(director: Shirley Clarke; screenwriters: from the play by Jack Gelber/Jack Gelber; cinematographer: Arthur J. Ornitz; editor: Shirley Clarke; music: Freddie Redd; cast: Warren Finnerty (Leach), Garry Goodrow (Ernie), Jerome Raphael (Solly), Jim Anderson (Sam), Carl Lee (Cowboy), Roscoe Lee Browne (J. J. Burden), William Redfield (Jim Dunn), Barbara Winchester (Sister Salvation), Henry Proach (Harry), Freddie Redd (musician-piano), Jackie McLean (musician-alto sax), Michael Mattos (musician-bass), Larry Ritchie (musician-drums); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Lewis Allen/Shirley Clarke; Milestone; 1962)

“An uncompromising look at a group of drug addicts waiting in a Manhattan loft for a heroin fix.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first feature film by experimental film-maker Shirley Clarke(“The Cool World”/”Portrait of Jason”/”Ornette: Made in America“), one of the founding members of the New American Cinema movement, is an uncompromising look at a group of drug addicts monotonously waiting in a Manhattan loft for a heroin fix. It’s based on the off-Broadway play by Jack Gelber, which played at the Living Theater in the 1960s. The eye-opening seminal indie was ahead of its time. It daringly breaks the taboo of dealing openly with the heroin addict’s self-destructive world. Though bleak, theatrical and claustrophobic, the movie has a magical quality that makes it special. It can also be admired for pushing the boundaries of film-making.

In the slovenly Manhattan loft of Leach (Warren Finnerty), a jazz quartet (Freddie Redd, Jackie McLean, Michael Mattos, Larry Ritchie) and some deadbeats (Garry Goodrow, Jerome Raphael and Jim Anderson) hang around waiting for Cowboy (Carl Lee) to return with heroin he’s buying from one of his sources. The nerdy filmmaker Jim Dunn (William Redfield) paid for the score after the junkies agreed to allow him and his cameraman J. J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Browne), who remains off-screen, to shoot a documentary about them waiting in the apartment to get their fix. While waiting for their Man to return with the stuff, the junkies tell stories, talk jive, sleep, ham it up for the camera, philosophize, jam, argue and also try to act as natural as the bossy petulant film-maker wishes.

There are two characters around for absurdist comic relief: Harry (Henry Proach) is the unannounced visitor who arrives with a phonograph and plays a jazz record before departing. The other is Barbara Winchester, who plays the elderly Sister Salvation, and is brought around by Cowboy so he can gently goof on her attempts to save the world through religion when she is so blind that she can’t see that she’s the one in greater need of saving than even the junkies.

The junkie world is depicted in unapologetic terms, as the fake documentary tries to tell the truth about the heroin lifestyle no matter if it’s more depressing than Hollywood entertaining. As a bonus, the viewer also gets to hear an impressive jazz score. The film was soon lifted from theaters after its release because censors did not approve a film about junkies, especially one that is non-judgmental. But word of the film got out, and it developed a legendary reputation among those who care about American independent cinema.

The black-and-white version I saw was recently restored by the UCLA Film & Archive, Milestone Films and Modern Videofilm.