For the past week, I’ve been reviewing — in chronological order — fifty of the most, for reasons good and bad, memorable film melodramas of all time. I started with a film from 1916 called Where Are My Children? and now, as we reach the halfway mark, we also reach the 70s. There were several reasons why I wanted to start the 70s with the 1970 drugs-in-the-suburbs melodrama, The People Next Door. First off, not many people seem to have heard of it and I always enjoy discovering and sharing previously obscure films. But, even more importantly, The People Next Door stars Eli Wallach, the great character actor who recently passed away at the age of 98. Needless to say, Wallach is great in The People Next Door but then again, when wasn’t Wallach great?
At first glance, the Masons appears to be your typical suburban family. Patriarch Arthur (Eli Wallach) may be a bit strict but he works hard to provide his family with a good life. Wife Gerrie (Julie Harris) may seem to be a bit nervous at times but she still works hard to maintain a perfect home. Son Artie (Stephen McHattie) may have long hippie hair and he does devote a lot of time to his band but otherwise, he seems to be a good kid. And then there’s 16 year-old Maxie (Deborah Winters), who is blonde and pretty and overall the ideal American girl. Even better the Masons live next door to the friendly Hoffmans, perfect David Hoffman (Hal Holbrook), his perfect wife Tina (Cloris Leachman), and their perfect teenage son, Sandy (Don Scardino).
But guess what?
Arthur is actually a smug and overbearing bully whose constant bragging hides his own dissatisfaction with how his life has turned out. He is jealous of his son’s future and his over protectiveness of his daughter takes on a distinctly disturbing tone as the film progresses. Arthur is also having an affair with his secretary (Rue McClanahan).
Gerrie knows about Arthur’s affair but chooses to look the other way. She goes through her day in a haze of smoke provided by the cigarettes that she is constantly smoking. Like Arthur, she cannot understand her children. Unlike Arthur, she does realize that she doesn’t have all the answers.
Artie may be a good kid but he feels totally and thoroughly alienated from the rest of the family and, because of his long hair, he is the constant subject of Arthur’s abuse.
And then there’s Maxie, who everyone believes to be perfect and wholesome until one night when she’s discovered tripping on LSD. Arthur immediately assumes that Artie must have given his sister the drugs and kicks Artie out of the house. However, what Arthur doesn’t realize, is that Maxie is actually getting the drugs from clean-cut Sandy. Sandy doesn’t use himself but he has no problem with dealing.
To Arthur and Gerrie’s shock, Maxie tells them that she’s been using drugs for a while and she’s sexually active as well! When Arthur subsequently discovers Maxie snorting cocaine and living with a naked biker, it’s naturally time for everyone to get into family therapy. Unfortunately, the therapy doesn’t really help that much and soon, Maxie is again dropping acid and dancing naked on the front lawn…
As you can probably guess from the description above, The People Next Door is one of those families-in-crisis melodramas where everything that possibly can be wrong with a family is wrong with this family. It’s always easy to dismiss well-intentioned films like this and The People Next Door has its share over-the-top moments. But, at the same time, the film actually works better than most of the Suburban Hell melodramas of the early 70s.
That’s largely due to the performances, with Eli Wallach in particular giving an explosive performance as an all too plausible monster and Hal Holbrook and Cloris Leachman very believably bringing to life another family which turns out to be not quite as ideal as they first appear to be. And then there’s Deborah Winters, who starts out as being so mannered that you think she’s going to give a bad performance but then, as the film progresses, you realize that Maxie is the one giving the performance because that’s the only way she can survive her “perfect” family.
I first came across The People Next Door on YouTube and, considering how much I love exposing people to obscure films, I was really looking forward to sharing it with you on this site. But guess what? In the three weeks between me watching this film and me staring this post, The People Next Door was taken down from the site. I guess somebody is really dedicating to protecting the copyright on a film that hardly anybody in the world has actually heard of.
So, unfortunately, I can only share the trailer.
Watch it below!