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THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR (1970) [LIMITED EDITION]

Written By:

Rich Cross
the_people_next_door_1970

Originally made as a US TV movie of the week in 1968, The People Next Door – a study of addiction, the counterculture, and the generation gap – was remade for the big screen two years later. Returning for the movie version were the original writer and director, and Deborah Winters who reprised her role as the wayward Maxie Mason, the precocious and rebellious young woman whose drug-induced descent into severe mental illness is at the heart of this cautionary tale.

The Masons, a seemingly contented, middle-class American family, is beginning to strain at the seams. Patriarch Arthur (Eli Wallach) wishes that his brood could instead emulate the lifestyle of the people next door, and in particular the go-getter attitude of their son Sandy (Don Scardino). The older Mason son Artie (Stephen McHattie) and younger daughter Maxie, both teenagers, are attracted to the thrills and excitement of the underground hippy scene. While Artie, a talented musician, seeks recognition in a proto-prog rock band, Maxie is more interested in exploring recreational substance abuse and hanging out with bad boys. When Arthur discovers what Maxie is up to, he immediately blames Artie for bringing drugs into the house. With Artie banished, mother Gerrie (Julie Harris) is unable to make sense of her daughter’s alarming new behaviour. Events quickly spiral as Maxie becomes ever more manic and disconnected, and Arthur’s clumsy efforts to pull her back from the brink fail.

The original TV movie had attracted both controversy and accolades, including an Emmy. Although it picked up the property for the big-screen treatment, the studio did not offer up a huge budget for the remake. Director David Greene, a left-field filmmaker whose 1969 British flick I Start Counting was recently re-released, makes a virtue of this. Greene opts for a small-scale canvas, exploring the film’s themes through a tight focus on the two sets of family members – with some surprising results.

One of the things The People Next Door suggests very forcefully is that neither the bewildered parents nor the defiant children are able to hear one another, and that the old and the young are both capable of acting in appalling and selfish ways. Miller’s script does bring out the hypocrisy of the parent’s generation, whose members abuse alcohol, have affairs, and pop diet pills and sleeping tablets, whilst lamenting the lax morals and drug culture of the young.

The film boasts an impressive and, newcomers aside, an experienced cast. Wallach is superb as the incredulous father with a short fuse, while Harris puts in an excellent performance as Arthur’s pained but resilient wife. Aged just sixteen at the time of filming, Winters brings depth and believability to the role of Maxie. That’s all the more impressive because the film avoids taking a view on whether it’s the LSD and other substances that drive Maxie mad, or whether the young woman is predisposed to mental instability – a vulnerability that narcotics make worse.

The movie does lack context. The breadth of the counterculture, the impact of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the US, the range of social and political issues over which the young were in revolt, and the extent of New York’s economic decline as the 1960s ended: all of these are hinted at but not stitched into the fabric of the film. By the time The People Next Door reached the big screen, much of its original impact had dissipated. Suggesting that America’s mutually suspicious generations were out of sync, and acknowledging that some youngsters took drugs (and could suffer bad outcomes as a result) were no longer breakthrough ideas.

This new release offers a 4K restoration from the original camera negative, and a generous set of special features – the majority of which are talking-head features filmed by cast and crew members online during the Covid lockdown. A chatty and relaxed new audio commentary by Rutanya Alda and Lee Gambin helps locate the movie in its times. Tripping with Maxie sees Winters reflect on her life and career before and after the movie; editor Brian Smedley-Aston is full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes on Structured How to Feel; and musician John Sheldon, whose band Bead Game features on screen and across the soundtrack of the film, talks discographies and line-ups in My Life in Review. Film historian Vic Pratt also provides an informed, if somewhat stilted, retrospective on the directorial career of David Greene.

Far from being a censorious After-School Special on the dangers of meddling with drugs, The People Next Door attempts to snapshot a moment of conflict and transition in US social history. It is an intriguing effort, despite its blindspots, brought to life by its stellar cast.

It’s sobering to be reminded that within just a few years of the film’s release, the dimly-lit back alleys and grubby tenements of New York would become the fulcrum for a new youth counterculture even more determined than hippy had been to offend and outrage America’s middle-aged, middle-class establishment.

THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR is released on Limited Edition Blu-ray August 30th from Indicator

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