A promising young physician develops an opium habit and his life spirals ever downward over the following years to its inevitable sordid and tragic conclusion as he becomes hopelessly addicted to hard drugs.
Dwain Esper made exploitation movies before the term even existed. To avoid trouble with the censors, he did not exhibit them through the usual channels but took them out on the road himself, setting up in halls, revival tents, carnivals and burlesque houses – anywhere he could sit on the door and collect admissions. Esper was a former carny himself and his partner in crime was his wife and ex-snake dancer Hildesgard Stadie. She wrote the films and he directed.
‘Narcotic’ (1933) was their 2nd effort, debut ‘The Seventh Commandment’ (1932) is seemingly lost. Stadie’s screenplay was supposedly based on the life of an uncle, a quack who hocked patent ‘medicines’ around the carnival circuit. We join Dr William G Davies (Harry Cording) at the start of his pharmaceutical journey, a respectable man with a glittering career in front of him. Cording is surprisingly naturalistic in these scenes, although Joan Dix playing his wife is very stilted. Hooked on opium by a stereotypical Chinaman, Cording’s behaviour becomes increasingly fractured, although his performance remains mostly restrained. He ends up swindling suckers in a tacky sideshow, a life with which Esper and Stadie were probably only too familiar!
Although the film is dull and very cheaply made, there are several talking points. First and most obvious is the presentation of hard core drug use. At a ‘drug party’, we see cocaine, heroin, weed and other substances laid out like in a tapas bar, with swells in evening clothes snorting, smoking and actually injecting.Esper wouldn’t have been able to get away with this daring and titilating content, even outside of the usual studio system, but his movies were social documentaries and educational (well, supposedly!) and this one opens with no less than 4 captions, detailing the scourge of drugs and the authenticity of the scenes depicted. By showing us the degradations of addiction, Esper is obviously rallying us all to a social cause, not just making a quick buck.
Another item of interest is the unusual structure of the narrative. Scene follows scene with no clue as to how much time has passed between, sometimes it seems to be a day, sometimes months or even years. It would be easy to just put this down to incompetence of course (the shadow of the boom mike should have got an acting credit) but was it actually an attempt to show the increasing deterioration of an addict’s mind? One of the characters even tells Cording in the final scenes that his perception of time and reality are now completely screwed. The feel of it certainly foreshadows the glorious delirium of Esper’s demented follow up ‘Maniac’ (1934) and begs the question of what he might have been trying to achieve with that movie. Was he actually shooting for something on an artistic level? Is it really as wonderfully clueless and idiotic as it seems?
Actress Jean Levy, later Jeanne Grey, who appeared here in the ‘drug party’ scene (‘You can shoot me if I don’t…with a needle!’) actually went on to win an Emmy believe it or not. Not for acting mind, she became a pioneer in the role of women on radio and TV, presenting her own network magazine show for women in the 1950s (introduced by a young Johnny Carson!) She also won many awards for her civic works and philanthropy. All a long way from the somewhat shabby world of Dwain Esper…