In a nondescript room, a woman has sex with her hirsute, pinky ringed paramour. It is uncertain from their pillow talk if their relationship is personal or professional. The woman rises from the bed to remove the remnants of her make up, sliding a sheer bed jacket over her shoulders. She purrs compliments regarding his sexual prowess, only to be shot execution-style. Before the man bolts from the room he mentions that “the computer” had determined she should be eliminated, because loose lips sink ships…and the dealings of criminal enterprises.
Meanwhile, Michael Joseph Donovan (longtime character actor Duncan McLeod, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls) is a sweat soaked, gin blossomed longshoreman who spends as much time shooting the breeze at his local bar as he does doing anything resembling actual work. He spends what little cash he has on cheap pints and poker games, the bartender and the loan shark that facilitate those habits bigger fixtures in his life than his actual personal friends. This is not to say he has that many, aside from his crew at the docks and poor put upon Helen (Mary McGee), a high school classmate that carries a decades long torch for Michael that could light up cities.
Apparently, the same supercomputer that ordered the hit on the sex worker in the cold open, has determined that Donovan has the exact combination of traits that would be an asset to this multiethnic crime syndicate. A crime boss named Mr. Rizzo concocts a plot to force Donovan into an impossible amount of debt via clandestine poker game, then use the cash he owes to force him to join their ranks. Not only does Michael refuse the job offer, he manages to escape the thugs sent to subsequently break his fingers.
Having established a high stakes premise, the narrative promptly ceases to be bothered with pedestrian concerns like consistent pacing or perfectly linear narrative. Michael’s grand escape plan only runs as far as Coney Island. As soon as he steps off the train, he carries on with his usual routine of boozing, screwing, and screwing up. It’s a gutter level travelogue of baby doll prostitutes selling rides above the Coney carousel and Bowery bums staggering drunkenly uptown. The carnival ride culminates in a surreal delirium tremens fueled trip into Mike’s own childhood memories as one of his Puerto Rican neighbors shares her body and a bottle.
As for Rizzo, he lounges in his Westchester mansion. Via telephone, he dispatches an ever increasing number of foot soldiers to find Michael. The computer that runs the syndicate may have marked Donovan for death, but that isn’t imperative enough to fully disrupt his usually scheduled debauchery. Between phone calls, he bangs couriers on his living room floor and has a bevy of buxom babes roleplay as vampires about to suck the blood out of his neck.
Writer/director John Hayes scatters pieces of himself all over Sweet Trash. The New York born son of working class Irish immigrants —though he was raised by a hard drinking paternal uncle— took an interest in show business after a tour of duty with the Navy. After briefly working as both an actor and a playwright, he found unexpected success in movies, garnering an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of 1958 short The Kiss. While he was unable to maintain that level of mainstream acclaim, Hayes became another of New York’s homegrown movie men, making eclectic exercises in exploitation for the next two decades.
His intimate knowledge of the downmarket milieu his creations populate shines through even in the film’s most purposefully abstract moments. Similar hard living, working class characters were scattered all over Hayes’ early life. There’s also more than a whiff of the stage bound, slice of life tales of tortured souls that marked the most popular playwrights and productions of his youthful days in the theater.
This wide ranging experience may be why the lighting and cinematography are stronger than average for such a seedy affair, with the more hallucinatory sequences sprinkled with a bargain bin Buñuel gloss. The sheer oddness of the sudden surreal interruption is heightened when Donovan’s seeming harmless childhood memories take an unexpectedly dark turn, a clue as to why he has such a fondness for drinking himself insensate.
Hayes’ camera lingers on his stolen shot locations, from overcrowded Manhattan streets to Coney Island’s carnival lights. It’s an excellent street level portrait of an older, dirtier New York. Donovan might not have the sense to run far, but he’s made a lifetime of being invisible right in the middle of a crowd.
There’s something delightfully arch in a film that has its characters drink a toast to realism, while keeping such a tenuous grip on the function and form of actual reality. There are moments of pragmatism, but the film’s universe is fanciful. Only in fiction could criminals be slavishly devoted to taking orders from an IBM Selectric on steroids, or a mouthy boozehound somehow survive an entire gang’s headhunters without even so much as leaving town. Donovan wanders about sauced under the eyes of the angels and the Irish folk music lilting on the soundtrack, forever one staggering step ahead.
Sweet Trash is a shapeshifter of a film, refusing to stay in any one mode for very long. Michael Joseph Donovan is either ebullient, boorish or boring depending on the amount of booze he has consumed. Yet, even a broken down louse has lines he refuses to cross, and there’s something to root for in the fact that he plans to go out the same bottle pounding, skirt chasing ne’er do well he always was…..even if it kills him. As the film moves toward a surprisingly bloody final reel (neatly bookending the violence of the opening), you can almost see what the supercomputer saw in Michael, if you squint.
Sweet Trash doesn’t neatly align with any specific exploitation subgenre. It’s definitely not the sexploitation epic promised by the promo materials. It’s also not the sci-fi thriller hinted at by the cold open. Though all of those elements are present, anyone looking for an epic of sex and vengeance will be disappointed. The movie plays like a riff on the collected works of Eugene O’Neill, written in a piss stained Port Authority bathroom. Lowlifes and lost souls are old standards in grindhouse cinema, but Sweet Trash finds something uniquely transfixing in its contemplative version of the usual gutter’s eye view.