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Hipster Holy Grail: Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Dealing: Or the Inversely-Proportionate-Length-to-Quality Subtitle is an interesting time capsule of a movie.  The historical value is what would lead me to recommend it moreso than the film itself, which takes an achingly long time to get to the point.  Basically, if you've either got the patience to sit through 40 minutes of tedium, or you're interested in an early '70s snapshot of (white) drug culture, check this one out.  Otherwise, don't bother.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

Michael Crichton month continues this week with Dealing, a movie based on a novel he cowrote with his brother Douglas and published under the name "Michael Douglas," because that's really clever, guy.  The movie itself had little or no involvement from Crichton, which, after last week's debacle, is definitely for the best.

We open in Boston, where we are ploddingly, sluggishly, begrudgingly introduced to Peter (Robert Lyons), a college student with a vaguely upper-class WASPy vibe.  Peter seems to be a generally aloof dummy with no strong prospects, motivations, or interests in life other than smoking weed, chasing girls, and possibly playing in a band.  I'm sure there's other subtle indications of character that I'm not picking up on because this movie was intended for a late 1960s / early 1970s audience and I'm watching it in 2017, but even allowing for that, Peter is a boring goddamn character.

I mean, I'm saying that his only interests are weed, chicks, and music, but that's only because he mentions each of those at one point and seems to smile as he does so.  Robert Lyons otherwise mostly just looks bored for the first half of this movie.  There's not much going on to give us a hook - in fact, I'm not even 100% sure that Peter's in a band.  I just know that he sometimes calls himself "Lucifer Harkness" and tells people he's in a band.  Maybe that's just his pick-up line.

Anyway.  Peter rents space in a house along with some other wooden uninteresting college kids, plus John (John Lithgow).  John is a well-groomed, well-dressed, polite, upper-crusty type who plays the piano and carries himself with seemingly undeserved grace.  John is something of a low-tier drug lord in Boston and deals weed on campus.  He's connected enough that he knows the ins-and-outs of facilitating large trades, but he acts like it's just something he does on the side.

Peter bumbles around gloomily for awhile and then decides, hey, why not deal drugs?  So he makes arrangements with John to fly to Berkeley to buy a shitload of weed and bring it back.  John goes over some basic rules of dealing to make sure Peter doesn't immediately get arrested, then suits him up and sends him on his way.

Once in Berkeley, Peter rents a car and goes to an innocuous house where he drops off his cash and gets a suitcase full of weed from a group of west coast dealers.  While there, he meets Susan (Barbara Hershey), a free-spirited post-hippie type who immediately charms him with her smile and easy nature.  Peter invites Susan to join him for a drive, and she accepts.  Seconds after she gets in his car, the police descend on the house and raid it.  Peter and Susan drive away, ostensibly leaving behind all of her friends to get arrested.

Susan takes it all in stride.  Instead of getting, like, bummed out or something, she takes Peter on a brief tour of a recording studio - possibly college-operated - and fucks him in a back room.  They do some coke, they laugh a bunch, and then they decide they're in love.  Ordinarily I'd chastise a movie for forcing a romance on the viewers with so little substance, but honestly, the movie's already a half hour in and barely anything's happened.  So, sure, why not.  They're in love.

Peter reluctantly goes back to Boston and successfully delivers the weed to John, but he's so heartsick about leaving Susan behind that he can't find any joy in the icy winter pathways of Cambridge.  Briefly he tries to hit on some random girl at a club, but it turns out she's a con artist setting him up for a mugging.  Also, I guess he didn't like her, anyway, because in the very next scene he's moping about Susan again.

Peter convinces John to set up another drug deal - this time, Susan will be the courier, and when she arrives in Boston with all of John's weed, she can stay and live happily ever after with Peter.  In his bedroom.  With the dozen other housemates who live there.  Or whatever.

And now, if you paid attention to the movie's full title, you'll probably guess what happens next: the bag full of drugs that Susan was transporting ends up getting lost in transit.  This event is important for two reasons: first, it's the titular conflict that drives the rest of the movie, and second, it marks the point at which Dealing becomes an actual movie.

The pacing shift is so jarring it'll give you whiplash.  Until now, we've spent just over 40 minutes painstakingly following Peter's soporific ennui, waiting for anything at all to happen.  It's a movie that you could sum up in like eight words.  "Bored guy deals drugs, meets lady, misses her."  But suddenly, Dealing goes into hyperdrive, and it starts throwing shit at you with very little context or exposition.

Off screen, John instructs Susan to wait for her lost bag at the airport, which Peter finds out about only after he's been waiting restlessly for her at his house.  When John reveals this information, Peter rushes to the airport and gets there just in time to see Susan being led away in handcuffs by Detective Murphy (Charles Durning).  Peter rushes back home to see that John is hastily packing all his stuff for a quick relocation to quieter, more anonymous quarters.  John explains that having Susan wait was the best play no matter what - either the "lost bag" was a ploy by the cops and she was going to get arrested, thus buying John time to pack up and leave, or her bag was legitimately lost, in which case she could recover it.  Turns out it was the first one, oh well.

Peter is understandably pissed off that John let the love of his life get busted, but since he's implicated in the deal and also doesn't really know anybody else who has the kind of connections that might help him out, he decides to stay with John, anyway.  They set up shop in another friend's house and catch the nightly news, which has a story about Susan's arrest.  The reporter explains that Susan was found with twenty bricks of weed, which throws John for a loop - he explains that Susan was transporting forty bricks, not twenty.  John then immediately concludes that Murphy must be a dirty cop who stole the other twenty bricks to sell for himself.

John drafts Peter for some varsity drug dealing and the next day they start staking out Murphy's house and tailing him.  After a long day of no leads, they finally follow him to an isolated warehouse where Murphy visits with Cortez (Victor Junquera).  At this point in the movie, we don't really know who Cortez is.  In fact, they never actually tell you. I think you're just supposed to deduce on your own that he's another drug dealer.  Murphy goes back to his car and leaves, and John and Peter stick around, figuring that Cortez is probably holding onto the weed.

John gives Peter a flare gun and tells him to pretend it's a pistol so they can rob Cortez.  Peter acts like it's a problem at first, but then he very quickly gets into his role.  He's kind of a natural at threatening drug dealers, it turns out.  While Peter points the gun at Cortez, John digs a suitcase of weed out of locker.  Cortez warns them not to take the stash; if they do, they'll be killed the second they leave the warehouse.  John scoffs at him, then takes the suitcase, anyway.  For good measure, he also reaches into Cortez's jacket and steals a cigar tube.

They force Cortez to lay down, then - in a move I would never have seen coming - pile a bunch of furniture on top of him to keep him pinned in place.  They rush out of the warehouse, and sure enough, the second they're out, somebody starts shooting at them.  John and Peter narrowly escape.  There's also a short-lived gag where John thinks he's been short, but it turns out it was just the suitcase that got hit.

Back at their hideout, John and Peter take another look at the stash, and John makes a shocking discovery: the cigar he stole isn't actually a cigar at all.  The tube is packed full to the brim with heroin.  The movie makes a big deal about how this tube is worth more than virtually all the drugs John has ever sold.  Naturally, he wants to ditch it as soon as he can, since he's trying to be more of a narcotics viscount than a drug lord.

Peter has other ideas.  They deduce that Murphy was probably going to cash out the heroin as one big, final corrupt score so he could retire from the police force.  Consequently, Peter can probably use the heroin to twist his arm into letting go of Susan.  So he makes a call to Murphy and threatens to go to the press with a full account (possibly partially made up) unless Murphy drops all the charges against Susan and releases her.  John decides that threatening the police is another level he's not willing to go to, so he hands the heroin over to Peter and goes on his own merry way.

Now, from here, the movie really floors the gas pedal on plot.  So much so that it doesn't even feel like you're watching the same movie.  Peter has basically come up with an elaborate plan, entirely off screen, to free Susan.  It involves him dropping off little parcels of the heroin at anonymous locations and giving Murphy broad instructions to find them.  Once Murphy realizes he's actually got a chance of getting his heroin back, he brings Susan with him to a bus depot to make the next pick-up.  Peter calls him through an anonymous payphone and gives him instructions on where to find the final capsule of heroin, but promises him that it'll only be there if Murphy lets Susan go now.  Murphy agrees, and leaves Susan behind.

(There's also a brief thing here where Peter instructs / bribes a cab driver, played by Paul Sorvino in one of his earliest ever roles, to drive Murphy to the final pick-up spot as slowly as possible.  It's not that important a detail, but I have to mention it because, hey, early Paul Sorvino.  It's mind-blowing.  He's a mild-mannered pushover in this movie, possibly for the first and last time.)

Peter and Susan finally meet again, but they don't have time to celebrate their reunion.  Peter tells Susan he has to make the final drop in order to wrap up all the loose ends, so she hops on a motorcycle he has hidden in a nearby alley and they go rushing off to an empty, snow-covered parking lot.  Peter drops the last package of heroin and pours red dye on the snow around it, then hides behind a little shed nearby with Susan to watch the rest of the movie.

In rapid succession, and with upbeat, light-comedy jazz playing all the while: Murphy's cab parks and he gets the heroin.  Then Cortez appears out of nowhere and drives after Murphy, running him over and apparently killing him.  Cortez takes the heroin and drives after the cab driver, who is now trying to escape, to kill any witnesses.  Then a third car, full of nebulous bad guys of some sort - possibly corrupt cops, possibly just more drug dealers - shows up and blocks Cortez's exit.  They get into a horrible, violent, bloody shootout that leaves just about everybody dead, except that Cortez is still alive somehow.  But then Murphy, who isn't quite dead yet, stands up and shoots Cortez.  He plants the last canister of heroin in Cortez's dead hand and calls into HQ to report multiple shootings, then drives off to the hospital.

The happy-go-lucky music stops playing and Peter comes out of hiding.  He looks longingly at the heroin in Cortez's hand and contemplates taking it.  Then he decides he's had enough of drug dealing, so he hops on his motorcycle and drives off with Susan.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I know I've already bitched about it in my plot recap above, but it bears repeating: the first act of this movie is slooooooooooooow as hell.  I can't stand it.

It takes a solid forty minutes (of an 88 minute runtime) for the titular lost-bag blues to start.  That's unforgivable considering the only information we really get out of it is that A) Peter loves Susan, B) Susan is desperate enough to see Peter again that she's willing to smuggle drugs, and C) Susan is not a skilled drug courier.  You could lay the seeds of this movie very easily in fifteen minutes.  Maybe twenty if you really want to set a mood.

And I should be clear that those first forty minutes aren't poorly filmed or anything like that.  It's not like a bunch of awkward idiots are yammering at each other about nothing.  (I mean, that does happen briefly when a philosophy major with John Lennon glasses drones on and on during one of the "Peter is sad" montages, but it's not the main focus.)  The movie is made well from the get-go.  Even the drab, boring scenes are composed interestingly enough that you think, "Gee, they obviously know how to make a movie, so why haven't they started one yet?"

What I really don't understand is why we spend all this time in the first half trying to set the scene if so little is actually communicated to us.  Peter and Susan aren't characters.  They're not even archetypes or stereotypes.  They're barely vessels.  Peter is an average everyman (who happens to be wealthy/connected enough to attend Cambridge, but still, he's supposed to be an everyman) and Susan is his stock Reward Girlfriend who's supposed to motivate him.  That's it.  There's nothing interesting about either of them, they don't have memorable lines, they don't do anything compelling.  You really needed forty minutes to sell me on this?

Why not use some of that time to flesh out the criminal goings-on that happen later in the movie?  I have no idea who half the characters are in the second and third acts outside of "corrupt cop" and "drug dealer."  Dealing isn't even kind enough to differentiate between the two.  I have no idea who was driving that third car that got shot up in the finale.

Come to think of it - how did Peter set up any of that third act?  How did he know that somebody would be tailing Murphy, or that Murphy would be content to let him go once he had the heroin, or that anything would happen the way it did?  Why would you not think this is important information for me to know, Dealing?  Wait, you want to show me another five minutes of that stoner loser taking about the "true self versus the imitation of the subconscious?"  Oh, fuck you.

But despite all that... I really did like this movie once it got going.  I wish I understood what was happening a little better, but regardless, everything that happens from minute 41 to the end is very good.  It has that excellent "amateur sleuth" vibe to it where a hapless idiot has to go up against forces way beyond his capability.  It's never tense, so I'm not going to call it a gripping thriller or anything like that - but it does move with a gleeful, anarchic pace and keeps you invested.

I really wish there was a 70-minute cut of this movie where somebody took a machete to the first act.  I think if you did that - and it's really not hard; there's tons of pointless shit in there - then you'd have a nifty little crime comedy.  Nothing groundbreaking, just a fun crowd-pleaser that gets you in and out.

I also enjoyed the perspective this movie has on drug dealing.  It's interesting to look at something like this and see where we were as a culture in the early '70s.  The folks who do drugs are all fun-loving, jovial folks with groovy lives and not a bitter bone in their bodies.  The folks who deal drugs are more of the same - just happy, peppy upper class white people who can easily walk away from a drug bust with nothing more than one rough night and a slap on the wrist.  The true villains?  Ah, those would be the corrupt cops and those scumbag Cubans - those are the folks you gotta look out for.  But us college-educated suburban types?  We're cool.  We know that drugs are all just, like, a really cool time.  It's an interesting companion to, say, Cheech & Chong, who were no less fun-loving, but way more arrestable.

So, I guess ultimately I'd recommend this movie.  Just make sure you've got something to keep yourself occupied for the first half.  Like some weed.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

I'm going to go with a total of 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  That would be forty points for obscurity, ten points for a light recommendation bonus, ten points for the slew of early performances by well-known actors, and another ten for drug-related irony.

That irony being, of course, the joy in seeing affluent white folks act like they have problems with The Man.  Watching Dealing in 2017 and pretending to be afraid for these chumps is like watching Napoleon Dynamite with your grandmother and pretending to be shocked by all the dirty words.

Where You Can Watch

Dealing made its way to DVD, so copies are readily available for purchase.