Dutchman (1966)
Dutchman (1966)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 55 min.

Release Date: December 28th, 1966 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Anthony Harvey Actors: Shirley Knight, Al Freeman Jr.

 


 

I

t opens like an independent, experimental horror film, with ominous, mechanical notes and ear-piercing sounds as a New Jersey subway train emerges from a creepily lightless tunnel. Clay (Al Freeman Jr.) is the sole passenger, reading a book and sitting in a window seat with a clear view of a sultry blonde woman, Lula (Shirley Knight), standing alone out on the platform. When she boards, it becomes obvious that she’s interested in some sort of interaction.

That interaction, however, is the type that can best be described as a cat-and-mouse game. Steadily approaching the seated, well-dressed, young black man, fair-haired white Lula soon confronts him and practically collapses in his lap (after which she seductively chomps on apples and oranges from her knapsack). He’s apprehensive and confused, while she’s forward and handsy; but their initial conversation quickly becomes tinged with overt sexuality. It’s also evident that Lula is something of a troublemaker, hoping to entertain herself at the expense of an unfortunate target. “Nothing else to do; run your mind over people’s flesh.”

“Dutchman” is a two-person show, adapted from a stage play and set entirely on the single subway car (save for a smattering of random background riders and a few shots of the train passing through stations). The nerve-wracking face-off unsubtly represents the writer’s (LeRoi Jones, who penned both the play and the screenplay) interpretation of contemporary race relations, segregation, and classism, replete with a cautionary tale of conspiratorial, duplicitous white women and the potential for retaliation (and its associated backfiring) by their black marks, as well as complacency or inaction toward injustice. And that’s all wrapped up in a notion about an evil temptress and a human sacrifice and the bitter feelings of racism still painfully prevalent in modern society. It’s definitely not idealistic or optimistic. Instead, it’s uncomfortable, unpredictable, and shocking … but also scarily honest.

It’s a bit of a mystery at first, with Lula seemingly knowing too many things about Clay. The story could potentially go anywhere, though the brief running time and the extremely small cast betray the picture’s purpose as an exercise and a metaphor. And as Lula exhibits pronounced, crazed mood swings indicative of a venomous femme fatale – a black widow trying to ensnare an insect in her web – her allegorical representations grow more apparent. Or, perhaps she’s just on some very powerful drugs – a distinct possibility as her behavior devolves into that of a raving lunatic. Toward the bold, rowdy conclusion, roles are reversed and tables are turned, but there’s no hope for a real escape. White oppression is too extreme. Despite “Dutchman’s” limited design and focus, the two leading players are sensational and the message is potent and endlessly relevant.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10