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In 1971 nobody seemed to like the raw little semi-documentary film about drug addicts in Los Angeles, Dusty and Sweets McGee. By '71 Easy Rider- type youth rebellion movies had become a commercial bust, and the theater schedules were littered with shows that didn't find an audience or indeed just plain didn't open. My experience was Westwood's concentration of theaters frequented by everybody from Santa Monica, Brentwood and Beverly Hills; the little shopping area was the haunt of 30,000 UCLA students. But most of them steered clear of things like Zachariah, El Topo, Glen and Randa and Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie which I recall entering and exiting one of the art house theaters in a flash. I recall some musical docus -- concert films -- doing halfway well, but Medicine Ball Caravan tanked. 1972's Concert for Bangladesh seemed to be a big hit, but I don't remember it hanging around very long.
Then there were the drug films, of which I saw very few. (A good one was a quasi-thriller, Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues). Either Cisco Pike or Dusty and Sweets McGee had been a dead fish in the moonlight at National General Cinema's National Theater when it had barely opened. The contemporary reviews of Dusty were dire. The critics seem most impressed by the fact that the kids shown shooting up heroin are dirty, unmotivated and foul-mouthed. Yet the very free-form movie accurately shows what it was like for lowlife user-losers in the drug culture, moving about the streets of Los Angeles. 1
Dusty and Sweets McGee may seem disorganized and ragged but it's really not. William A. Fraker's camera uses mostly a long lens to follow various kids around Los Angeles, from downtown to Venice Beach. The coverage is catch-as-catch-can stuff akin to what one might see in a documentary, and at least fifteen minutes of the movie are direct-to-camera interviews. Watching the movie, we believe we're seeing the real thing most of the time, even after a cryptic opening disclaimer that tells us that not all of the kids on camera are 'real' ... some are actors. This causes stylistic problems later on.
East L.A.'s habitual user Tip Fredell is already well into his thirties but looks at least ten years older. He and his cruising partner steal food and cigarettes from small grocery stores and pull off petty crimes and rip-offs to get their fixes. Tip stands in front of the L.A. County Jail downtown and talks about the common beatings that occur in the building, and the way the guards cooperate to let drugs be smuggled in.
Leather-clad Kit Ryder is a grungy baby-faced male hustler who picks up Johns on the Sunset Strip. His interviews reveal a completely cynical, 'f--- - it' philosophy. He's a jaded player, who like Tip, is always looking for a fresh angle to score money.
Actor Billy Gray had been a child star in Father Knows Best and The Day the Earth Stood Still. He plays City Life, a dealer who spends his money on a Mustang muscle car. He plays dumb with his hapless flunky Bobby Graham, but manipulates everyone around him. We see City Life talking to Tip and to Kit at various times. City Life also occasionally turns in his own customers to the narcotics cops, who will tolerate his criminality because he offers them easy arrests. He gets to burn rubber in his fancy car, and everybody else suffers.
Seen almost exclusively in interviews is Nancy Wheeler, a heroin user who prostitutes herself to make money. Fairly brain-addled, she laughs when explaining how her memory is so bad that that she shot up twice in a row, because she forgot she had done it the first time. In paranoid tones, Nancy also explains that dealers often narc on the people buying their stuff. Survival logic kicks in on the street, and most any of these people would betray anybody for even a minor advantage.
The teenagers Larry and Pam look no older than 14 or 15, yet have already resigned themselves to a sort of living death. They seldom leaving the room they've found and are constantly shooting up. 2 They're so zonked that they can hardly remember why they're together, although Larry is particularly gentle when he gives Pam a needle in the inside of her mouth, a rather disturbing scene. There's no Voice of Reason in the film and no scenes of parents or authority figures trying to locate these kids. Pam and Larry have split the program before gaining much perspective on anything.
We finally reach Beverly and Mitch, collegiate dropouts. They conduct a bickering romance when not blowing their minds away on a daily basis. Beverly harps at Mitch that he needs to get motivated, but the real arguments are about who gets the needle first, and if they are sharing on an equal basis. They change motel rooms every day -- Nancy said this is imperative to keep one's own connection from knowing where you live. This couple almost looks like they're handling the dope, but like the other junkies it's all that they do. Beverly's hair always looks neat and clean, which doesn't seem right.
Strangely enough, the movie that Dusty and Sweets McGee reminds us of most is George Lucas's American Grafitti. Constant top-ten tunes from the '60s play on the radio -- are these the optimistic songs the kids remember from before they first got wasted? Later on some sentimental music by Van Morrison (Into the Mystic) and Nillson (Don't Leave Me Baby) are used more conventionally, to comment on the action on-screen. Also, director Mutrux uses text cards to explain what happens to some of the characters after the film is over.
Curiously, although they are identified as Beverly and Mitch all through the picture, their kiss-off card at the end says that they are Dusty and Sweets McGee. Are they even supposed to be married? Was it just Warners' attempt to give the movie a title like Bonnie & Clyde?
The trouble comes when one tries to figure out what in Dusty and Sweets McGee is real and what is drama. There's no credited writer, but going by the disclaimer up front, we find out that some of the more convincing personages are actors, while others are apparently reliving scenes they experienced or know from personal contact. Others still appear to be actors plain and simple. The movie is not quite the real thing, but an 'extraordinary recreation'. That disqualifies the movie being a great achievement of 'direct cinema', and perhaps also explains why the users we see are are all reasonably articulate speakers. I guess it's a fictitious drama, with some people improvising their own material. Much to his alarm, this illusion confused critic Leonard Maltin, or one of his researchers. A Maltin Guide referred to actor Billy Gray being a real drug addict, which provoked a possible lawsuit and a demand for a public apology. It was a particularly boneheaded mistake to make, as Gray's character City Life is definitely not a user.
The movie winds up rather melodramatically, even if the filming continues to carry a docu-like edge. The camera is never in a conventionally decorous position (excellent) but there's no reason to it even to be on the scene when crimes are going down. City Life not only narcs on one of the boy-girl couples, but he uses info from Kit Ryder to sic strong-arm men Tip and his buddy on some organized crimers exchanging heroin for cash. And one of the boy-girl couples gets some bad heroin -- or don't know what they are doing -- and summarily 'off' themselves. One is left with a needle hanging out of his arm, a particularly unpleasant image this particular month.
Dusty and Sweets McGee and sweets McGee is not your proverbial Sunday School picnic but it comes off as being basically authentic. There's some really raw dialogue in here. I almost counted myself fortunate not to recognize any specific locations -- many places look like L.A. neighborhoods I've seen, but at least I didn't see my own college apartment buildings, or anything like that.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Dusty and Sweets McGee is a very good encoding of a movie that didn't make many friends when new. The color is good and the cinematography is "raw" without ever looking grainy or sloppy. Evidence that it was at the intersection of exploitation and later '70s art filming comes when we learn that William Fraker hired both Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs to help film scenes in the Whiskey A Go Go. And I think it is fair to wonder if George Lucas's writers were influenced by the night prowling, AM radio vibe with the overlapping stories. I worked every day with William A. 'The Silver Fox" Fraker for over a year. I once asked him about a couple of his other early pictures, but I didn't know he was associated with this one.
Too bad about the WAC having no subtitles -- most of the dialogue is very clear but a few lines fall beneath the range of my mumble-scope radar.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dusty and Sweets McGee rates:
1. I have to say that one reason the movie fascinates me because I was there, and the look and the style of these youthful losers falls right in with what I experienced. One would have had to be a real Polly Pure type not to be touched by the effects of hard drugs, though. A handsome rebel in my UCLA dorm was catnip to a lot of girls. I liked him, and he played a part in one of my 'dormie' movie epics. But it was rumored that he was dealing. A year later the Daily Bruin reported that he had been found dead in a car behind a UCLA building, where he had OD'd on heroin. I felt like throwing things. Drugs were all around me but I was both so square and so socially cautious (and so broke) that I was only offered a joint ONCE in my entire stretch of college years.
2. We do see Larry and Pam ordering at Pinks, a landmark Chili Dog stand I discovered in '71 as well. I recognize the hands of the perpetually grumpy but beloved black guy behind the counter. He seemed to be selling dogs there 24 hours a day.)
Dear Glenn: I thank you for reviewing this older Warner Archive release. I admire this movie -- it's my favorite Mutrux picture -- and though I didn't see it until the 1980s, it's one of those films that indelibly says... whispers... evokes... "1971" to me. A year when practically anything could be a studio-produced film. The mix of professional and non-professional performers, the improvisational/realistic feel of the dialogue exchanges, and the dank/sunny L.A. milieu as captured by Fraker and associates struck me as just right -- I found this really engrossing. I cared about these characters, worried about their fates.
This was one of a wave of studio drug-themed movies from 1971 (this followed the previous year's wave of college-unrest movies). Fox made The Panic in Needle Park. MGM and the team that made The Strawberry Statement produced Speed Is of the Essence -- though when this downbeat opus previewed poorly, much of the picture was re-shot by John G. Avildsen and it was ultimately (and gingerly) released as Believe in Me. I would very much like to see either version. Warners of course, made Dusty.
I've never been sure whether Cisco Pike qualifies as part of this thread. For one thing, it has so many different elements -- a corrupt cop, music, a sort of noir storyline. The other films are basically about drug addicts trying to cope with their problems. Dealing is more of a slightly comic thriller about dealing pot than a tale about the dangers of actually using drugs.
I don't know whether Dusty ever played at the National (it would have been lost in that house), but it did play at the Regent for a while in the Summer of '71. I would point out that in terms of chronology, Concert For Bangladesh opened in the spring of 1972. Dealing is also an early '72 release. I cannot determine when Cisco Pike played Los Angeles; I know it opened in N.Y. in early '72. Columbia didn't try very hard with this one.
Including that corrective detail about Billy Gray was thoughtful. A great many folk read and unquestioningly believed Maltin's aside -- which, for the record, was simply a repetition of something often (and wrongly) reported over the years. Good touch.
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T'was Ever Thus.