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MOVIE REVIEW : THE WORD ON THE 'STREET' IS SMART

March 20, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

"Street Smart" (citywide) is loaded with surprises, although the film makers' pedigrees should have been warning enough that this was hardly the exploitation film you'd expect from the title. The director is Jerry Schatzberg, noted for fine offbeat projects made with an unfailingly keen eye and texture, and especially for his work with actors: "Panic in Needle Park," "Scarecrow," "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" and "No Small Affair." (He may be one of the most underrated of American directors.)

Screenwriter David Freeman, whose journalist's background parallels his leading character's, is author of one of the most piercing and hilariously keen books about Hollywood, the short stories collected under the title "A Hollywood Education." The cinematographer was Schatzberg's frequent collaborator, Adam Holender, who also shot "Midnight Cowboy" and "The Idolmaker," and the nifty Jo Ynocencio did the costumes.

It's the actors, though, whose exceptional work sticks in the memory. Lurking in this story of slick New York weekly magazines and sordid 42nd Street hot-sheet hotels are two devastating performances: Kathy Baker's brilliant and deliciously sexy one as a savvy Times Square prostitute, and Morgan Freeman's commanding and terrifying portrait of her pimp.

Both actors attack the roles as though they were mint fresh--as though the hooker-with-mileage and the dangerous pimp weren't staples of the genre. And their compelling portrayals are the sort that should be taken seriously when the next Oscars are thought about.

If, by contrast, Christopher Reeve has the more dutiful role as the morally expedient journalist around whom everything swirls, it isn't to denigrate his solidly fine performance. You could see why the role of Jonathan Fisher might have appealed to an actor who will have spent four films in Superman's clear-cut world of good and bad--this boyishly appealing, upwardly mobile ex-Harvard journalist is actually the film's ethical bad apple.

In a career slump at a New York-like magazine, Fisher promises his blase editor (Andre Gregory, wickedly delicious) a knock-his-socks-off profile of a Times Square pimp, saying he already has the contact. Stonewalled by the Times Square regulars he then tries to interview, a desperate Fisher makes up his interview. (It's interesting to note that Freeman originally wrote this script in 1981, right on the heels of the Janet Cooke/Washington Post/Pulitzer Prize scandal.)

Events snowball: Tyrone, Fisher's fictional pimp, is seen by everyone as a thinly disguised portrait of actual pimp Fast Black (Morgan Freeman). "Everyone" includes the city D.A., as well as Fast Black's defense attorney, who could use an alibi for his client on the night of a murder. Suddenly, Fisher becomes a reporter whose nonexistent notes are the center of a court battle.

Add to this the fraying relationship between Fisher and his live-in girlfriend (Mimi Rogers); a playful sensuality between Fisher and Punchy (Kathy Baker), and Fisher's editor's enchantment with Tyrone and/or Fast Black and the result is an electric mixture, headed straight for overload.

Morgan Freeman's Fast Black dominates everything. Squinting at this ridiculous fool of a journalist, he offers to show him the real streets, where his girls had better be snappin' their tushies on his behalf. Every element of these scenes make them some of the movie's most powerfully unsettling: Holender's agile camera; the immediacy of the feeling of these Harlem streets, Fast Black's cobra-quick changes of mood and the salty perfection of the dialogue in the exchanges between Fast Black and his at-home lady, as she lays down a law or two. (She's Anna Maria Horsford, exceptional in her two scenes).

The plot line may fray at times, especially with Fisher's dizzyingly quick segue from magazine reporter to Geraldo Rivera-like television muckraker. But Schatzberg anchors his story with enough pungently observed details of New York--its lofts, chic editorial offices, "in" restaurants and sad and tawdry street scenes--and with enough marvelous actors, in big roles and small, to give his story real bite. And Robert Irving III's atmospheric musical score, with a lovely Miles Davis trumpet solo, adds measurably.(It's a special credit to Schatzberg's production staff, who transformed Montreal into such a credible New York. The other New York locations, Harlem and Times Square, are real.)

(The film is rated R for violence, sexual situations and language.)

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