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Stakeout on Dope Street (DVD Review)

25 Jul, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Yale Wexler, Jonathan Haze, Morris Miller, Abby Dalton.

Even at age 10 and beginning with its title, I sensed that there was something a little squirrelly about Stakeout on Dope Street being a Warner Bros. release, even though newspaper ads made that clear when director Irvin (The Empire Strikes Back) Kerhsner’s most humble debut feature scraped through with an unexpected downtown engagement, albeit at the least of my city’s first-run venues. A rather weird cross, even to this day, between your standard ’50s teenage-hood melodrama and a brutally realistic movie about heroin addiction, it didn’t promise the usual Warner Bros. slickness or even players, who might otherwise be Tab Hunter or Natalie Wood or even Mamie Van Doren (Untamed Youth, anyone?). At this stage of my life, I didn’t know anything about independent productions (such as they were back then) occasionally being “picked up” by a major studio for distribution.

That’s what it was. And the picture, which I missed to my chagrin in 1958 but have finally just seen via this Warner Archive release, doesn’t really come off, even if academic interest halfway prevails. This is because Street was also the feature debut of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who’d work with Kershner again a little down the road on The Hoodlum Priest and the very obscure Face in the Rain (even to Rory Calhoun fans). I always thought Priest had a “low-budget raw” look, but this is something else again. The two main sets are the back room of an urban deli and a bowling alley that Abby Dalton dresses up marginally just by working the cashier — in other words, not exactly Alexander Trauner production design. And the major set piece is a long grungy sequence in which a junkie relates in detail what it’s like to go cold turkey before eventually and probably even inevitably goes back on the stuff.

This is an unusual picture for the time because it deals with straight on with heroin, whereas the same year’s lingo-heavy High School Confidential! concerns itself with nothing more important than squeaky-clean Diane Jergens (whose dimples could grace a Delta Gamma promotional video) going cross-eyed bonkers on some of John Barrymore Jr.’s best weed. But Street halfway falls into the teen-exploitation genre itself due to its plot-central portrayal of three out-of-their-league rookies who find an entire canister of uncut heroin that’s been desperately abandoned by thug kingpin subordinates during a police drug bust that goes south. Playing them are Yale Wexler (Haskell’s real-life brother); Jonathan Haze of Roger Corman minor cult-dom; and Morris Miller (the later Steven Marlo after a name-change), who looks so much like singer Jack Scott in a trademark Scott muscle shirt that you half-expect him to break into Burning Bridges. Despite tempting visions of flashy cars — and jewelry that he’d now be able to give to girlfriend Dalton — straight-arrow Wexler (Yale that is) becomes increasingly worried and dubious about trying to unload the junk for profit. Haze, though, is much more affirmative, and to aggressive Miller, there’s no question about trying to make a big score.

Laboring to keep this from happening are strong-armed lackeys employed by pusher pro Herschel Bernardi (before he hired on as the voice for Charlie the Tuna in those once ubiquitous StarKist TV ads) and a pair of “Dragnet”-style cops, one of whom really looks like he hits the sauce. Street came very late in the cycle of noir-ish crime pictures that employed the self-conscious semi-documentary style that began in the aftermath of World War II before "Dragnet" co-opted it to great effect. As a result, this is one of those movies where an off-screen narrator follows the police into a pawnshop and then feels compelled to give us the name of the proprietor, as if anyone really cares. Far less conventional, though, is that long scene where the aforementioned junkie (Allen Kramer) explains the hell of addiction to actor Wexler, the “good kid” of the bunch. It’s long, involved and grittily shot by cinematographer Wexler as it were an industrial film, resembling no other youth exploitation movie of the day. Looking like someone who’d be the anti-picture-of-health even after a three-hour visit to Sy Devore’s, actor Kramer is a standout — though his character meets the fate you’d expect for someone who lives in a collapsing hovel with clothes hanging haphazardly on the line and who then tries to mix it up with mob big-boys.

Unfortunately, some of the other performances and the storytelling are on the amateurish side — and this from a director who later proved to be good with actors (Don Murray in The Hoodlum Priest; Robert Shaw in The Luck of Ginger Coffey; Jean Seberg in her too-small A Fine Madness role; George C. Scott in The Flim-Flam Man; everyone in Loving). Kramer aside, the most forceful emotion to be found here comes from actress Dalton as the no-nonsense Yale Wexler honey who gives him an “or else” ultimatum about peddling heroin — though the actress was one of my adolescent crushes, so I might be putting too fine a point on it. Then again, Dalton’s resumé includes being a member of Roger Corman’s acting stable (see Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, which also goes under a longer title no one can remember); Joey Bishop’s TV wife; and the real-life mother-in-law of (for a while) Lorenzo Lamas.

I still don’t understand how this one rated a downtown booking, especially when the co-feature (a Brian Keith-Dick Foran-Efrem Zimbalist Jr. knockoff of The Wages of Fear called Violent Road) couldn’t have brought much to the box office totality. Of course, the rival theaters that week were playing Robert Taylor in Saddle the Wind, Dana Wynter in Fraulein and the Lana Turner soaper Another Time, Another Place (a kind of Sean Connery breakthrough, though no one knew it at the time). In other words, not everything in ’58 was Vertigo or Touch of Evil, not that anyone tore down any turnstiles rushing to see them at the time, either. Street is strictly in the small -favors department — and exclusively for putting Kershner and cinematographer Wexler on the map with the Warner stamp of approval. Which was no small thing in retrospect.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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