The Cocaine Fiends (William A. O'Connor / U.S., 1935):
(The Pace That Kills)

A hallucination of the dope racket as shredder of youth, regularly coupled with Reefer Madness yet boasting a kernel of grimly impoverished integrity that wards off campy derision. The trajectory is from rural diner to the Dead Rat Cafe and worse, a toot of "the grandest headache medicine in the world" kicks off the slide of the naïve waitress (Lois January) who swiftly turns woozy moll to a slick pusher (Noel Madison). Her brother (Dean Benton) comes to the city looking for her and ends hooked himself, heading off to cocaine shindigs with a drive-in waitress (Sheila Manners) who perkily teaches him the lingo: "I’m gonna take you on a sleigh ride with the snow birds!" "Sleigh ride? Snow birds? In summer?!" A pleasure-seeking socialite (Lois Lindsay) completes the hophead quartet as the shadows begin to fall on their faces. The luster gone from the whoopee-makin’, Benton shivers in a filthy bed while taking money from Manners, who’s just back from a night of walking the streets. The decayed quality of the celluloid itself here becomes an accidental embodiment of the characters’ physical and spiritual erosion, with missing frames working like razory jump cuts, shoddy lighting supplying a pervasive chiaroscuro, and the garbled soundtrack further choking out the voices of the damned. Laugh if you want, but William A. O’Connor’s static, unbroken tableau of the pregnant addict’s suicide (oven turned on, towel stuffed under door, lights turned off) is like something suspended between Griffith’s The Struggle and Ray’s Knock on Any Door, with more honesty than all the pyrotechnics of Requiem for a Dream. With Eddie Phillips, Charles Delaney, Frank Shannon, and Fay Holden. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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