The Connection (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Produced by Lewis Allen and Shirley Clarke; directed by Shirley Clarke, screenplay by Jack Gelber based on his play; cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz; edited by Shirley Clarke; original music by Freddie Redd; production design by Richard Sylbert; art direction by Albert Brenner; starring Warren Finnerty, Garry Goodrow, Jim Anderson, Carl Lee, William Redfield, and Roscoe Lee Browne. DVD, B&W, 103 min., 1962. A Milestone Films release.
I remember being stunned as a college student by Jack Gelber’s electrically charged playThe Connection when I first saw it in the late Fifties at Julien Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater.The Connection won three Obies in 1960, and was the Living Theater’s biggest hit. It was a perfect fit for a time when Beat poets and Mailer’s hipsters had become cultural icons for some segments of urban culture, and for many of my friends. The play offered a look into a New York far different, and more dangerously exotic than the parochial one I still inhabited.The Connection’s Pirandello-esque breaking of the wall between actors and audience (one of the play’s characters begged for money to score from the audience during intermission, and some of the characters periodically and angrily asked the audience why they were there); a fragmented jazz session led by highly talented professionals like pianist Freddie Redd and saxophonist Jackie McLean; and stylized but naturalistic monologues from a group of garrulous drug addicts waiting anxiously for their fix—all seemed strikingly original then. The play felt to me like a more imaginative version of Gorky’s Lower Depths, or a down-to- earth, less absurdist version ofWaiting for Godot.
In 1961, filmmaker Shirley Clarke—she had been already nominated for an Academy Award in 1953 for a short film,Skyscraper, and a member of the New American Cinema, a group of independent film directors that viewed mainstream Hollywood as “morally corrupt and aesthetically obsolete”—decided to adaptThe Connection for her first feature. It was a low- budget production, using almost the play’s entire original cast,and it won the Critic’s Prize at Cannes. But after two screenings the film was banned for its use of obscenities, and for a brief scene in which one of the junkies is seen reading a porno magazine with nude male photos. The explicit depiction of homosexual desire violated the 1930 Production Code, which, although weakening in the early Sixties, was still very much in effect. When the film later received a regular theatrical run, it died at the box office, as would be expected for a work that eschewed melodrama and romance, and avoided providing a conventional social message about the danger of drugs. Mainstream critics like the unseeing Bosley Crowther of The New York Times also attacked the film, and helped bury it. The Connection was just too audacious a film for their tone-deaf, limited aesthetic. It lacked the more predictable, audience-pleasing tropes, like crime-related action, that were the prime elements of Hollywood films about drug addiction such as Fred Zinnemann’s A Hatful of Rain (1957).
In most ways the film is similar to the play, except that Gelber, who wrote the screenplay, took a leap by transforming the characters of the “producer” and the “writer” in the play into a square, pretentious, stuttering cinéma-vérité film director, Jim Dunn (William Redfield), and his much hipper, more self-possessed cameraman, J. J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Browne). Dunn has paid eight junkies to take part in his film—four of them jazz musicians (who provide a dazzling counterpoint to the action)—spending an afternoon in a loft, nodding, sleeping, rubbing their arms and faces, telling shaggy-dog stories, and bickering, while they mark time waiting for their connection, Cowboy, to bring them their heroin fix. You can hear street sounds—fire engines, police sirens, and children’s voices—but the camera never leaves the claustrophobic room. It pans from character to character and also lingers on different aspects of the seedy room—an ashtray filled with cigarette butts, a bare light bulb, a cracked window, a poster reading “Heaven or hell, which road did you take?,” and a photo of Charlie Bird Parker. The set adds to the film’s power, by successfully reinforcing the junkies’ feelings of desolation.
The film’s theatrical roots are most apparent when each of the nonmusician junkies delivers a monologue directly to the camera—some of it revelatory, some of it merely meandering, semiphilosophical talk, filled with nonsequiturs. Sweaty, unshaven Solly (Jerome Raphael) is a sweet-tempered, learned intellectual, who views the world as a place where “the connection is always coming,” and where people want to hear that junkies are a “petty, miserable, self-annihilating microcosm.” He speaks with the articulate, interpretive voice of the author, criticizing the film being made, and explaining why heroin had become illegal. It’s also a portentous voice, though at the same time Solly is aware that he is indulging in “oversimplifications.” Solly has the respect of the other junkies, and is capable of moving outside of himself to express sympathy for others, but he is just as hopelessly trapped by his addiction as the rest of the group. Sam (James Anderson), who is black, is a much simpler man, and a gentle one. He and Solly are friends—Sam sees Solly as “a stand up cat”—an “educated” man who had options, but chose to become an addict, while he views his own addiction as almost predetermined by the Harlem he was shaped by.
Ernie (Gary Goodrow) is a smart, insidious, thoroughly unlikable musician, who keeps talking about his horn being in hock. He can sharply dissect the personalities of the other junkies, contemptuously sneering that Leach—whose loft they are using, is “a queer without being a queer,” and a “conniving businessman.” Ernie is mean-spirited, a petty thief, and utterly uncaring—his only interest is to get “high” without a scintilla of concern for anybody else.
The film’s most memorable performance is that of Warren Finnerty (he won an Obiefor it)as Leach—a tense, and at times hysterical man, who seems to be living at the edge of desperation. Leach vaporously soliloquizes about man’s transparency, and also about being “bombarded with light particles.” He also loudly complains about his painful boil, and about all the worthless “creeps” hanging around his pad, implicitly expressing his own self-loathing. Leach is all nervous energy and anger rather than moribund and depressed like most of the others.
The maundering, inconsequential talk and backbiting continue until the apotheosis of cool, their pusher—Cowboy (a too hip and theatrical Carl Lee)—wearing dark glasses, and dressed in white, arrives. The sense of personal unrest shifts only slightly, however, as we find out that even the seemingly unruffled Cowboy, who is tired of being a dealer, doesn’t have his life under control either. Cowboy is, nevertheless, efficient at his calling and takes each junkie to the toilet for a fix. They stumble out, after receiving their momentary high, which soon leaves them as bereft as before. Except for Leach, who keeps on saying he doesn’t feel anything, and shoots up again, with the camera zooming in on the needle pricking his arm, as he makes a fist. It leads him to collapse from an overdose, and most of the other junkies scurrying away for cover.
Clarke skillfully directs the film as if she is Dunn making a vérité documentary with a hand-held camera, employing jittery swish pans, tracks, and cuts, and allowing the screen to inadvertently go dark at moments. The camera movement is vital, but Dunn is depicted too facilely as someone straight and clueless, who the junkies treat with disdain. He is also the kind of insecure, pompous filmmaker who attempts to give himself authority by alluding to Flaherty and Eisenstein. Towards the end of the film, he is goaded by Cowboy to take heroin, leaving it to J.J to finish shooting the film.
The film contains some absurdist elements, embodied in the quirks of its minor characters. Harry is a silent, odd, jazz-lover out of Beckett, living in his own head. He drifts into the loft to listen to a record, barely being conscious of anybody else in the room.And the confused, frail, possibly mad Sister Salvation (Barbara Winchester), wearing a Salvation Army uniform she has made, tries to cadge money from Cowboy for her funeral.There is a strained, self-conscious quality about these two marginal characters, but they help add to the sense of bleakness that envelops the last third of the play. Clarke and Gelber’s The Connection does not pretend to be a social-problem film that offers an exploration of the causes of or solutions to addiction. There is a passing mention of the existence of the Bomb, and that it’s a “plot of the rich” that drugs were made illegal, but it’s peripheral to a film, whose vision is existential rather than social.
The Connection may seem a bit stagy (those monologues), and dated—preserving in amber a hip vernacular (e.g., “dig man”) and subculture. There is, however, an imaginative force in its evocation of addicts living desperate lives mired in bleakness. The film neither moralizes nor romanticizes, but leaves us with a final, powerful full shot of the remaining addicts sitting and standing throughout the room—dazed and without options. The last words in the film spoken by Dunn are an apt epitaph—“It’s all over.”
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition of American Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine