1961’s The Connection opens with a title card and voice over from someone identifying himself as being J.J. Burden. Burden explains that what we are about to see is the last known work of an aspiring documentarian named Jim Dunn. Burden explains that, after he and Dunn filmed the footage that’s about to be shown, Dunn disappeared. It was left to Burden to put the footage together and he swears that he has gone out of his way to stay true to Dunn’s intentions.
Of course, if you’ve watched enough old movies, you might recognize Burden’s resonate voice as belonging to the distinguished actor, Roscoe Lee Browne. And, once the film starts, you may also notice that you’ve seen Jim Dunn in other movies. That’s because Dunn is played by William Redfield, a character actor who specialized in playing professional types.
The Connection takes place in a New York loft. A group of jazz musicians are waiting for their drug dealer. Sometimes, they play music. Sometimes, they look straight at the camera and answer questions about what it’s like to be a heroin addict. While Burden always remains behind the camera, Jim Dunn occasionally steps in front of it and scolds the men for not being dramatic enough. Dunn is attempting to stage reality. Leach (Warren Finnerty), the most verbose of the addicts, taunts Dunn over never having done drugs himself. Dunn jokingly says that maybe he could start with some marijuana.
This is no Waiting for Godot. The dealer does eventually arrive. His name is Cowboy and he’s slickly played by Carl Lee. (Carl Lee was the son of Canada Lee, who appeared in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Sadly, 25 years after filming his role in The Connection, Lee would die of a heroin overdose.) He’s accompanied by a flamboyant woman named Sister Salvation (Barbara Winchester). As Burden films, the musicians enter a small bathroom one-by-one, so that they can shoot up. Music is played. Overdoses are dealt with. And Dunn, who was originally so detached, becomes more and more drawn into the junkie life style…
Was The Connection the first mockumentary? To be honest, I’m really not sure but it definitely has to be one of the first. The beginning title card (and Burden’s narration) feels like it could easily be used in front of any of the hundreds of found footage horror films that have been released over the last few years. The film itself makes good use of the found footage format, though it’s also trapped by the genre’s limitations. With all of the action taking place in just one room, there’s no way that The Connection can’t feel stagey. (And, indeed, it was based on a play.) Along with detailing the lives of those on the fringes of society, The Connection makes some good points about the staging of reality, though it never goes quite to the lunatic extremes of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust.
(The Cannibal Holocaust comparison is not as crazy as it may sound. Much as how the arrogant filmmakers in Deodato’s film attempted to exploit the cannibals, Jim Dunn attempts to exploit the addicts. When the addicts and Cowboy start pressuring Dunn to try heroin, it’s not that much different from the cannibals eating the cameraman in Cannibal Holocaust. The exploited are getting their revenge.)
The Connection was the first dramatic film to be directed by documentarian Shirley Clarke and, like many of Clarke’s films, it struggled to find an audience. (Both the film and Clarke would have to wait several decades before getting the recognition that they deserved.) The subject matter was considered to be so sordid (and the language so shocking) that the film was originally banned in New York. The filmmakers actually had to file a lawsuit to get the film released. The New York State Court of Appeals ruled the film was “vulgar but not obscene.”
Seen today, the film seems to be neither vulgar nor obscene. Instead, it seems like a time capsule of the era in which it was made. We tend to think of the early 60s as a time of beach movies, drive-ins, early rock and roll, and Kennedy optimism. The Connection reveals that there was a lot more going on than just that.