Chameleon Street (1989)

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Okay, this one‘s a bit odd.  And obscure.  And certainly not for everyone.

This was the debut film of director/writer/actor Wendell B. Harris.  God knows what happened after this.  He never directed another and has had only fleeting additional work as an actor.  Which is really odd, because Harris has a great voice, a commanding presence and a sharp intellect.

The film is about a man who assumes identities, sort of like “Catch Me If You Can“, but much darker and stranger and with the added twist that the protagonist is a black man.  Not much of a twist?  Well, the white man’s face is much more of a tabula rasa in this country than the black man’s.  Ideas, whether founded or unfounded, arise for much of our population and the implications are wide.

Harris plays William Douglas Street, who at the outset of the film is promising his parole officer that he won’t be impersonating anyone else.  He’s telling the officer exactly what he wants to hear just as the officer is pontificating on how his problem is that he tells people exactly what they want to hear.  We then flash back (or forward? or both?) to Street’s escapades, which include impersonating a magazine reporter (in order to get close to a female basketball player that he admires), a French exchange student (“J’accuse.  J’accuse Jacques Cousteau.”), a lawyer and, most hair-raisingly, a surgeon who is called upon to perform a hysterectomy.  I won’t tell you how that turns out.

The screenplay can be confusing.  It isn’t always clear how one scene relates to the next or how we got from A to B.  But it’s witty, subversive and erudite (Street goes to a costume party as Jean Cocteau’s Beast, as in “Beauty and the…”) and after watching it you’ll wonder why Harris faded into obscurity so quickly.

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One Response to “Chameleon Street (1989)”

  1. Kizz Says:

    That sounds endlessly bizarre. Are you told that it’s specifically Cocteau’s beast or…I guess I’ll just have to watch it and see.

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