Bartleby (1976) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Bartleby the Scrivener is a Herman Melville story which is often studied in literature classes. It tells of a meek man who obtains a job as a clerk, then gradually creates havoc in the office by simply saying "I would prefer not to", to more and more requests from his superior. He continues to do some work very efficiently, but takes it upon himself to decide when he will work and which tasks he will perform. Needless to say, this frustrates his boss, who narrates the story. The story is meticulous in establishing that the other employees in Bartleby's position are incompetent shirkers, but they avoid work in socially acceptable ways. They don't refuse. They simply agree amenably to all tasks assigned to them, then show a complete lack of enthusiasm for those tasks, and do as little work as it is possible to do without getting fired. Even though Bartleby probably does just as much work as the others in the office, he breaks the rules of society by determining that he will decide which tasks to perform.

Literary critics find this story quite profound. After all, 90% of our adult working lives are basically spent doing things we would prefer not to do, so if we all followed Bartleby's example, society as we know it would come to a stand-still. The industrial revolution created a need for people to be cogs in a giant labor machine. 19th century society needed that concept to hold together in order to function properly. Bartleby was causing the labor machine to break down.

The boss/narrator is torn between compassion for his peculiar employee, a secret sense of identification with Bartleby's defiance, and a pragmatic need to fire him in order to maintain some discipline among the ranks. After all, he cannot afford to start the precedent of allowing employees to tell him what they will or won't do. Firing Bartleby proves ineffective, since he "prefers not to" leave, and he also lives in the office at night. The only way the office can get rid of him is to move. When they move to their new headquarters, the new occupants of their former building cast Bartleby out into the streets, homeless.

Bartleby the movie brings this story very effectively into the 20th century, in kind of an alternate universe which is an exaggerated version of our own, featuring the suitably odd and suitably meek Crispin Glover as Bartleby.

Melville's words make it seem like he could have had psychic powers, seeing Crispin Glover across the centuries:

"I can see that figure now pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn".

The movie functions very well as black comedy, and does fairly well with farce and slapstick, but perhaps functions less effectively at the end, when Bartleby comes to a tragic ending and his former boss develops an intimate sense of identification with his mildly rebellious former charge.

Here is the complete story of Bartleby the Scrivener


Greta Danielle Newgren does a nude scene, but it is one of those where her body is posed to hide the essentials.

Glenne Headly looks great in tight sweaters, but exhibits nothing more than poke-throughs.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Theatrical trailer(s)

  • Mini-director commentary with Jonathan Parker

  • Cast interviews (in character)

  • "About the Theremin" featurette

  • Widescreen letterbox format

At last, the truth can be told. Joe Piscopo and Jean-Claude Van Damme are the same person.

This is a picture of Piscopo in Bartleby.

The Critics Vote

  • Roger Ebert 2.5/4

The People Vote ...

  • It was a box office failure. It took in only $140,000, never reaching more than nine screens.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and might even be a great film, but has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a solid C. The director did a good job at bringing Melville's characters 150 years into the future, but this film is ultimately for a very small audience.

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