Movies Till Dawn: The Saturday Morning Strange – “Stakeout on Dope Street” (1958)

A trio of Los Angeles teens (among them Jonathon Haze from Roger Corman‘s “Little Shop of Horrors”) stumbles upon a briefcase containing two pounds of uncut heroin and decides to earn a fast buck by selling it, unaware that both the police and a pair of brutal thugs with gangland connections have designs on the missing package. Funded in part by an unbilled Corman – who would turn a tidy profit when the film was sold to Warner Bros. – this documentary-styled crime drama marked the feature debuts of director Irvin Kershner, who would enjoy lasting pop culture icon status more than two decades later for helming “The Empire Strikes Back,” and co-writer/producer Andrew J. Fenady, later a prolific presence on TV. Both had previously teamed for KTTV’s Crimestoppers-styled news magazine “Confidential File,” and applied its verite approach to their project, aided immeasurably by another documentarian turned aspiring feature filmmaker, cinematographer Haskell Wexler (billed here as Mark Jeffrey – the names of his sons – due to the picture’s non-union status).

Though the storyline and dialogue are the ripest sort of pulp jive, Kersher, Fenady and Wexler steer the film into much darker territory – literally so, in the case of location shooting in the murkier, unvarnished sections of a pre-Dodgers Stadium Chavez Ravine and Redondo Beach – but also with a remarkably graphic depiction of heroin withdrawal by junkie dealer Allen Kramer, and the no-escape ending, in which everyone and everything gets ugly in a hurry; no wonder James Ellroy was a fan. Adding noirish flavor is the score by Richard Markowitz and the Hollywood Chamber Jazz Group – a cadre of LA music vets, including exotica and TV composer Robert Drasnin, studio and jazz players Dick Houlgate and Gene Estes, and future Wrecking Crew members Mel Pollan and Ollie Mitchell – which careens from bop to brass and dissonance, often within the same scene. Cult character spotters will also note the beefy presence of Coleman Francis, who directed the baffling “MST3K” favorites “Beast of Yucca Flats” and “Night Train to Mundo Fine,” as a cop. Warner Archives Collection’s DVD-R is widescreen.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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