Jul 26, 2016

On DVD: Dopes Sell Dope in Stakeout on Dope Street (1958)

With an off-kilter jazzy score, hapless young anti-heroes and a slightly sensational edge, Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) is a classic Roger Corman production. The music and slick photography are the strongest elements of this teen crime and drug flick. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, it is notable for being the first film directed by The Empire Strikes Back (1980) helmer Irvin Kershner and featuring for featuring the early work of cinematographer Haskell Wexler

A trio of teens come into possession of a two pound can of uncut heroin tossed aside during a police raid. They are essentially good kids, but impatient for the finer things in life, so they decide to sell the drugs. It should come as no surprise that things don't go well; the shocker here is a surprisingly frank extended sequence that tackles heroin addiction.

Of the leads Jonathon Haze, Yale Wexler and Morris Miller, Corman regular Haze is the most memorable, with his doofy manner, but incongruously dangerous-looking eyes. It isn't so much the way he handles a line, but his presence that distinguishes him. He's such an unusual performer, sometimes seeming to have simultaneously millions of faraway thoughts and absolutely nothing on his mind. However, he doesn't have much to do here and is essentially the third wheel to Wexler and Miller.

Neither Haze nor anyone else distinguishes themselves as a performer though. The acting here is generally awkward, and lends the production an oddly intriguing theatricality, as if you are watching a dramatic marionette show. No one seems to know how to speak a line like it hasn't been written or make a move without showing the thought behind it. As a sad sack heroin addict, Allen Kramer is especially wooden, which is unfortunate as he is featured in one of the film's major sequences.

There's a chatty, rambling narration that drones on over much of the action. I'm guessing there's so much of it because it was cheaper to film scenes silent and fill in explanations later, because in many sequences it would have been just as easy to have the characters speak for themselves. In one of the more extended narrative passages, the audience is given a lengthy list of the different names for heroin ("mooch" was a new one for me).

This fascinating clumsiness is at odds with the slick camerawork which lends the action an extra bit of momentum. Fast, sometimes unpredictable edits and eccentrically arranged close-ups add to the uneasy feeling that something is going to go very wrong. These jittery scenes are offset by quirky longshots, like a mesmerizing, if somewhat drawn-out scene of the three boys searching a dump when they have mistakenly discarded the can holding the drugs.

The frantic, but hip West Coast jazz soundtrack is a standout. Performed by The Hollywood Chamber Jazz Group, it's a frenzied compilation of snappy hi-hats and staccato horns.

These stylistic elements, and some interesting Los Angeles area location footage, are the highlights in what is essentially a routine film with little to distinguish it. While the heroin addiction sequence is remarkably frank for an age when even marijuana was barely mentioned on the screen, it is so different from the rest of the film that it barely seems a part of it. It is as if an educational short were dropped in the middle of a teenage delinquent drama.

It feels like the work of filmmakers who have something to offer, but haven't quite worked out what that is yet. Lacking in unique appeal and draggy in spots, the film is worth the watch for fans of Haskell and Kershner.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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