Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686
[The Connection] is one of the rare stage pieces that is improved in its screen version.
This often means, as the junkies beadily note, nothing more than that the director has been visually flashy, eliminated the lines that can be better expressed in the cinema by the way someone shrugs or behaves when he is alone, and perhaps realised the potentialities of film to the extent of adding a car crash to the action. Shirley Clarke, the young American who made The Connection, has done something more crucial: though she adheres closely to the original text and never stirs outside the junkies' pad, she has altered the relation of the audience to what is going on, which in The Connection is peculiarly important.
In the stage version, the play hangs on the Pirandellian device of an "author" who is planted in the audience, complaining intermittently that his work is being ruined by junkie actors…. In Gelber's screenplay the character of the author is eliminated: part of his function is appropriated by the "director", Jim Dunn, but because he is on the screen with the others he is absorbed into the fiction. The opposition is no longer between actors and author, pretending to be sparring at a rehearsal, but between actors and spectators, which is what Gelber always intended…. [In] the cinema the correct, discomfiting question becomes one about our own motives in wanting to spy on drug addicts. In the theatre the audience often felt embarrassed; in the cinema it feels accused.
This is partly due to the rewriting, but mostly to Shirley Clarke's brilliant insistence that the camera is the instrument of our own curiosity….
[In The Connection,] the camera is always a palpable object. The junkies glare at it, are amused by it and turn away from the lights as blindly as they do from the director's questions. Apart from the sequences when the shooting is taken over by Jim Dunn with a hand-held camera, the operator is an unseen but powerful presence, occasionally speaking monosyllabically from behind the camera and always severely doubtful of his boss's propriety in thinking to make art of such sorry goings-on. The spectator's identification with this character, called J. J. Burden—a variant on Jaybird, the author-character of the stage version—becomes, in time, complete and perturbing, for his silences emit a pretty square and unbudging personality.
After films like Hiroshima, mon Amour, and Moderato Cantabile, and Une Aussi Longue Absence, we have grown used to the notion that films can be driven forward not by a plot but simply by the way the characters react upon one another. The Connection goes further: not only is it without action, but it is also very nearly without interaction, for like all addicts the characters are effectively sealed off from human communication. Their talk is idle self-colloquy: they expect nothing of one another, do only what is absolutely necessary, and would scorn, as true hipsters, the idea of selling themselves as characters or even justifying their addiction. "That's the way it is. Man, that's the way it really is," becomes a recurring phrase in the play; and apart from some desultory speculation about why heroin should have been made illegal, they ask no questions…. The Connection is a study of men with scepticism but no curiosity, great insight coupled with total inertia: they are, in the most precise sense, anti-social. (p. 145)
One can pick a few holes in the play, particularly for its unremitting scorn of its characters, and its respect for a coolness that is sometimes downright moribundity. There are moments, too, when The Connection romanticises the anti-romantic. Against this one has to put an admirably unsensational attitude to dope, a matching refusal to supply theatrical kicks, an impeccable ear for the hipster's patois, and a black, abrupt humour. For Shirley Clarke's direction there can be nothing but praise: with Shadows, this is a film with more creative flair than any that has come out of America for years. (p. 146)
Penelope Gilliatt, "'The Connection'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1961 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1961, pp. 145-46.