Portraying addiction truthfully has long been one of the great obstacles of storytellers, playwrights, and filmmakers; in doing so, it would seem, you must either dive headlong into aspects of the addict's daily life that are gruesome, unpleasant, or downright boring, to such a degree as to alienate your audience, or you steer away from such things, and gamble recklessly with the truth you set out to share in the first place. Shirley Clarke's The Connection, adapted from Jack Gelberg's 1959 play (he also wrote the script), manages to pursue both options at once.
Contrasted starkly against not only contemporaneous addiction dramas (Otto Preminger's The Man with a Golden Arm, André de Toth's Monkey on My Back, and Fred Zinnemann's A Hatful of Rain), but also more recent crank spectacles, such as Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, The Connection aims neither for creaky “problem” melodrama or flashy, experiential panoramas of whiz-bang movie artifice. Instead, Clarke anticipates David Holzman's Diary by a few years, constructing a self-aware mockumentary that continually acknowledges its own production, its pretentious director, and the old saw—generally attributed to Michael Haneke—about the camera telling lies 24 frames per second.
The Connection operates on three, overlapping layers. First, there's the well-intentioned, greenhorn director, Jim Dunn (William Redfield), who's given Leach (Warren Finnerty) and the layabouts at Leach's place a little bit of money, with the understanding that they'll allow him to film them—you know, to get the real, raw truth about the awful underbelly of New York City. Second, there's the colony of junkies themselves, and third, there's the off-and-on jazz jam session (featuring real-life musicians Freddie Redd, Jackie McLean, Larry Rich, and Michael Mattos), which gives the claustrophobic single set vivacious life until, after the fixes are distributed, it's conspicuous in its absence. The false front of cinema is flaunted relentlessly throughout The Connection, as Dunn, hard-selling himself and his cameraman (the great Roscoe Lee Browne) the gritty authenticity of his vision, frequently shuffles his own objectives around to suit a moment's fancy, spending more time in front of the camera than behind, and eventually giving crank the old college try.
The junkies, as expected, are the real show, and it's here that Gelber's theatrical predilections emerge, less “that Barton Fink feeling” and more The Iceman Cometh. Each non-musical hophead is given a single moment in the spotlight, not to pour their heart out but to convey their raw, inchoate, sometimes asinine emotions via distorted and damaged tools of expression. The beauty of these monologues is their failure, as monologues, since they go nowhere and say nothing. Even the dealer Cowboy's (Carl Lee) beautiful soliloquy is undermined by the fact that nearly everything he says is meant to dupe the trusting Sister Salvation, whose naïveté helps to keep the cops off his scent. The Connection's lasting impression is of a party that never really ended, for any of the attendees, even if the illusion of time passing is maintained by a perpetual cycle of comings and goings. Clarke doesn't look for a reason to expand Gelber's play beyond the too-finite dimensions of the squalid studio apartment, which only furthers the suggestion that the characters are holed up in a waiting room in purgatory.