In the 1970’s, Roger Corman brought a hip­ness to b-movies by train­ing young film­mak­ers to deliv­er the goods while bring­ing their own the­mat­ic con­cerns into the mix: Jonathan Demme and John Sayles are just two exam­ples of suc­cess­ful film­mak­ers who got their start doing excit­ing yet social­ly con­scious b-movies for Corman.  Things changed in the 1980’s when Corman shift­ed to Concorde and began pro­duc­ing mate­ri­al that reflect­ed this less-ambi­tious, more finan­cial­ly chal­leng­ing era.  This era was dom­i­nat­ed by direc­tors like Jim Wynorski, hard work­ers who could deliv­er the goods but didn’t have the ambi­tion to reach for greater things beyond the b-movie ghet­to.

Thus, Corman’s Concorde era doesn’t have quite the lus­ter or the stay­ing pow­er that the New World era did but it can’t be ful­ly dis­missed either.  The occa­sion­al gem rose up from the straight-to-video rub­ble to show that the Corman school of film­mak­ing could pro­duce films that not only deliv­ered the b-movie goods but also chal­lenged the view­er and showed tal­ent that rose above the expect­ed sex-and-vio­lence grind of low-bud­get film­mak­ing.  Perhaps the best film to emerge from Concorde along the­se lines is Streetwalkin’: thought it hits all the marks of the hook­er-sto­ry sub­gen­re pop­u­lar in the ear­ly 1980’s, it does so with a smart­ly-observed and more social­ly con­scious style.

Streetwalkin’ builds itself on the kind of arche­typ­al pros­ti­tu­tion drama/thriller style pio­neered by the likes of Vice Squad and Angel.  As the film opens, we see hard-luck young adult Cookie (Melissa Leo) and her kid broth­er Tim (Randall Batinkoff) turn­ing up in a bus sta­tion after being kicked out of the house by their par­ents.  Cookie is quick­ly zeroed in on by smooth-talk­ing pimp Duke (Dale Midkiff) and by the time the cred­its roll, she’s one of his girls on the street in NYC.

At the story’s out­set, Cookie is total­ly into being one of Duke’s wom­en… but things quick­ly change when anoth­er one of his girls, Heather (Deborah Offner), threat­ens to leave and Duke responds by beat­ing her sense­less.  Cookie real­izes she has to get out of Duke’s clutch­es and accepts a stand­ing offer from Jason (Leon Robinson), a smoother but no less manip­u­la­tive pimp.  Jason sends his men out to bump Duke off but things don’t go as planned and soon Duke is chas­ing down an unknow­ing Cookie through the New York night, hot for revenge.

If you want to view Street­walk­in’ pure­ly as an exploita­tion piece, it works like a charm on that lev­el.  It cov­ers an impres­sive amount of ground in its 84 min­utes, deliv­er­ing a well-con­struct­ed plot full of sin and thrills.  In clas­sic Corman produc­tion style, it’s atten­tive to mar­ket­place demands, lay­er­ing in plen­ty of gra­tu­itous nudi­ty and a few fights.  Speaking of fights, it’s worth men­tion­ing that the film’s grand finale is impres­sive stuff that builds up to an fever­ish pitch as the actors give their all to make the last show­down mem­o­rable.

Streetwalkin’ has also got a great sense of style that is root­ed in its time and place, with neon-drenched cin­e­matog­ra­phy by Steven Fierberg and a syn­th-heavy sound­track that works in a lot of cool peri­od-speci­fic NYC dance music by per­form­ers like Konk and Strafe.  The fact that it was shot in the heart of 42nd Street dur­ing its final grand era of sleaze is the icing atop the eight-lay­er cake for grind­house movie afi­ciona­dos.

That said, if you pay close atten­tion you will real­ize that Streetwalkin’ isn’t all cheap thrills.  Director Joan Freeman came from a doc­u­men­tary back­ground and did exten­sive research with cops, pimps and hook­ers to learn the milieu she would por­tray.  As out­landish and col­or­ful as it may seem, Streetwalkin’ has a know­ing qual­i­ty to it thanks to this research, par­tic­u­lar­ly in how it por­trays the psy­cho­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ties of the rela­tion­ship between pros­ti­tutes and pimps.  The film was accused of glo­ri­fy­ing sleaze but that couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth: instead, the hook­ers and their pimps are por­trayed as mul­ti­fac­eted peo­ple who live in a con­tin­u­ous­ly dan­ger­ous world that requires them to be always on guard and shift­ing alliances.  The results are fas­ci­nat­ing to watch but are also fre­quent­ly scary.

The film’s verisimil­i­tude is fur­ther aid­ed by a well-cho­sen cast who gives fan­tas­tic per­for­mances.  Leo gives an appeal­ing­ly nat­u­ral and unin­hib­it­ed per­for­mance as the hard-luck hero­ine, show­ing a skill for intense heights of emo­tion that would pay off lat­er on in her Hollywood career.  She’s matched by a down­right oper­at­ic per­for­mance from Midkiff as Duke: though he looks more like a soap opera actor than a pimp, he throws every­thing plus the kitchen sink into his work and pulls it off on sheer inten­si­ty.  If you need proof, look out for a one-shot, one-take scene in which he demol­ish­es an apart­ment in a rage: it’s one for the record books.

That said, one should remem­ber that Streetwalkin’ is an ensem­ble piece and the back­ing cast is packed with a series of small­er yet stel­lar turns: Robinson is qui­et­ly strong as a more dis­tin­guished but no less devi­ous rival to Duke while vet­er­an char­ac­ter actor Antonio Fargas does small won­ders as anoth­er pimp caught in the cross­fire.  Farga had played this role dozens of times but his grasp of nuance and body lan­guage ensures he is always fun to watch.  Elsewhere, Khandi Alexander is fun to watch as a schem­ing prosi­tute and Julie Newmar sum­mons up an appro­pri­ate­ly sleazy but impres­sive sense of glam­our as Queen Bee, a vet­er­an hook­er who serves as a men­tor to Cookie.

In short, Streetwalkin’ is one of the few Concorde-era Corman pro­duc­tions that can sit com­fort­ably alongside the high­lights of his clas­sic New World era because it bal­ances its cheap thrills with a depth of obser­va­tion­al detail and a sense of human­i­ty. You might be get­ting the b-movie quick­ie ver­sion of the world it por­trays but a sin­cere amount of effort has been made to cre­ate a detailed and mem­o­rable expe­ri­ence worth revis­it­ing.  The wealth of detail it offers about the Deuce cements its sta­tus as a must-see for the 42nd Street afi­ciona­dos.