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Grass, Acid, Talent...

Dealing at the Savoy

By Gregg J. Kilday

DEALING IS A boy-finds-dope, boy-loses-dope, boy-gets-girl movie. I suppose in some circles that in itself could be considered a fair enough trade. But at the going rate of $20 an ounce, Dealing hardly makes it as a $3 high.

Subtitled The Berkeley-To-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (which, if nothing else, is one way to sabotage a game of charades), Dealing does for the Harvard drug scene what Love Story did for romance and love--l.e., kill whatever vestigial interest you might ever have had in the subject at all. (And just wait until it hits the suburban circuit: This spring vacation it won't be, "You gotta understand, Mom, every Harvard guy can't be expected to fall in love with a Cliffie," but rather, "Look, I'm levelling with you, Dad, I didn't spend intersession smuggling in dope from the coast--I spent the 450 bucks on a Honda and then got the loan to help pay my term bill.") It's Harvard Comes to California all over again.

As its title coyly suggest, Dealing traffics in drugs. Its hero is one Peter Harkness, a rather nondescript kid who lives off campus, listens to rock, fails to show up for his law boards, and occasionally mentions the approach of an hour exam as if to indicate that some cursed family ghost has just entered the room. So much for authenticity. For Peter rooms with John, rich aesthete and part-time dealer who soon has the pliable Pete off on a jet to Berkeley to pick up some dope. (Question then: when is a dealer a dealer instead of a pusher? When he only goes to Harvard while financing the trips his friends make to the Coast?) And, naturally enough, once in the Promised Land, Peter meets Susan--as portrayed by Barbara Hershey, a nicely built body and a little bit of cloth. Before he must return to the streets of coldest Cambridge, the two find some time for a pinch of intrigue, a snort of cocaine, and a fair helping of sex (including one of the longest bouts of screen kissing since Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway locked jaws in The Thomas Crown Affair). Again, not surprisingly, once home Peter soon realizes how much of Susan he misses and John kindly agrees to finance her passage East if she too will bring in some dope.

WELL WHAT MORE do you say about a girl from California who doesn't wear underwear? That on arrival at Logan, the cops bust her? That in order to secure her release Peter and John then set but to blackmail a cop who is dealing the confiscated dope on the sly? That complications follow--from the introduction of heroin to a mock-up of the South Station to a climactic shoot-out at Walden Pond between the cops and the Mafia? That Peter and Susan survive it all to ride off into the sunset?

To be sure Dealing isn't without a certain local interest. For example, as John the rich aesthete, John Litgow '67 is involved in a gentle take-off of the high-handed theatrics of Tim Mayer, fellow Harvard graduate, accomplished theater director, and local legend. And--of even more parochial interest--is the fact that the design of John's bedroom has been at least partly inspired by that of Frank Rich, a former contributor to these pages. Aside from such intramural references, however, Dealing would seem to have little to do with Harvard--until you consider the spirit that underlies the film.

DEALING IS BRANDED by a certain genial decadence; it gives you the feeling that the people who put it together had a rather passive contempt for the project, holding it at a redeeming arm's length while they went through the necessary gestures. Originally a straight-out attempt at pure exploitation, Dealing's script was concocted by Michael Crichton '64 (a Med School graduate who has recently taken up practice in Hollywood) in consultation with his brother Douglas. Even before filming began, the script was turned into a book (a la Love Story and Summer of '42) which was issued last year. Yet, rather than drumming up interest in the then uncompleted film, the book took a critical beating. And evidently the movie's director, Paul Williams '65, took one look at the thing, shivered in the depths of his own artistic soul, and set about rewriting it with the assistance of one David Odell. The changes must have been major for neither Crichton nor his book receive screen credit. Kind of makes you wonder who exactly lost out in the shuffle.

But where Williams claims to have transformed the dross for which he contracted into something quite other, the finished film belies his stated intentions. In fact, Dealing is not only the weakest of Williams' three films to date; it also erodes one's respect for the two that preceded it. Out of it, Williams' first piece of work, remains a pleasant enought autobiographical account of adolescence on Long Island during the first half of the sixties. Shooting in black and white, Williams was careful to set up a series of well-constructed situations as he played off his schlemiel (Barry Gordon) against the jockest imaginable forces of evil (periodically Jon Voight in his first screen appearance Voight also starred in Williams' second feature. The Revolutionary, again a presumably autobiographical account of alienation, anxiety and revolt. At once a more ambitious film, The Revolutionary seems also less sure of itself: its hero is a cypher (known only by the name of A) and his exploits are set in a purposely vague place and time, allowing Williams' champions to argue that by excising specific political issues the film permits one to concentrate on the psychic events--an argument which cuts both ways, since A's consequent acts also appear to lack immediate motivation. As with Out of It, the direction is geared to producing solid characterizations, visuals be damned. But there is also something enervating about the film, just as sure as there is a greenish-gray pall which dominates its atmosphere. It's as if Williams finds his own sense of craftsmanship dispiriting, and thus sets out to follow his intellect rather than be led by real inspiration.

AND NOW WITH DEALING, Williams' appears to have given up altogether. For while there are some moments of wit in the film, it's as if half of them are there by pure accident. Nowhere is there evidence that any effort was made to sort out the questions of purpose and theme that the film inevitably raises. Dealing might have been turned into a casual parody of the counter-culture and its discontents, if its promise had been carried through. The dialogue is just one-step removed from inanity as Peter--played with a certain noncommittal grace by Robert F. Lyons--tells Susan, "I think (smile) we're getting to be pretty heavy dudes," while John's own girlfriend complains in the accent of the Seven Sisters, "I don't want any skag in my house." There's even an occasionally striking image--as when Peter and Susan, tripped-out strangers in Paradise, stand naked amongst the technical paraphernalia of a recording studio. But Williams' sense of self-amusement is simply too erratic.

Half the time it seems devoted only to undermining the studio-born materials with which Williams has been saddled. And so the continuing "suspense" music contains an echo of mock heroics and banal conversations that are staged in comical settings, like a San Francisco zoo. Of course, such time-honored methods of beating the Hollywood system are the stuff of which auteurs are made--except that in Williams' case, he never goes beyond such kamikaze tactics.

Indeed, the vagueness of The Revolutionary carries into the fuzzy thinking of Dealing; and the clean lines of the former film have given way to the empty frames of the latter. Details--like the overhead roar of a jet--are conspicuous by the absence of a fully developed mise-en-scene. Continuity is confusing (the New England snows are there one scene, gone the next); interiors look pop-art phoney (in particular, the South Station gambit). And when the crooked cop reads a short note that Peter has sent him, the words are on screen so long you've time to memorize its contents. For a young film director, Williams has surprisingly little sense of daring. The whole final third of Dealing is simple cops and robbers, the kind of material that would even look tired and trite on TV. There is even one sequence--Peter and John sneaking into the proverbial abandoned warehouse to recover the stolen dope--that could be confused with the bland outpourings of the Disney factory. A parody of the Hardy Boys, one member of the premiere audience hollered out, leaving the rest of the audience to wonder if the parody was intended.

AND EVEN BEYOND such ennui, the film's fraught with moral confusion. Caught between disdainful comedy and genre suspense, Dealing is schizophrenic. The audience ends up applauding the comic Mafia types as they gun down the rather thuggish cops while boogie-woogie hammers away in the background. The final, irrelevant shoot-out is reminiscent of Jacobean revenge drama--and just about as decadent.

And that's where Dealing betrays its true Harvard colors. For the film is the kind of self-serving fantasy that one likes to propound over coffee at Hazen's at two in the morning. It's vaguely amusing kid stuff that one can afford only when the rest of the world is asleep and hence need not be faced. It permits Williams and his cohorts to claim their integrity while--rather than selling their souls--they simply let their souls slip away. It breeds a self-satisfaction just shy of true self-contempt. Dealing may be the title, but double-dealing is the name of the game.

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