Pre-dating Hollywood’s love affair with drugs, before sub-culture transformed into counter culture, before smoking a joint marked a generational divide, before marijuana symbolized freedom and was, well, the epitome of cool, before all that heroin was still seen as a scourge.
Addiction had rarely been viewed as persuasive audience fodder with the odd exception of The Man with the Golden Arm (1953) or the less-starry Monkey on My Back (1957). And this was also before Synanon became a byword for cult excess and was eventually closed down for committing the cardinal sin of employing tax exemption to get stinking rich.
At the time it was a byword for something else – rehabilitation. Its methods might have been controversial given leader Chuck (Edmond O’Brien) had no psychiatric training and was simply an ex-addict looking to find a way back. The main weapon in the community’s arsenal was confrontation. What became known as attack therapy. Rather than being permitted to stew in self-pity, inmates, all voluntary, had their weaknesses spelled out by others until they were ready to acknowledge them for themselves. The key to recovery was talking. Anyone not talking was hiding from their problems. (I’m not so well up on addiction therapy to know whether Synanon invented that kind of counselling of talking out problems in groups that then became the norm.) If patients took to the scheme they were soon addicted to smoking and coffee; sex being considered too dangerous to contemplate.
Anyways, heroin addict Zankie (Alex Cord) is a newcomer helped along an entrant’s path by Joaney (Stella Stevens), a single mum so out of kilter with responsibility she kidnaps her son, and confronted by hardass Ben (Chuck Connors), so consumed with guilt over the death of his dope-fiend wife that he spurns all women. There’s a sub-plot of sorts. Chuck is being charged with various minor violations, including permitting convicted criminals out on parole to enter the establishment. But Chuck’s main job is to be sarcastic, challenging anyone’s notions that they could be cured, but occasionally analytically correct. “You put yourself in a position where you could lose control,” he tells Ben.
It’s a hothouse of emotions for sure. Zankie and Ben come to blows over Joaney. Zankie sees little wrong in knocking back some cough medicine. Eventually, Zankie skips out, pursued by Joaney, who goes back to turning tricks to fund her habit. There’s a surprising scene – for the time (likely excised from the British version and possibly the original) – of Chuck going through the whole candle, spoon, injection routine.
Set up as a sanitised public relations package promoting Synanon ideals with overmuch detail on the establishment’s background and conflict with authority, nonetheless it touches far better than most addiction movies on the lack of self-awareness that afflicts users, their creation of fantasy worlds where whatever they do is deemed right. The tension that comes from an entire house of jumpy characters, their dependence on a higher power (Chuck in this case) is well-drawn. Even the incessant smoking and the constant reliance on coffee suggests those with an addictive personality are only too likely to switch to something else.
You might question the casting. Alex Cord (Stagecoach, 1966), Stella Stevens (Rage, 1966) and Chuck Connors (Move Over Darling, 1963) are far too well-groomed to pass for skanky addicts even if on the road to recovery. And Edmond O’Brien (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) and his sidekick (Richard Conte, Lady in Cement, 1968)) come across like tougher versions of the tough priests tackling delinquency that used to be played by the likes of Spencer Tracy.
But Cord and Stevens do suggest the vulnerability of the delusional addict, Stevens little-girl-lost persona at odds with her glamor, actions devoid of the concept of consequence. Although boasting a six-pack, Cord’s portrayal of a man destroyed by weakness did not suggest he would segue from this screen debut into tough-guy leading roles. Better actors might have suggested a greater degree of internal conflict but externally, in the looks department, might have looked like this was always going to be their destination. So the casting works both ways, more surface, less depth, but a warning that even the prom king and queen are not immune from addiction.
Soberly directed by Richard Quine (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) from a screenplay by Ian Bernard, in his debut, but feels it owes too much from input by the original Chuck Dederich.
2 thoughts on “Synanon (1965) ***”
No comment on Eartha Kitt?
She’s not in it much and has kind of a preachy role.