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Here's a real treat -- when I gravitated toward this post-Easy Rider youth/drugs/sex movie, I had almost no expectations of seeing anything good. I had been an usher at Westwood's National Theater in 1973 when the venue had been open for only three years. The town's newest picture palace opened with Catch-22, which proved to be the first of a succession of outright flop bookings. I don't think the theater had a moneymaker until George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. One of the biggest losers according to the books was Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues, a no-star youth rebellion movie that played for just a week or so to mostly empty houses. After most of the Easy Rider imitators bit the dust, nobody knew what kinds of movies "the kids" would go for.
I doubt that the filmmakers will appreciate my sentiments almost forty years down the road, but their show is actually very good. Dealing is a small-scale crime thriller set against a college background and played by a number of notable actors, most of whom went on to much bigger things. Producer Edward R. Pressman championed the career of Brian De Palma and has always lent his experience to adventurous and risky productions, such as Alex Cox's Walker. Director Paul Williams (not to be confused with the actor) had made two films starring the young Jon Voight, worthy efforts now relegated to obscurity: Out of It and The Revolutionary. Unlike other hippie rip-off movements, Dealing doesn't have a bogus theme of campus revolt (The Strawberry Statement) and doesn't try to be a wild and wacky comedy about those goofy anti-establishment crazies (Getting Straight). It's actually sort of a slacker-noir about a law school loser who thinks that playing mule for a pal's drug shipments would be, like, a groovy thing. It's just the sort of pitfall that an immature college know it all might get himself snagged into.
The flaky Harvard law student, Peter (Robert F. Lyons of Getting Straight) skips crucial exams and alienates his more studious girlfriend; he rooms in a building with John (John Lithgow in his first film), an arts & theater type who runs a booming dope dealing racket on the side. Peter volunteers as a mule to transport several kilos of weed back from suppliers in Berkeley, just as a lark. Refusing to cut his hair and looking like the perfect-profile dope mule, Peter flies across country and takes possession of the contraband. With several hours to kill he meets the dreamy Susan (Barbara Hershey of Last Summer) and they spend the day making love in a recording booth at the sound studio where she works. Totally zonked on the no-strings, no-hassle Susan, Peter arranges for her to transport the next shipment so they can be together in Boston. Peter is furious when she's busted by narc Murphy (Charles Durning, even though he didn't bother to tell Susan anything about avoiding arrest. When the news states that Murphy's arrest scored only half the amount of dope Susan was carrying, John and Peter decide to blackmail the cop into dropping the charges. All goes well until Murphy's Cuban Mafia connection -- and a container full of uncut heroin -- turn the situation into a life and death standoff.
Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues has an even stronger pedigree -- its source is a novel by Michael Crichton (co-authored by his brother) that must have been purchased in the wake of the success of The Andromeda Strain. Crichton must have known his subject well, as the longhaired John (John Lithgow) is an amateur criminal mastermind who realizes when he has to clear out his stash in case the cops are on their way.
Robert F. Lyons' Peter plays things loose and believes that the path of least resistance is always the best, he initially refuses to take the illegality of his activities seriously. His loving girlfriend leaves him? Who cares? He can't believe his luck with Barbara Hershey's Susan, a Bay Area chick into instant relationships and casual sex -- and who doesn't even wear underwear. All he needs do is to ask if they're going to get together, and Susan is stripping down among the microphones and amplifiers in the studio storeroom. Peter is such an airhead, he thinks its a great idea for Susan to carry a fat suitcase of pot from Berkeley to Boston, just to avoid the cost of a plane ticket. He's just barely escaped being busted with John's Berkeley suppliers. The film's portrait of a thoughtless college kid is perfect -- Peter thinks the bad things will never happen to him. That was a sort of recurring theme with us baby boomers, raised in security and never facing real hardships. The bad stuff is what happens on TV.
The real world hits hard with Susan's arrest and John and Peter's campaign to hoodwink Charles Durning's corrupt narc. They immediately get in over their heads, and Peter finds himself having to perform the drugs / Susan exchange on his own. He improvises an excellent plan for the exchange (who knew he had it in him) but inadvertently precipitates a three-way shootout in snowbound Walden Park. On a plane ride back to Boston Peter watches the in-flight movie, Bullitt. That kind of stuff would surely never happen to him.
Director Paul Williams films Dealing in a loose style (in 35mm Panavision) that doesn't bother with establishing shots as Peter drifts from the campus to his boarding house, various airports and a residential street in Berkeley where some full-on dealers are sitting on an enormous stash of 1-kg bricks of grass. The Summer of Love has devolved into a for-profit enterprise. The lure of big money puts Peter's dilettante drug mule only one degree of separation from a Cuban Mafioso, who tries to warn him when he inadvertently lifts a portfolio containing somebody else's heroin: "Kid, you don't want to take that, you really don't". Dealing may be a thriller, but it's bluntly realistic about the pitfalls of the drug trade and romanticizes nothing. Peter is an idiot who makes a play to get his girl back from a long prison sentence.
Most of the acting is on the low-key side. Robert F. Lyons plays up Peter's essential selfishness in such a way that we don't begin to identify with him until he commits to a fighting for what he wants. John Lithgow is also subdued as the somewhat effete but realistic John, the stage director who thinks he can fool the cops. Barbara Hershey is at her laid-back best and comes off as a vision of California cool -- sort of the Dream Lay whose honesty does indeed distinguish her from all the 'nice girls'. Susan Judges nobody and sees the good in Peter that you and I don't.
Charles Durning goes through the motions as a convincing dirty drug cop, while Paul Sorvino shines in a small part as a cabdriver used to fulfill part of Peter's master plan. As John's financial partner in the drug game, Joy Bang is equally believable. Anitra Walsh has an okay bit as a townie that teaches Peter a lesson -- just because somebody wears long hair and hippie garb, that doesn't mean they aren't just as crooked as you are.
Ms. Bang dropped out of acting after attracting an unrewarding attention in cult circles; she's seen to better advantage in the horror opus Messiah of Evil. Lyons has worked steadily in many film capacities since this time, but never hit it big, whereas stardom or exalted character actor status was not far off for Hershey, Lithgow, Durning and Sorvino. That's a pretty high batting average; producer Pressman worked with a lot of solid talent in their salad days.
Although Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues didn't make much of a dent in the box office when new. Just the same, it's a smart thriller with a unique perspective that now looks very accomplished, especially considering its modest means. It's highly recommended for viewers after something different.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues is an acceptable enhanced encoding of this Panavision release. The images are a bit grainy (a purposeful effect) and some fades and blacks show compression artifacts. Otherwise the presentation is clean and pleasing. Bits of rock tunes are heard on the soundtrack from time to time, and since a Rolling Stones song is intact I'll guess that none have been replaced to avoid licensing fees.No extras are included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.