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Stakeout on Dope Street
In the language of the street, they call it junk or H. Stuff. Snow. Mooch. Happy dust. Kokomo. Horse. There are other names for it, names that aren't so refined. But it all adds up to the same thing: heroin. And two pounds had been swallowed by infinity.
With its gruffly stylized cop voice-over and black-and-white morality, the 1958 Roger Corman production Stakeout on Dope Street plays sort of like a movie spin-off of Dragnet mixed with an anti-drugs afterschool special. First-time feature director Irvin Kershner, who will be remembered in perpetuity as the guy who helmed your favorite Star Wars movie, displays a fair amount of style and inventiveness working within an obvious low budget, but his flair behind the camera only partially distracts from the movie's preachy intentions.
The "two pounds... swallowed by infinity" referred to up above is a bulky face-powder can that contains uncut heroin. Stashed in a briefcase with a bunch of makeup products and accidentally dropped at the scene of a messy police bust, the can is discovered by enterprising teen Julian "Ves" Vespucci (Jonathan Haze, of the original Little Shop of Horrors). He and his buddies, wannabe fighter Nick (TV journeyman Morris Miller, aka Steven Marlo) and wannabe artist Jim (Yale Wexler), are initially ignorant of the value of the heroin and just try to see if they can get a coupla bucks for hocking the briefcase. Once the press leaks the news about the missing junk, the boys end up on a wild goose chase on the trail of that can they dismissed. Their recovery effort concludes with them digging in the trash at the city dump (one of the flick's zippy highlights). They reclaim the horse, and Nick decides to corral an older junkie named Danny (Allen Kramer) into selling the stuff for them. Everything is swell for the would-be kingpins, until some gangsters, who consider themselves the rightful owners of the happy dust in question, decide to come looking for them.
Where a lot of vintage exploitation and crime flicks wait to eventually punish their anti-heroes, or throw in some moral at the very end to justify the giddy transgressiveness that came before, Stakeout on Dope Street is all morality. Working inverse to the norm, the flick puts on an air of faux-edgy exploitation to throw hip kids off the scent, but it doesn't fully succeed.
If the disdainful undercurrent of the wall-to-wall police detective narration didn't make Stakeout's thematic intentions clear enough, the film also strategically sucks the fun out of any and all bad behavior. When the sensitive Jim buys a fancy bracelet for his girlfriend Kathy (Abby Dalton), she refuses to benefit off the suffering of others (admittedly an intelligent and principled stance, but c'mon Kathy, live a little!). Kathy gives Jim second thoughts about this deal, so he visits Danny to find out the truth about H. Danny doesn't mince words about the insufficient highs and devastating lows of junkiedom, vividly describing the pain of withdrawal over a bravura montage that rivals the cold turkey scene in Trainspotting for visceral ickiness.
Because of its goody-two-shoes attitude, Stakeout on Dope Street finds itself at the precarious intersection of genuinely interesting low-budget filmmaking and stilted kitsch. Vintage film fanatics will probably enjoy it either way, but I'm not sure if other folks could be attracted to this movie out of anything besides historical curiosity. I hope I'm wrong, because I personally think this modest production is worth a look.
Shakedown on Dope Street comes as a manufactured-on-demand (MOD) DVD-R, as part of the Warner Archive Collection.
Warner offers a good widescreen 1.78:1 transfer that features solid contrast and deep blacks. The film material shows some minor wear-and-tear and the image is a bit soft overall, but I'd say the quality is better than average for an MOD catalog title.
The Dolby 2.0 mono audio sounds good for a low-budget flick of this vintage. Some of the spoken "S"s in the early going sizzle a bit, but there's decent balance overall and the underlying tape hiss is subtle and unobtrusive. Dialogue, especially the copious voice-over narration, is clear as a bell, and it meshes well with the jazzy musical score. No subtitles.
Solid performances and some well-executed setpieces, like Danny's cold-turkey freakout, mitigate the hokier elements of this first effort from The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. His new album of experimental ambient music, Joyce, is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.