To their neighbours, the Masons seem like a comfortably well off, smoothly functioning suburban New York family. OK, so Arthur (Eli Wallach) is a bit of a lush and Gerrie (Julia Harris) smokes like a chimney. Gershwin loving Arthur doesn’t really “get” the music and fashions embraced by his kids Artie (Stephen McHattie) and Maxie (Deborah Winters), but what parent ever did? The generational gap runs deeper than that, though, becoming a fully fledged chasm when Maxie is abruptly revealed as an acid gobbling sexual libertine. Artie unjustly cops the blame and is kicked out. What will the Hoffmans next door think of these ructions and the spectacle of Maxie running around the street, naked, literally hugging trees? How, moreover, will David (Hal Holbrook) and Tina (Cloris Leachman) Hoffman react when they discover that it’s their studious, apparently strait-laced yuppie son Sandy (Don Scardino) who’s been supplying gear to Maxie and the other neighbourhood kids?
Having completed the wonderful I Start Counting (1969), David Greene was back Stateside the following year for a feature film reworking of his 1968 CBS TV drama The People Next Door, which had ruffled sensibilities with its depiction of a nice, middle class family struggling to accommodate a disaffected, drug-dabbling (and seemingly doomed) daughter. Greene was clear that the serial killer subplot in I Start was nowhere near as interesting to him as the dynamics of the protagonist’s dysfunctional family and that’s pretty much what he focuses on here, with an established property and an even more crackerjack cast than the TV original, which boasted Lloyd Bridges, Robert Duvall, Fritz Weaver, Kim Hunter, et al. Don Scardino and Deborah Winters return in their respective roles as Sandy Hoffman and Maxie Mason. Wild eyed Winters is memorably intense even before she comes out as a card carrying dope fiend, a revelation that’s dropped, rather clanging, into JP Miller’s script (adapted from his own stage play). Similarly, some of the “down with the kids stuff” is a bit wince inducing but as always, Greene manages a memorable ensemble performance from the impressive thespian resources at his disposal.
My biggest reservations about The People Next Door concern the flimsiness of Maxie’s grounds for hating her parents and the death trip she subsequently embarks upon. I mean, Dad prefers I’ve Got Rhythm to Frank Zappa… so fucking what? He’s a little insensitive and opinionated but maybe she could find time out from energetically pursuing her angst to sympathise with him as he attempts to adjust to the societal paradigm shift from “I like Ike” to “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”… it’s all a bit “Go Ask Alice meets Death Of A Salesman” for poor old Arthur. Even more deplorable is Maxie’s cold, casual hatred of her mother (above), who ultimately digs deep to try and turn things around by the films open ended conclusion. Maybe it’s just because I’ve become an irredeemable old fart myself but Maxie’s kindly, misunderstood brother Artie (Stephen McHattie) is the only character under 30 I had any time for in this film, whose sympathies reside, er, squarely on the side of the parents. Is this why Greene protested the edit and tried to get his name taken off The People Next Door?
Editor Brian Smedley-Aston, who cut that other psychedelic cautionary tale, Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine (and also produced Exposé and a couple of José Larraz movies) talks of his working relationship with Greene on TPND and various other pictures in one of this set’s bonus featurettes. In another, The Bead Game’s John Sheldon recalls his band’s musical contributions to the film, throwing up some fascinating classic rock family connections in the process. Deborah Winters, now working in real estate, reminisces engagingly, e.g. about the problems of shooting the loony bin scenes amid the inmates of a genuine psychiatric institution. Vic Pratt kicks in a useful overview of David Greene’s career and there’s an audio commentary with actor Rutanya Alda and film historian Lee Gambin, plus trailer and image gallery of promotional and publicity material. Restored in 4k from the original negative, the limited (to 3,000 copies) edition of this UK BD premiere boasts a 36-page booklet with new essay by Peter Tonguette, an account of the controversy generated by the TV version of The People Next Door, archival interview with actor Eli Wallach, a look at the film’s soundtrack album, a collection of contemporary critical responses and full film credits.