‘The Connection’ Portrayed Addiction Unapologetically in 1961—and Gave Us an Instant Classic Jazz Performance

TCM features films from 12 decades—and representing 44 countries—totaling 100 classic and current titles all created by women. Read more about this here! 

In Shirley Clarke’s first feature, The Connection, a group of artists and musicians jam, bicker and wait for their next “connection” (a drug fix). With interludes of jazz pieces and solos from a talented band, including saxophonist Jackie McLean, this story makes us think about the connections and disconnects that form in a community and culture built around addiction. (AEL: 5/5)

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker

Okay, I’ve given a lot of “5” ratings to TCM movies. But I don’t think this reflects my standards lowering as, gradually, this pandemic crushes my soul. Instead, it speaks to the quality and range of the films we’re discovering in TCM’s Women Make Film retrospective and the timeless and profound influence these films have as larger and larger audiences discover them.

The Connection, adapted from Jack Gelber’s play of the same name, shows us a couple of hours of an evening with a group of friends (I use the word loosely here) waiting for their next heroin “connection.” They often speak directly to the camera or crewmembers behind the camera. “Leach” (Warren Finnerty) gives us a tour of the apartment. With its exposed rafters and open, dusty rooms, the space feels less like a home than a stage set that might have accompanied the original theater production.

We soon realize that this is footage for a fictional documentary project, directed by “Jim Dunn” (William Redfield) and shot by a cinematographer, “J. J. Burden” (Roscoe Lee Browne). Dunn begins to direct the subjects on how to act and play to the camera. 

Even as the documentary appears to get derailed, the camera keeps rolling. A passerby, “Sister Salvation” (Barbara Winchester), wanders in as the men take turns going into the bathroom to get the drug. After observing quietly, Sister Salvation begins to lecture the men on their addiction to what she thinks is alcohol. Dunn, pressured by the subjects and hoping to uncover an interesting story, ends up taking the drug himself and getting very sick.

In this “unedited” format, the film provides an unflinching view of addiction. Group members wheedle each other, fight, and abandon friendships over sharing their drugs. They go one by one into the bathroom and then come out looking hazy or relieved or ill. Leach insists over and over that he isn’t high, that he needs another dose, and then finally, dangerously, is given what he wants.

All the while, there’s a band here, with saxophonist Jackie McLean, pianist Freddie Redd, drummer Larrie Richie, and bass player Michael Mattos. In soaring interludes, they play while the other actors listen passively or pay no attention at all. Their solos cement this film as a piece of cultural history worthy of preservation.

This is a movie about all kinds of connections: between one’s wants and needs, between loyalty and dependency, between the insular world formed by addiction and the outsiders who cross paths with it. Director Jim Dunn himself gave the group the money for this round of heroin, exploring the sometimes murky relationship between documentarian and subject.

Director Shirley Clarke’s performance background strongly influences this carefully paced, masterfully acted, beautifully scored drama. The Connection had distribution issues in its first release due to censorship. The New York Board of Regents banned the film ostensibly for language, but also likely because of its stark portrayal of drugs. This film is not a stark condemnation of heroin addiction. It’s a performance of that addiction, humor, nuanced challenges, and values members of the community built around it.

In recent years, Milestone Films has been working on restoring Clarke’s work, making it more accessible to audiences in an effort called “Project Shirley.” You can access The Connection and more of her films through them here.

© Amelie Lasker (12/8/20) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Freddie Redd as the “piano player,” Jackie McLean as the “sax player,” and Carl Lee as “Cowboy.”

Middle Photo: Warren Finnerty as “Leach.”

Bottom Photo: The cast of The Connection (Garry Goodrow as “Ernie” in the front right).

Photo Credits: Films Around the World

Q: Does The Connection pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

No.

But it was directed by a woman in 1961. And that’s pretty amazing.

Tags: FF2 Media, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Film

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Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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