Stakeout on Dope Street
With a title like this you know it has to be good. Irvin Kershner got his start directing on this small-scale tale of kids and crime. Jonathan Haze and Abby Dalton are standouts in the cast, while the uncredited executive producer who put up the cash is said to have been Roger Corman. It’s a beautiful widescreen transfer — the film was one of the first features shot by Haskell Wexler, who is also uncredited.
Stakeout on Dope Street
The Warner Archive Collection
1958 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 83 min. / Street Date June 22, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Yale Wexler, Jonathon Haze, Morris Miller (Stever Marlo), Abby Dalton, Allen Kramer, Herman Rudin, Philip Mansour, Andrew J. Fenady, Herschel Bernardi, Coleman Francis.
Cinematography Mark Jeffrey (Haskell Wexler)
Film Editor Melvin Sloan
Original Music Richard Markowitz
Story and Screenplay by Andrew J. Fenady, Irvin Kershner, Irvin Schwartz
Produced by Andrew J. Fenady
Directed by Irvin Kershner
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Roger Corman appears to be the busiest producer-director in Hollywood from 1954 forward. When not producing and directing his own movies, he occasionally worked as a director for hire and invested in movies that he didn’t put his name on. Why would he do this? When he became a Director’s Guild signatory he could no longer avoid the reach of the various unions, none of which liked the idea of a hotshot producer doing end runs around their rules to save money. Robert L. Lippert (according to Corman) cheated Corman on Monster from the Ocean Floor, lowering a price he had agreed to pay when he discovered how little Corman had spent to make the movie. Barely two years later, Lippert was unable to work in Hollywood under his own name, after trying to dodge residuals from TV sales. [This reported by Tom Weaver.] Corman didn’t want this to happen to him, which is why his name does not appear on pictures like David Kramarsky’s Beast with a Million Eyes. The picture was filmed non-union, practically on the q.t., out Palm Springs way.
It’s hard to keep track of all the films Roger Corman was involved in. 1958’s Stakeout on Dope Street was reportedly financed by Roger, even though one of its writers, Andrew J. Fenady, takes a producing credit. Does this mean that the show was a stealth production, hiding out from the unions and Guilds? One of the actors took an alias, as did the director of photography. He later made a name for himself as Haskell Wexler.
The chances are that Corman provided at least some of the cash (the show is officially credited as a Warner Bros. production) and the team of writer-producer Andrew J. Fenady and director Irvin Kershner were in charge. It was a bold move for both of them. If the IMDB is to be trusted, their major credit before this was a local TV show that presented the opinions of a newspaper columnist. Fenady would become a prolific television writer and producer, and the author of twenty novels. His office is still listed here on Larchmont Avenue, just a block from Savant central. Irvin Kershner would get little notice for this picture, but soon thereafter earned great praise for his sensitive direction of actors. His career attracted more admiration from the industry than success with the public, but yielded such respected films as The Hoodlum Priest, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, A Fine Madness, and The Flim-Flam Man and Loving. He also was George Lucas’s director of choice for the best of the Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back.
But Stakeout on Dope Street is a definite humble beginning. We note the presence of Corman regulars Jonathan Haze (with this name misspelled) and Abby Dalton, but none of Corman’s standard technical people, which is evidence that Roger wasn’t closely involved. Although produced on the cheap, Stakeout is nowhere near as primitive as the cheapie Million Eyes: the script has a dozen speaking parts and several scenes are filmed at night. We can tell that Fenady, Kershner and their co-writer Irwin Schwartz were going for an artistic feel, a smart move to distinguish their show from other exploitation pictures. Three years before, Otto Preminger had made it possible to make a movie about drug use, with a title including the word ‘dope,’ through his Production Code-busting feature The Man with the Golden Arm .
Stakeout is an only slightly exploitative story about the evils of heroin. The rather good dramatic scenes distinguish it from an educational short subject on the topic. A drug bust goes bad when mob hit men kill a cop, and a mobster carrying a million-dollar chunk of uncut heroin powder in what looks like a Quaker Oats can. But the valise containing the dope is tossed into some bushes, there to be found by young punk ‘Ves’ Vespucci (Jonathan Haze). He takes it to his friends, Nick (Morris Miller) and Jim (Yale Wexler). They at first toss the can away, and when the newspapers report what has happened must dig through the trash at the city dump to recover it. The three agree to take a sample to Danny (Allen Kramer), a user who lives in a ragged shack. He agrees to sell it. The payoff gives all three of the boys big ideas. Jim buys his girlfriend Kathy (Abby Dalton) a piece of jewelry. When she objects to how he paid for it, Jim begins to question what he’s done — benefitting from the suffering of dope addicts. Meanwhile, both the cops and the mob are combing the city looking for the missing container of Big H. The cops trace the boys through the valise, which they’ve pawned. The original hit men get a lead on the dope when they hear of Danny’s first sale. While the three friends are arguing about morality, the hoods are beating Danny half to death, and soon have their murderous hands on Nick as well.
Stakeout on Dope Street isn’t exactly a huge success, but it does show the potential talent of its makers. The script is no gem, yet Irvin Kershner gets his cast of hopefuls to play in an interesting, natural way. The major scenes with the three friends in the back of a general store are like one-act play fragments, where bits of business interrupt the speeches. Nobody just delivers a line. It shows effort and talent. The boys are clearly distinguished on from another. Nick the garage mechanic just wants to sell the stuff without discussion. The not-so-bright Ves is easily swayed. Jim is enthusiastic until he meets with Kathy’s disapproval. The boys seem a little naïeve for their ages but the actors come off well. Abby Dalton and Yale Wexler have a heart-to-heart about their future at the lunch counter where she works. He has unrealistic ideas about running away and being an artist, while she wants things more normal, nicer. She’s smart to take it slow, ’cause Jim is a pretty thoughtless kind of guy, even if he means well. The boys worry about getting caught, and they should — all three of them are as guilty as hell, and this is a MAJOR drug charge The one thing we don’t find out is how rough the law is on them.
Kershner basically does nice things with his actors, but that’s pretty much the limit of inspiration in Stakeout on Dope Street. The tyro director’s camera placement isn’t very good, and cuts within a scene often seem random. The film is also somewhat disjointed. It relies on a stentorian narrator to bridge several scenes, while the narrator talks over several others, telling us what’s happening. This probably streamlined the production, not having to record dialogue for those scenes. Kershner doesn’t even pan his camera very much, so we don’t get an idea of what kind of town this is. Are we looking at parts of Bunker Hill, with steep concrete stairs going up a hill? We’re told that the Bowling Alley is in Redondo Beach. The shack where Danny lives could be in Chavez Ravine; the area looks much like what we see in Arnold Laven’s Without Warning! But we don’t see enough to be certain.
One scene reminds us that Stakeout on Dope Street is the work of an earlier generation of film school grads. The boys search the city dump for the missing can of heroin in a free-form (read: undirected) sequence of random handheld shots where they’re told to run around in the garbage and act silly. The only audio is the jazz score by Richard Markowitz. I don’t know how they did things at USC, but at UCLA we made student films like that by the bushel. Irvin Kershner probably had only twenty minutes of time to get the scene in the can, and it looks it.
Kershner keeps things pretty laid back, and the script doesn’t tell us outright how to react to the characters. Unfortunately, none of the leads shows a great deal of charisma. It’s nice to see Jonathan Haze given good direction but the script doesn’t do much more than get character A from one place to another, etc. The hoods are threatening enough, but since Kershner does nothing with action montage, not a lot of excitement is built up. We’ve seen an awful lot of TV shows where somebody chases somebody else up a tall ladder, to produce a finale.
The biggest opportunity in the film is given to actor Allen Kramer. When Jim asks Kramer’s Danny what being on dope is like, we get a flashback montage of the older addict going through the throes of Cold Turkey while under arrest. By this point we’d really appreciate some kind of stylization, but the sequence is filmed in the same dull realistic style as the rest of the movie. It also doesn’t really involve a main character. Jim just listens to the story, as morose as ever.
Yale Wexler and Morris Miller (Stever Marlo) have plenty of screen time but make little impression. As is usual, we wonder why the always-good Jonathan Haze wasn’t getting phone calls for higher profile work. Abby Dalton couldn’t be better, and of course she would become a busy TV and feature performer. I’ve favored her in the stills because WB’s publicity favored her too. Allen Kramer is merely okay, as are the various hoods and cops, although Herschel Bernardi comes off as an obvious pro. I imagine that Stakeout was a major learning experience for director Kershner.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Stakeout on Dope Street is a pleasant surprise. With a title like that it’s no wonder that the movie didn’t play on TV when I was growing up, and when it showed up on TCM around twenty years ago I made a special note to catch it. The flat transfer only made everything seem slower and less focused. In this much-improved enhanced widescreen scan we can better appreciate the film’s good points. It’s very easy to imagine the cast and crew watching an early screening and thinking, ‘can I get more work from this?’ The camerawork is measured and consistent but otherwise we wouldn’t know that the great Haskell Wexler was involved. Variety’s familiar phrase ‘tech credits are fine’ applies. It’s true that Wexler makes Abby Dalton look quite attractive, even in the semi-documentary non-style chosen for the picture.
The sound is also very clean, making us think that Warners perhaps acquired the film during production (?) and did some of the finishing work in-house. An extra, ‘distributed by’ title tag shows up at the end, but there is no logo up front; we always wonder if that’s because of the nature of the pickup deal, or if Jack Warner didn’t want a Warner shield in front of a show called Stakeout on Dope Street. Richard Markowitz isn’t a common name for me, but his jazz score is one of the best things in the picture. Looking at the composer’s impressive credits, he seems to have had as active a career as anyone else on the picture.
Stakeout on Dope Street certainly has its place in history… who knew that Corman had money in a movie released by Warner Bros.? In terms of ‘fifties teen exploitation cinema it’s a civilized exception — and not as lively as the screwball excesses of Robert Altman’s The Delinquents, A.I.P.’s The Cool and the Crazy, or even Corman’s own Teenage Doll.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stakeout on Dope Street DVD-R rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 21, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson