Psychotronic Ketchup: Stakeout on Dope Street (1958)

Stakeout on Dope Street
Director: Irvin Kershner // Warner Bros., 1958
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

Given the opportunity in a very public forum to program an entire evening of classic movies, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Clark went with the obvious: The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, Casablanca and North by Northwest. There was nothing wrong with his choosing any of these four films. They are all excellent, and not coincidentally, some of my favorite films as well. That three of them are Cary Grant films only speaks to Mr. Clark's good taste. But one problem is that these are films which appear on Turner Classic Movies with stunning regularity, and another is that all of them are readily available in the home market as well. The biggest problem is that these are exactly the sort of films that anybody would choose given this chance. Did Mr. Clark win first dibs? If there are people who haven't taken the time to view these particular films at this point, I would guess the majority of them probably aren't watching Turner Classic Movies anyway. Given the time as a November Guest Programmer, Mr. Clark merely gave the tried and true, rather than actually challenging the audience, or surprising viewers with choices clearly far from their public image, or at least shuffling through the stiflingly huge TCM Archives to throw up a rare film or two of special consequence. For the chief of a magazine with vast cultural and often political impact, Clark deleted the possibility of true discovery or revelation, and simply went with the usual suspects.

Food Network genius Alton Brown's selections last Sunday were quite adventurous and revealing: What's Up, Tiger Lily?, Closely Watched Trains, Point Blank and Blow-Up. Who knew he was such an Antonioni freak? Who knew he embraced the avant-garde so thoroughly? I never even knew he started out as a cameraman. His choices were slightly more left-of-field, and not only possibly opened some new doors of interest to Turner viewers (or closed them), but also was able to illuminate viewers on numerous facets of his personality.

Did I really expect this to be the case when author James Ellroy (a long-time favorite of mine), threw in his lot as Guest Programmer last week? Of course not. Don't be silly. I expected his movie choices to be just as hard-boiled as the man himself, let alone as tough as his writing. But Ellroy didn't go for the tried and true. Avoiding the numerous Spillanes and Bogarts or other noir warhorses that would have made for another easy night of watching on the ol' TCM, Ellroy concentrated (as he detailed in his opening remarks for this film) on movies that evoked the 1950's where he was born and raised, and where he tragically lost his mother young to a grisly, unsolved-for-decades murder. Her death forged the man, however, and if it continues to inform his writing to this day, it also locked in his lifelong obsessions with that period. No surprise then that he chose a movie from the year of her death, 1958; actually, three of the movies he chose were produced in that year, and all of them represent the L.A. underground of that period.

Stakeout on Dope Street might have a similar jazz score to (and a couple familiar faces from) numerous Roger Corman quickies of that time, and assuredly, Corman
was an executive producer on the film. But this is actually the directing and screenwriting debut of a completely different low-budget auteur, Irvin Kershner. (A quarter of a century later, George Lucas would hire him to helm a little project known as The Empire Strikes Back. You may have heard of it.) And in its Poverty Row way, Stakeout is as solid a freshman effort as you are going to find from that decade. Only you couldn't put it past the lazy editors of the annual Maltin Guide, who clearly haven't updated the opinion from the unimpressed review (possibly written by Maltin himself; hard to know for sure) which found its way into its pages all those years ago. Their review concludes: "Good premise; poorly executed." This is highly odd, since Stakeout grabs the viewer from the opening seconds onward, and hardly gives one an uninteresting scene that might make good on Maltin's conclusion.

Grim, tough as nails, and unrelenting in its inexorable wind towards despair, Stakeout wallows in a surprisingly graphic account of a heroin deal gone bad. Movies of this type often seem Squaresville, Daddy-O, when discussing drug or teenage matters (or both), and too often, they can sink into empty, silly hyperbole, which can sometimes have the opposite effect from the filmmakers' intentions. This one avoids these pitfalls by not showing the drug trip of the film's resident junkie -- which can often be so surreal it makes it seem funny or cool to an impressionable audience -- but instead merely throws us into his struggle through withdrawal in a cold, barren jail and then an equally imposing hospital room.
And this isn't Stakeout on Sesame Street, either. Quite surprisingly, the junkie rolls up his sleeve to display a gruesome series of track marks to the trio of teens who have found the missing two pounds of horse from the drug deal gone bad.

The camera work in these setbound scenes is as tight and nerve-wracked as the actors in front of it. And for once in a low-budget neo-noir, movie gangsters don't seem so much like actors playing as being tough guys, as they seem just genuinely frightening men of unpredictably murderous intent. And if you think everything is going to come out in the wash in this one, you've got another thing coming. Sure, it might not be as pulse-pounding as it could have been: it meanders a bit in subplots that are not quite as necessary as Kershner might have believed, and a little too much time is spent by the boys arguing about what to do with their accidentally gained stash. Because of this, it might be about ten minutes too long. But the film seems as genuinely Skid Row as the world it portrays, and as tough as anyone else trying to survive in that world. Just the opening few minutes demonstrates immediately the exact appeal it must have had on the young Ellroy, but you don't have to watch this as an annotation on a popular author. Watch it to discover that not every Hollywood drug movie of that era was a Reefer Madness-style roadshow potboiler. This one can genuinely shock. And still does.


Anonymous said…
So does this mean you're ready for Mr. Tony Satchmo Stack-Money Kornheiser's very mainstream picks on TCM?

Or have they already occurred?


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