Monday, July 4, 2016

Believe in Me (1971)

          Released a few months after Jerry Schatzberg’s harrowing The Panic in Needle Park, this slickly produced drug drama tells roughly the same story, even though the films couldn’t be more different in terms of execution. Whereas The Panic in Needle Park is loose and nihilistic, Believe in Me is linear and tame. Despite its arty excesses, The Panic in Needle Park is something akin to a straight shot of ugly reality. Conversely, Believe in Me is a diluted dose, with the mandates of palatable Hollywood artifice compelling everyone involved to pull their punches. Believe in Me isn’t a rotten movie, per se, and neither does it slip into self-parody, which often happens when mainstream filmmakers try to explore street culture. Nonetheless, it’s way too safe and tidy to have the desired impact, and only one of the film’s two leading actors approaches the necessary level of commitment.
          Lanky and wide-eyed Michael Sarrazin stars as Remy, a young doctor who feels the world too deeply, so he pops a pill every time he’s touched by the plight of a patient, whether a diminished senior or a sick child. Setting aside the major plot point that Remy made an incredibly poor career choice, the movie continues when Remy meets Pamela (Jacqueline Bisset), the sister of a fellow physician. She’s working as an assistant editor on children’s books, but she’s a bit lost in life, so she’s susceptible to Remy’s charms. They move in together, and she soon learns that his drug use is spiraling out of control. She catches him snorting speed, and she lets him spin the fantasy that it’s okay for him to self-medicate because his medical degree allows him to safely manage his intake. Rather inexplicably, Pamela remains with Remy even after he escalates to shooting speed intravenously, and she ignores red flags like the periodic appearances of slimy dealer Stutter (Allen Garfield), who all but directly says he’d like to turn Pamela out as a prostitute. Inevitably, Rmy pulls Pamela into his world of addiction, and that’s when the movie loses its way.
          Not only is Pamela’s embrace of hard drugs dubious from a narrative perspective, but at this stage in her development, Bisset lacked the range to credibly dramatize the leap from buttoned-up city girl to strung-out junkie. Toward the end of the picture, she looks like she’s playing dress-up with her raccoon eyes and stringy hair. For his part, Sarrazin in his prime was so gaunt that he looked somewhat like a junkie anyway, and he was also a deeper actor than Bisset was during her ingénue years. His work here isn’t good enough to fully overcome the picture’s flaws, but he easily eclipses his costar. Adding to the general fakeness of Believe in Me is the gooey score by Fred Karlin, which is punctuated by a tender theme song that Lou Rawls sings, and the sometimes distractingly elegant imagery created by cinematographers Richard C. Brooks and Richard C. Kratina. In other words, good luck believing in Believe in Me.

Believe in Me: FUNKY

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