Blu-ray Review: Chameleon Street [Arbelos Films] | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Friday, June 14th, 2024  

Chameleon Street

Studio: Arbelos Films

Aug 24, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Doug Street is a lawyer, a surgeon, a TIME Magazine reporter and an Ivy League student—in truth he is none of these things, but he’s so good at pretending he is that he’s able to convince almost anyone otherwise (including himself). A compulsive con man, Street uses his charm, quick-study abilities and peerless personal assessment skills to slip from one unbelievable role into another, staying just one step ahead of law enforcement in a criminal, unending pursuit of happiness.

Chameleon Street (1989) was inspired by the early career of Detroit-based fraudster William Douglas Street, a character that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Elmore Leonard’s Motor City crime novels. The film is one of those rare cases where its story seems to have been toned down from reality to make it feel more plausible—many of Street’s real-life exploits and claims (such as to have performed more than twenty hysterectomies without any medical training, as opposed to just the one in the film) are too wild to believe. It is the sort of tale that cries out for a cinematic second life, and director/writer/star Wendell B. Harris Jr. was exactly the right person to realize it. Chameleon Street looks and feels like the introduction of a new star both on-camera and behind it. The jury at Sundance must have thought so as well, awarding it the Grand Prize at their 1990 festival—only for the film and its multi-hyphenate auteur to all but disappear into the ether afterwards.

“It’s just people skills. If you know how to push someone’s buttons, you know how to approach them.”

Like Street so easily slips into the skin of an attorney or doctor, Harris doesn’t just play—but inhabits—his version of the Street character. He’s magnetic as an actor, and the way the film plays with the line between fiction and reality it’s easy to understand how some early audience members had trouble separating him from the character at post-screening Q&As. The rhythm of the film is just as compelling as its subject and author; it’s cut with as much (or more) style than the other independent filmmakers who came out of the era but went on to more prolific careers.

Despite its adulation at Sundance, Chameleon Street received relatively little play afterwards. Rather than distribution deals, Harris was approached about remake rights. The filmmaker relocated to Hollywood, where he was whisked up in a whirlwind of meetings—this resulted in a few odd, fruitless writing jobs, but not distribution or a directing gig. Hollywood proved not to be the answer for Harris, and options afterward were likely limited. When you borrow a lot of money to make a film and, despite all of your best efforts, it fails to return its investment—well, it’s probably much harder to independently finance your second feature. In spite of its boundless promise, Chameleon Street wound up ultimately being Harris’ only feature film (to date).

A small run of Chameleon Street VHS tapes were sold in 1992; a DVD was put out by Image in 2007, but went out of print and shot up in price. Arbelos Films’ new Blu-ray edition is the best—and most accessible—way for audiences to catch the film in its three-plus decade existence. Restored in 4K from the original negative, it looks marvelous. The image features good color and the nice level of grain you’d expect from a low-budget, independent feature shot on film. Just as exciting are the abundance of bonus materials, including two new audio commentaries and lots of assets from Harris’ archive. Some of the best are from videotape, such as one of the filmmaker’s early interviews with the real-life Doug Street in prison. (He comes off as rather cagey, but there’s a sharp intelligence underneath his dodgy answers that clearly informed Harris’ performance.) We also have a lot of great behind-the-scenes footage, where we get to see the crew audition actors, rehearse, scout locations, and bitch about finding investors. These are followed by some extremely rough-looking but audible back footage captured on VHS during the filming itself, amounting to quite a few deleted scenes and extended moments. (Harris mentions writing and shooting nearly three times the amount of material than what was finally used in the finished film; this is the most we’ll get to see of what was cut.) Add in one of Harris’ earlier short films, trailers, and some more archival footage of nitty-gritty scene and character work, and there is a lot to go through on the disc. It’s an excellent package for an exciting film, and very easy to recommend—grab it before the supply dries up and Chameleon Street vanishes once again.


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