Of all the wars ever declared by this country, the "War on Drugs" is surely the most unusual. It is, after all, a war against something that we as a society seem to dearly love. Recreational drug use has been a constant in our society from the beginning. We have dealt with this by dividing recreational drugs into socially acceptable ones, like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, and forbidden ones, like cocaine and heroin. Then we pretend that we can successfully crusade against the forbidden drugs while continuing to enjoy the permissible ones with wild abandon.
The constant fallout of human misery from this unresolvable paradox continues to tie our political and judicial systems in knots while ruining countless individual human lives. For that very reason, however, this ongoing scourge also provides filmmakers with a rich source of dramatic material to draw upon. The most recent screen dramatization of the devastating effects of drug addiction is "Traffic," directed by Steven Soderbergh. To see how earlier filmmakers have dealt with the topic, look for these titles on home video.
"The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955). Frank Sinatra, already renowned as a singer, proved that he also had genuine acting talent in "From Here to Eternity" (1953). In "The Man With the Golden Arm," under the direction of Otto Preminger, he took on the challenge of portraying a heroin addict. This film is, in many respects, dated in the sense that what was sensationalistic then is familiar and unremarkable now. Even so, the harrowing cold turkey sequence, in which Sinatra's character endures the torturous process of heroin withdrawal, retains much of its potency.
"A Hatful of Rain" (1957). Adapted from a play by Michael V. Gazzo, this grim drama unflinchingly depicts the corrosive effect of a drug addict's habit on his family. The main character, played by Don Murray, does his best to conceal his addiction from his pregnant wife and from his father and brother. Addiction, however, is a progressive malady. Eventually it becomes impossible for him to cover up the problem. This film is not currently available on video, but older copies can still be found for rent.
"Born to Win" (1971). Fans of "Just Shoot Me," who are accustomed to seeing George Segal working within the narrow confines of a single sitcom character week in and week out, might be startled by his work in this overlooked film. As J.J., a former New York hairdresser with a hundred dollar per day heroin habit, Segal turns in a solid performance encompassing a wide palette of emotions. Driven to desperation, J.J. turns to a life of crime to support his habit. Then, after his inevitable arrest, he turns on his junkie friends, becoming a police informant. In contrast to most drug films, this one plays itself out as a black comedy, but without trivializing its subject. This low budget production is rough around the edges, but it has plenty of heart at its center.
"The Panic in Needle Park" (1971). Back in 1962, a film called "Days of Wine and Roses" had told the tragic story of a couple's struggle to cope with the fact that each was an alcoholic. "Needle Park" tells a similar story, except that the drug of choice for this film's doomed couple is heroin. Al Pacino and Kitty Winn star in this descent into the hell of the New York City drug culture. Director Jerry Schatzberg doesn't shrink from showing the graphic details of a junkie's life. Like "A Hatful of Rain," this film cannot currently be purchased new but is widely available for rent.
"Clean and Sober" (1988). In the same way that "Needle Park" represents an update of "Days of Wine and Roses," "Clean and Sober" is a kind of loose remake of "The Lost Weekend" (1945), director Billy Wilder's classic tale of an alcoholic who goes on an apocalyptic bender only to endure the horrors of drying out in a sanitarium. Here it is Michael Keaton who plays the hapless addict, and the drug of choice is cocaine.
William Faulkner once said that the best stories are about the human heart in conflict with itself. As long as we continue to love recreational drugs as much as we hate them, filmmakers will never lack for worthwhile stories to tell us about this tragic ambivalence for which we never stop paying.