With its focus on low-level drug peddlers and “tune in, turn on, drop out” college culture, the lengthily titled Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues could easily have been made in the mid-’60s instead of the early ’70s, and the picture’s approach to characterization is so Spartan that the people in the movie feel like counterculture-era abstractions instead of flesh-and-blood individuals. That’s not a bad thing, however, since Dealing is like an injection of pure period vibe, from the pervasive theme of lawlessness to the happenin’ lingo to the potent male fantasy of a with-it hippie chick who grooves on the hero’s scene.
Dealing isn’t deep or provocative, and it isn’t really about anything except the vague implications of a contraband-fueled adventure in the anything-goes ’70s, but it’s atmospheric, attractively shot, and loaded with far-out tunes (including drop-the-needle pop cuts and an eclectic score by Michael Small). Stripped of any aspirations to redeeming social value, the movie is like a sleek catalog of vintage textures.
The story was adapted from a novel by “Michael Douglas,” the shared pseudonym for bestselling author Michael Crichton and his brother, Douglas Crichton. Peter (Robert F. Lyons) is a directionless Harvard law student not particularly interested in his studies. He regularly makes cross-country trips to fetch dope for his pal John (John Lithgow), an urbane drama teacher/dealer with a talent for coldly exploiting young people. In Berkeley for a connection, Peter meets pretty druggie Susan (Barbara Hershey), and before long, they get together in a recording studio, bonding over a few lines of coke and a bit of the old in-out. (He playfully introduces himself to Susan as “Lucifer,” having rocked out to the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” on his Buck Rogers-looking stereo headset earlier in the movie.)
Eventually, once Peter makes his way back to Boston, he persuades John to hire Susan for a run so she can join her new lover on the East Coast. The plan goes awry when Susan gets busted at Logan Airport by a corrupt detective, Murphy (Charles Durning), who swipes half her cargo. Realizing the cop stole drugs, John and Peter try to hustle Murphy in order to get Susan released, and this endeavor soon evolves into full-on intrigue: After John bails when the danger level gets too high, Peter finds himself stuck between corrupt cops and vengeful drug dealers in a violent showdown. The movie ambles through mellow situations until Peter’s predicament percolates, at which point a fair amount of suspense develops, and the big finish in a snow-covered nature preserve is exciting and weird.
Although journeyman TV actor Lyons is a weak link, the stiffness of his performance is partially negated by the fact that his character is a cipher, and the rest of the cast is strong. Hershey comes across well in a mostly ornamental role; Durning is appropriately insidious; and Lithgow’s amusing characterization runs the gamut from perverse to pathetic. Adding considerably to the movie’s offbeat appeal is the complete absence of sympathetic characters—Peter and Susan are more appealing than the killers and sleazebags they encounter, but they’re still losers, which makes them unique choices to occupy the romantic center of a Hollywood movie. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues: GROOVY