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.