Feb 23, 2015

Review: Jazz and Heroin in Shirley Clarke's The Connection (1961)

Milestone Films continues its six-year effort to release iconoclastic filmmaker Shirley Clarke's films on DVD and Blu-ray with her feature debut, The Connection (1961). In it, eight heroin junkies wait for their fix in a rundown Manhattan loft while a filmmaker and his assistant document their tortured existence.

Freddie Redd
Based on a 1959 play by Jack Gelber, Clarke cast most of the actors from the original off-Broadway production. Half the junkie quota is filled by The Freddie Redd Quartet, led by a hunch-shouldered Jackie MacLean on the alto sax and Redd on the piano. Warren Finnerty reprises his Obie-winning role as Leach, the boil-inflicted owner of the apartment while Clarke's lover Carl Lee plays the smoothly amoral dealer, Cowboy. Roscoe Lee Brown is heard more than he is seen as the filmmaker's assistant, but he is charismatic and handsome in this early role and clearly the actor in the cast on the way to greater things.

I'd been warned that it could take a while to get into the film, and it's true, the first few minutes feel like a mess, full of wild chatter and overdramatic gestures. You wonder where this ragged bunch is headed. Once you're locked in its groove though, it's hard to look away.

Clarke creates a gritty atmosphere, absent the gloss of mainstream films, but still artificial. You get a feel for real human weaknesses, from actors who are clearly putting on a show. The contradiction lends the production an odd excitement. Everything feels a bit uneasy and you wonder who will come lunging at the camera next. This is deliberately rebellious filmmaking .

Jackie MacLean
Making a film on one set is a dangerous pursuit, but Clarke has a way of shifting gears that constantly refreshes the scene. She whips the camera or completely darkens the image, bringing actors so close they are shadows and suddenly widening the view again. She zooms in on details, a crack in the wall, the cockroach scaling it, all the filthy details of this sordid life.

While the film portrays the addict's life as bleak, it has no moral message about drugs. These men are sick and desperate, but it is their human weaknesses and not the narcotics that are held up for scrutiny. This is clear in the final minutes, when an overdose empties the room of several men, their cowardice and lack of loyalty painted much darker than their addictions.

The jazz quartet is one of the most exciting elements of The Connection, giving the surroundings life whenever the confinement of the set starts to become oppressive. Though the musicians spend long periods slumped over their instruments, like they've got nothing left to give, they constantly come to life again, playing as though they have all the energy in the world. It's a great document of some fine jazz artists.

Though the film won plaudits at Cannes Film Festival, New York State censors rejected its release in the United States. Clarke decided to release the film without approval, but the screenings were shut down after two showings and the projectionist arrested.
The group waits

While the primary problem was said to be the number of times the characters used the s-word, usually in reference to their fix, there are plenty of other reasons censors had to object. A man looking at gay porn, the still-shocking sight of a needle going into Leach's arm as he gasps on the edge of anticipated euphoria and perhaps worst of all, the fact that black characters were painted as complex human beings, living in equality and nonchalant ease among white people.

With poor distribution, the film didn't make back its production costs, despite it being infinitely less expensive to make than a Hollywood production. It makes you wonder what movies would have been like today had it been readily available to influence budding filmmakers. Thanks to the efforts of Milestone, it now can do just that, and thrill new audiences with its adventurous spirit.

Disc bonus features include a trailer and photo gallery, a very cute home movie from the film set, conversations with the film's art director Albert Brenner and Freddie Redd, audio tracks of a pair of songs used to market the film in 1964 and four minutes of color footage featuring Carl Lee and a poodle named Max.

Many thanks to Milestone Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

All photos courtesy of Milestone Films

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