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Saturday 24 November 2007

Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) Irvin Kershner

November 2007 was Guest Programmer Month on Turner Classic Movies. The guest programmer slots on TCM are highly varied affairs, with people often choosing boring selections of the same ol' same ol', but every now and again there's a real peach. This month was no exception: thirty days with a different guest programming four films every night. Most of them are predictable in a bad way and offer nothing much that's new, but a few of them are gems full of discovery.

One such guest programmer is James Ellroy, crime writer who wrote books like LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia. It seems that his mother was murdered in Los Angeles in 1958 and that incident, combined with a present of Jack Webb's book The Badge, sparked his fascination with crime. It would seem that he does a lot of spinning his mind back to 1958 LA and to a large degree has lived there ever since. All four of the films he picked are LA crime stories and three of them were released in 1958. The other connection is that I hadn't heard of any of them, making them real discoveries.

The story here is really tight. A pusher with a bag full of mob heroin is being arrested but the arrest goes sour. The bad guy gets killed, one of the good guys gets killed and the other hospitalised. In the middle of it all the bag goes missing, with its two pounds of pure heroin, and by the time the survivor wakes up to talk about it, it's gone. An eighteen year old kid finds it and he and his two friends think it's just women's cosmetic powder, based on the rest of the contents of the bag. They throw it away but when the papers talk about it, realise what they had and retrieve it from the city dump. Suddenly opportunity knocks, but it's a hot property with the cops and the mob both looking hard for it.

It's joyfully realistic. There's a narration that seems half Jack Webb and half Rod Serling, and it underpins the story which unfolds like an expanded stage play. What seems like all the films I've seen lately are scarily unbelievable, from 1938's Penrod and His Twin Brother to 2007's Live Free and Die Hard. In comparison, this one's very believable indeed, the only anomaly being the price of the heroin but then this was 1958. The story is tightly plotted and makes sense, the dialogue is spot on, the direction solid and the details paid major attention to. There's a lot of solid philosophy and insight here, disguised in 50s language in a film noir.

It may sound strange to say so but I especially enjoyed the scene at the city dump. If this had been in half the films I've seen lately, the can of heroin would have fallen off the garbage truck right into their hands, but here they have to leap around and search for it, rummaging in rubbish and trying frantically to find it before the bulldozer right there among them wipes it out for good. It played exactly like it would in real life and the film is so much better for it.

There's much to appreciate here. The actors are nobodies, it would seem, and I've only ever heard of one of them. However unknown they may be, they still do their job with the sort of coarse acting I remember Alex Cox talking about in episodes of Moviedrome. Allen Kramer stands out as the addict who helps the trio get their product to the street, showing us the pains and torture of addiction less graphically than Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream but no less realistically. He reminds me of Harry Dean Stanton. The trio of kids are played by Yale Wexler (Haskell Wexler's brother), Jonathan Haze (Roger Corman regular and the lead in The Little Shop of Horrors) and Morris Miller (who as Steven Marlo had a long career on TV, ending fittingly on an episode of The New Dragnet).

There's a cool 50s jazz soundtrack by Richard Markowitz and played by the Hollywood Chamber Jazz Group, that really fits with the black and white material. I can see the LPs having black and white covers too, all squares and dots and no photos. The first time director is Irvin Kershner, who also co-wrote, a first time director who would go on to make minor league numbers like The Empire Strikes Back and Never Say Never Again. He never directed much but the ratio of quality to numbers is very high indeed and it's good to say that it started very high indeed too.

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