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,Stakeout on Dope Street

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.

It's time to correct fifty years of bad information. Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) is not a film by Roger Corman, who was not its executive producer and who did not give first-time feature director Irvin Kershner his big break. The project originated with Kershner and his producer/scenarist Andrew J. Fenady. From 1953 on, both were drawing paychecks from the KTTV series Confidential File, which ran on Channel 11 in Los Angeles until 1958. Hosted by dour Los Angeles Mirror columnist Paul Coates, the news magazine was the Hard Copy of its day and split its 30-minute format between documentary footage and related interviews. Conceived by Coates as a vehicle for racket busting, the program widened its scope to encompass the seedier side of the Hollywood dream. One installment took cameras onto San Quentin's Death Row while another delved into the world of illegal gambling and still another followed a junkie's progress through his agonized withdrawal from heroin. Kershner and Fenady decided to expand upon the latter in the form of a feature film. Unable to raise sufficient capital to start, the team tapped Roger Corman to invest. Corman threw $10,000 into the kitty, roughly half the folding cash that made up Stakeout on Dope Street's budget. (Donated processing fees brought the final nut up to $30,000.) Though his name appeared nowhere in the credits, Corman's investment repaid him handsomely when the finished film was sold to Warner Brothers for $250,000.

Born in Philadelphia in 1923, Irvin Kershner was a musical prodigy who later studied painting with the German abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman. Discouraged by his lack of achievement in fine art, Kershner came west to study photography and find work as a cinematographer. Stonewalled by nepotism, Kershner turned instead to directing. Documentaries he shot for the US Information Service won him a fan in Haskell Wexler, another Hollywood hopeful who had lucked into an apprenticeship with master cinematographer James Wong Howe. The Chicago-born Wexler also had a background in documentaries and filmed what is believed to be the first helicopter shot for Joshua Logan's Picnic (1955). Wanting to work on the non-union Stakeout on Dope Street but fearful of industry reprisals, Wexler took the pseudonymous credit "Mark Jeffrey," from the names of his sons. Wexler's kid brother Yale also got into the act, cast as one of the three male leads. Yale Wexler had just played a prominent supporting role in the military drama Time Limit (1957), the only film directed by Karl Malden. Based on the strength of their work in the Hawaii-set crime caper Naked Paradise (1957), Roger Corman troupers Dick Miller and Jonathon Haze were drafted to play Wexler's buddies but dissatisfaction with Fenady's script drove Miller away. As a replacement, Kershner brought in a friend of Yale Wexler's, Moe Miller. With a name change to Steven Marlo, the ruggedly handsome actor worked frequently with Andrew Fenady as a producer; under pounds of deforming latex, he was the mute hunchback Karkov in Terror in the Wax Museum (1973), directed by Fenady's brother Georg.

Cloaked in noirish shadows and played out in a series of narrow alleys, back rooms and drab public spaces with a score heavy on jazz brass, Stakeout on Dope Street is every inch an urban drama – the only thing missing is the requisite bongo-beat switchblade melee. Yet the script could easily have been a retooled western scenario, with three cowboys stumbling across stolen money rather than a teen trio who dumb-lucks into two lbs. of uncut heroin. One senses the shadow of John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) as the friends fall out over their precious find and of Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946) as two syndicate thugs close in on their lost asset. The documentary format betrays a debt also to Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) and to Night and the City (1950) as the hunted Carl scrambles for sanctuary through a labyrinth of locked doors.

The use of various down-at-heel Los Angeles locations (including Chavez Ravine, bulldozed a year later to make room for Dodger Stadium) gives the film a vitality beyond the scope of its limited budget. The dialogue strains for street cred ("Some kid starts out with a joy pop, looking for new kicks, and he greases the skids to the morgue") and the film is overall uneven but Stakeout on Dope Street's asides and longueurs are more entertaining than its A-plot. Near the hour mark, the documentary format yields to an expressionist eight minute monologue by Allen Kramer (as the junkie helping the boys unload the dope), who relates the horrors of drug addiction and withdrawal. It's fun seeing future Hollywood Squares box holder Abby Dalton (as Wexler's goody-goody girlfriend) and Herschel Bernardi (as an underworld boss in an ill-fitting suit) in smaller supporting roles.

Producer: Andrew J. Fenady, Roger Corman
Director: Irvin Kershner
Screenplay: Andrew J. Fenady, Irvin Kershner, Tom McGrath, Irwin Schwartz
Cinematography: Mark Jeffrey, Haskell Wexler
Film Editing: Melvin Sloan
Art Direction: James R. Connell, Gene Petersen
Music: Richard Markowitz
Cast: Yale Wexler (Jim), Jonathan Haze (Ves), Steven Marlo (Nick), Abby Dalton (Kathy), Allen Kramer (Danny), Herman Rudin (Mitch).

by Richard Harland Smith

Irvin Kershner interview, Shock Cinema No. 24
Jonathon Haze interview, Psychotronic Video No. 27
A. J. Fenady interview by Kenneth Plume, IGN Film Force Unsung Heroes of the Horrors: Jonathon Haze by Barry Brown