Writer-director Floyd Mutrux displayed a great gift for capturing atmosphere in his early films, even if his eye for evocative details sometimes distracted him from presenting compelling plots. His style came together beautifully in his second film, the lovers-on-the-run drama Aloha Bobby and Rose (1975), though some fans understandably prefer his debut feature, Dusty and Sweets McGee, which offers an unvarnished look at the drug culture in early-’70s Los Angeles. As photographed by the venerable William A. Fraker, who shot all of Mutrux’s ’70s pictures, Dusty and Sweets McGee has texture to burn, thanks to languid montages of characters doing everyday activities while stoned.
Fraker photographed much of the picture through soft haze filters, so it’s as if the story is seen through the fog of a narcotic-induced stupor. In fact, verisimilitude was the priority during production, since the film is half-documentary, half-narrative. Much of the movie comprises real addicts describing their lives, and these nonfiction moments are intercut with a loose plot about casual users Tip (Clifton Tip Fredell) and Nancy (Nancy Wheeler) drifting deeper into the heroin scene as their addictions grow more powerful.
Some recurring characters appear in their storyline, like a mysterious white-bearded dealer (played by Fraker in his only significant acting role), but mostly the picture meanders through the controlled-substances netherworld, giving viewers a sense of how often the stoner scene shifts from mellow to malevolent. In an effective directorial flourish, Mutrux uses a tasty soundtrack of pop songs to provide a kind of Greek Chorus commenting on the moods of particular moments; featured songs include Blues Image’s rousing “Ride Captain Ride,” Van Morrison’s seductive “Into the Mystic,” and Del Shannon’s driving “Runaway,” plus a handful of doo-wop/Motown numbers that seem to sing for the characters’ heartsick souls.
Viewed strictly as a narrative, Dusty and Sweets McGee is slow and uneventful, with long strings of seemingly inconsequential scenes merging into a steady hum of grime and self-destruction. But as a snapshot of a historical moment, the picture is virtually peerless, a West Coast counterpoint to the similarly atmospheric New York-set heroin picture The Panic in Needle Park, which was also released in 1971. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Dusty and Sweets McGee: GROOVY