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Sixth and Main (1977) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

john monica film peanut

Principal social themes: homelessness/poverty, addiction (heroin), suicide/depression, disabilities

Universal. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Leslie Nielsen, Roddy McDowall, Beverly Garland, Gammy Burdell, Joe Maross, Leo Penn, Sharon Thomas, Brad Stephens, Martin St. Judge, Ken Johnson, Bill Erwin, Ancel Cook, Lisa Todd, Phyllis Flax, Edwin Mills, D’Mitch Davis. Written by Chris Cain. Cinematography by Hilyard John Brown. Edited by Ken Johnson. Music by Bob Summers. Produced and directed by Chris Cain. Color. 95 minutes.

Overview

Originally conceived as a television film, Sixth and Main was considered a bit too sordid for the medium, and writer/director Christopher Cain decided to use his more graphic, alternate takes of various scenes when it was decided to release the film theatrically. In fact, the film did poorly on its initial release, but won a minor cult following when it became frequently shown on cable stations.

Synopsis

Monica Cord (Beverly Garland) is a wealthy socialite who is planning to write a book about the homeless. She observes the men who attend a rescue mission and shelter in downtown Los Angeles. Monica becomes intrigued by one particular derelict, a tall, quiet man known only as John Doe (Leslie Nielsen). His main friends among the transients are Doc, an unlicensed doctor; Skateboard, a legless tramp who operates a newsstand; and Peanut, a heroin addict and hooker. Monica secretly follows John and finds he lives in a battered trailer in a junkyard. She examines his shelter when he leaves and is startled to find it filled with handwritten manuscripts. She takes one and reads it. Amazed, she brings it to her friend Adair Callison, a noted book critic, who agrees it is a remarkable literary document. They go to the junkyard and seek out John. Monica offers to provide him a room and office in her own home so he can continue his writing. John responds by snatching his manuscript from her hands and setting it on fire. Stunned, Monica and Adair withdraw.

John’s only interest seems to be flowers. He emerges from his solitude, however, when he overhears Peanut telling Doc that she is pregnant and needs an abortion. John breaks his silence and suggests that Peanut keep the baby and that he, Skateboard, and Doc will help take care of it. At first, Peanut thinks that it is a foolish idea, but then she has a change of heart. She asks Skateboard to serve as the father of the child. He agrees and takes the obligation seriously, insisting that Peanut kick her heroin habit. Doc makes a deal with John. He will deliver the baby if John will consent to Monica’s proposal in order to provide the funds to raise the child. Reluctantly, John agrees. Peanut eventually gives birth in the hallway of an abandoned building at the corner of Sixth and Main Street. John takes up residence in Monica’s mansion, but at first he refuses to abandon his street clothes. Monica throws a cocktail party to show off her new find. Eventually, he cleans himself up and slowly begins to write.

Doc turns up at the mansion to let John know that the baby has died due to heroin in his system. John goes on an alcoholic binge. When Monica, in a fury, strikes John, he hits her back. Adair knocks him out with a vase. When they take him to the hospital, John claims that he is already famous. He later disappears from the hospital. Adair does research and learns that the enigmatic derelict is actually John Christopher, one of America’s major writers, a cult figure who presumably died ten years ago when his Bel Air mansion was destroyed in a fire. Adair and Monica return to the junkyard to find the trailer blazing in flames. Doc tells them he thinks John was inside. As the end credits roll, a mysterious figure can be seen walking away in the distance.

Critique

Sixth and Main is a fascinating sleeper film that combines a remarkable number of themes and issues in a ninety-minute package. Leslie Nielsen plays it straight as John Christopher, a celebrated writer who fakes his own death to live on the streets, filling his days smelling flowers, watching puppies in a pet store window, and scribbling out manuscripts just for his own amusement. The script never reveals what tragedy or pressures forced John to abandon his life and retreat to this hobo existence, but the other denizens of Skid Row do not find it peaceful. Doc is a bitter lush, drowning the memories of his failed medical career. Skateboard ekes out a marginal existence with a small magazine stand. Roddy McDowall must have studied Lon Chaney’s memorable silent film roles to prepare for this convincing portrayal of a man born without legs and glides along on his small platform. McDowall brings a quiet sense of dignity to the role of Skateboard and manages to avoid any hint of self-pity, even in his line, “Does it have legs?” after the birth of the baby. Finally, Gammy Burdell is touching as Peanut, the fragile girl behind a tough exterior. Her struggle with the symptoms of withdrawal are very well handled. It is a fascinating premise to watch how these four destitute people form an alliance to raise a newborn child on the streets. Each of these individuals is ennobled by the effort, but when it fails, their world sinks back again into the dregs.

This film would be ideal for discussion, both in exploring the challenges of the homeless in raising children or debating the possible future of each character. For example, why did John choose to live as a homeless drifter? Did he actually commit suicide at the end of the film or merely faked it as he did in the past to disappear into obscurity? The screenplay is also filled with subsidiary issues, such as the dilemma of being pregnant and hooked on drugs. Then there are the bitter but honest truths present in Doc’s long drunken diatribe against the American Medical Association. Another avenue for exploration is the character of Monica Cord, a limousine liberal who sees herself as a reformer. In fact, she simply wants to exploit the issue of homelessness.

Several flaws exist as well in Sixth and Main . The film’s structure largely abandons Skid Row after the birth of Peanut’s child (a brilliant and memorable sequence), and the scenes in Monica’s mansion tend to wander and drag in comparison. The climax, when Monica slaps John and he fights back, however, is extremely well played. Christopher Cain’s career suffered a setback after the completion of Sixth and Main , but by the mid-1980s, he was back in stride with such productions as The Stone Boy (1984) and The Principal (1987), also films with a social issues subtext.

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