“Now look, you cats may know more about junk, see,” square film director Jim Dunn (William Redfield) says midway through The Connection, “but let me swing with this movie, huh?” Adapted by Jack Gelber from his play and directed and edited by Shirley Clarke, The Connection is a gritty tale of drug addicts awaiting their fix that was banned for obscenity after only two matinee screenings back in October 1962. Last spring it was rereleased in a sharp new fiftieth-anniversary print, beautifully restored by Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. In a New York City loft, eight men are waiting for their man: Leach (Warren Finnerty), the ringleader who has an oozing scab on his neck; Solly (Jerome Raphael), an intelligent philosopher who speaks poetically about the state of the world; Ernie (Garry Goodrow), a sad-sack complainer who has pawned his horn but still clutches tight to the mouthpiece as if it were a pacifier; Sam (Jim Anderson), a happy dude who tells rambling stories while spinning a hula hoop; and a jazz quartet consisting of real-life musicians Freddie Redd on piano, Jackie McLean on sax, Larry Richie on drums, and Michael Mattos on bass. Dunn and his cameraman, J. J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Browne), are in the apartment filming the men as Dunn tries to up the drama to make it more cinematic as well as more genuine. “Don’t be afraid, man,” Leach tells him. “It’s just your movie. It’s not real.” When Cowboy (Carl Lee) ultimately shows with the stuff, Bible-thumping Sister Salvation (Barbara Winchester) at his side, things take a decidedly more drastic turn. Mixing elements of the French New Wave with a John Cassavetes sensibility and cinema verité style, Clarke has made an underground indie classic that moves to the beat of an addict’s craving and eventual fix. Shot in a luridly arresting black-and-white by Arthur Ornitz, The Connection is like one long be-bop jazz song, giving plenty of time for each player to take his solo, with standout performances by McLean musically and Raphael verbally. The film-within-a-film narrative allows Clarke to experiment with the mechanics of cinema and challenge the audience; when Dunn talks directly into the camera, he is speaking to Burden, yet he is also breaking the fourth wall, addressing the viewer. Cutting between Burden’s steady camera and Dunn’s handheld one, Clarke adds dizzying swirls that rush past like a speeding subway train. A New York City native, Clarke made such other films as The Cool World and Portrait of Jason and won an Academy Award for her 1963 documentary Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World. This new print of The Connection is part of Milestone Films’ Shirley Clarke Project, which will preserve and restore a quartet of her best work.
The Connection is screening at Film Forum this weekend in a double feature with Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery, kicking off the three-week festival “New Yawk New Wave,” comprising seminal independent films made in and about New York City; among the other double features in the series are Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary and Milton Moses Ginsberg’s Coming Apart, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Andy Warhol’s My Hustler, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and Brian De Palma’s Greetings and Hi, Mom!