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Noir-cember? 2015: Stakeout on Dope Street

Posted by martinteller on December 12, 2015

An arrest gets ambushed by thugs, leaving the suspect dead, one cop dead and another cop in intensive care. And also, lying in nearby weeds, a briefcase containing two pounds of uncut heroin. The case ends up in the hands of three kids: would-be boxer Nick (Steven Marlo), aspiring artist Jim (Yale Wexler) and all-around goofball Ves (Jonathan Haze). When the youngsters realize what they’ve got, they imagine it to be their ticket to wealth. But how to profit from their treasure when both the cops and the criminals are hunting for the stuff? Enter Nick’s co-worker Danny (Allen Kramer), a two-bit junkie who knows how to move the dope.

This is one of the movies I didn’t get around to watching for Noir-vember, but better late than never. Because it’s surprisingly good. I don’t want to get too effusive with my praise (when digging through lesser-known noirs, you’re thrilled to find one that ranks above mediocre), so I’ll start off by saying it’s far from a masterpiece. Let’s start with the premise. Comedian John Mulaney has a hilarious bit about how cops in the old movies are shockingly lax about their detective work. Here we have a briefcase sitting within throwing distance of a major crime scene — a scene where a policeman was murdered — and apparently not one cop sees it, or if they do, they don’t bother to check it out. Even for 1958, that’s pretty hard to swallow. The performances aren’t great, and each of the three actors playing “kids” is around 30 years old and they look it (the characters’ ages are never explicitly mentioned, but they’re clearly supposed to be teenagers… 20 at the most). And the moralistic messages of the story can be rather ham-fisted.

But it’s got a lot going for it. The dialogue is well-polished, with a lot of contemporary lingo and snappy lines. Some of it is actually kind of laughable but that’s part of the fun. The cinematography is by the great Haskell Wexler (working under a pseudonym because it was a non-union picture), working on one of his first films. Right from the opening, with its grimy alleyways and low angles, it’s a very nicely shot picture. Some of the scenes are a little flat, but for the most part it’s got a lot of style. In the editing as well, such as a late scene that makes sudden cuts between vicious beatings and the violent rhythms of bowling balls and pinballs. The music — by the “Hollywood Chamber Jazz Group” — is really fantastic, too. A lot of driving jive with insistent high-hat and standup bass, sometimes venturing from cool jazz into the realm of the avant-garde.

Also remarkable is a 7-minute sequence narrated by Allen Kramer (the only performance in the film that rises above average) as Danny tells Jim about what it’s like to be on heroin… and more importantly, what it’s like to try to kick the habit. While The Man With the Golden Arm had been released a few years earlier, this still feels remarkably honest and realistic for its time. Few films were addressing drug use in such detailed terms, especially without seeming like a square’s idea of it. It’s a gripping sequence with dramatic camerawork, bold not only for its style but also for daring to take us out of the immediate narrative for such a long period. Others may find it a distraction, or heavy-handed scare tactics, but I was impressed with the nerve of it.

The movie covers a lot of noir territory, all of it competently. The finger of fate intervening and tempting the innocent to crime. The frustrated desires of the lower/middle class to stand out and make it big. The relentlessness of the corrupt. Desperation, moral ambiguity, being trapped, feeling unable to rely on the usual authority figures. The film isn’t especially grim, but it does have darkness in it. It’s definitely noir.

None of the actors in this movie went on to greatness, or anything of much note. However, it was the first feature film by Irvin Kershner, who would later make a name for himself directing another movie about three reckless kids flirting with danger: The Empire Strikes Back. Rating: Very Good (84)


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