*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg

Written by David Freeman

Produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus

With Christopher Reeve, Morgan Freeman, and Kathy Baker.

Street Smart is one of those films that risk sounding utterly routine, which is probably how it got made in the first place. The story of a reporter (Christopher Reeve) who gets involved with a New York pimp (Morgan Freeman), the film would apparently contain all the elements of a contemporary policier: sexual sadism, aestheticized violence, and ritualized characters. However, this movie is anything but routine. Director Jerry Schatzberg has made a penetrating study of human relations–racial and sexual–within a sharply observed social framework. He has taken into account the romanticized way the privileged view the impoverished and the powerful regard the powerless. There is more intelligence around the edges of Street Smart–in its casual delineation of the boredom of poverty, in its offhanded observations of the role of poignant illusion in male sexism–than in 80 percent of American movies. Yet Schatzberg does all this without disregarding the action or suspense of David Freeman’s screenplay. It is an extraordinary display of cunning, craft, and acuity.

At the opening of Street Smart we find two guys at work. In a dim and dirty Times Square hotel room, a chubby john is beating a prostitute when Fast Black, the girl’s pimp, walks in. Fast Black doesn’t like what’s going on; his purpose is to supply a quarter hour of pleasure, not muscle. He tries calming down the irate customer, but nothing will do, so, calmly, purposefully, negotiating up to the last second, he approaches the nearly hysterical client, and kicks him, very hard, in the gut. Back in charge of the situation, he begins to give orders when the man he kicked starts to convulse and shake. Realizing he’s dead, Fast Black straightens up, his forehead creased at the irritating complication.

Meanwhile, in the spacious office of the publisher of a slick city magazine (suspiciously like New York), a smug executive leans back in his chair, tossing off half-baked witticisms, as a writer begs for his professional life. Jonathan Fisher (Reeve), once a promising writer of features, has been demoted to the purgatory of service articles; you know the type: the best ice cream, where to find gourmet-cooking gear, etc. His chance at redemption suddenly pops up in the guise of another contributor’s missed deadline. Eagerly, he offers to make it up with the perfect piece: The Lifestyle of a Pimp. Not a sociological or slice-of-life tract, mind you, but almost a fashion profile, the scoop on what a black New York panderer does with his profits: where he vacations, what kind of furniture he buys, how much he spends on his wardrobe. Naturally, the publisher loves it, and Fisher hits the streets to start his research.

Unfortunately, Fisher doesn’t know any pimps, and a nighttime visit to Times Square only ends up in rebuffs and misunderstandings. His short deadline drawing near–he’d offered to turn the piece out over the weekend–he decides to take desperate measures and makes the whole thing up, down to inventing a Hawaiian condo for his fictitious pimp. The article is a smashing success, and brings Fisher not just a promotion but a job on a local TV station doing human-interest stories on the shady, quasi-criminal New York milieu. It also brings him to the attention of the aggressive assistant district attorney who’s prosecuting Fast Black for first-degree murder. Convinced that the article is about Fast Black, the prosecutor insists that Fisher testify: he backs off when the reporter refuses, but the defense attorney, sensing a way to create a sideshow, subpoenas Fisher and his notes.

That may seem like a lot of plot. Well, it is, and that’s only the setup; there are miles of complications that follow. But basically, this convoluted track is merely the way that Schatzberg is able to insert his street life “expert” into the world he writes about. As played by Reeve, Fisher is a very unpleasant fellow. Wheedling and obsequious to his boss, he treats everyone else with a thoughtless arrogance. Twice he assures people who remark on his having gone to Harvard that they “didn’t miss much.” It never occurs to him that the people he says that to, the prosecutor and one of Fast Black’s “girls,” have missed quite a bit not having the money or social position it took to go to an Ivy League school. It’s this kind of insensitivity that allows him to blunder into a relationship with Fast Black.

Fast Black, with his intelligence and sense of fatalistic self-preservation, is the movie’s wild card. As the middle-aged pimp, Morgan Freeman gives a riveting performance, full of echoing depths and unresolved contradictions. Neither greedy nor violent by nature, Fast Black has constructed a life for himself where he has to constantly present himself as a mortal danger to anyone who holds back money from him or crosses him. His small “stable”–he seems to be down to two or three women–only buys him a nice car, a large unfurnished apartment, and some spending money (most of which seems to be spent at an unpretentious lunch counter). Yet to maintain all this requires constant vigilance and ceaseless monitoring of business. The toll on his psyche is considerable. As played by Freeman, Fast Black is a bewildering array of personalities, each one alternately true and false (though always intelligent). When Fisher first meets him in that Harlem luncheonette, Fast Black is a hand-slapping jive artist, shooting a wink from one hipster to another. Within hours he has a broken bottle pointed at Fisher’s throat, only to metamorphose once again, this time into a man of the world wanting to do some business with Fisher.

Fast Black, for all his chameleonlike powers, has left most of his moral choices in his past. He has chosen not just to survive, but to thrive in the world he was born into. Schatzberg is remarkably evenhanded about him, presenting him with consequences rather than judgments. Fisher, on the other hand, is just coming to the end of a free ride through life. It’s probably the most cynical irony of a cynical movie that Fisher is a news writer, since he’s patently incapable of seeing the world in front of him. He keeps returning to the idea that the world is divided into strata, and that while one can cut away the sides and examine the different layers, they can never seep into one another. It takes Fast Black to show him–and he has to show him over and over again–that that isn’t true. When Fisher takes the pimp and Punchy, one of his hookers, to a fancy East Side party at the home of the publisher, he’s surprised when the pimp turns on him viciously afterward, telling his “patron” he knows he was being patronized, but that he had his own reasons for putting up with it. Fisher had thought the icy sarcasm was beyond the pimp’s emotional vocabulary.

The strength of the movie lies not just in the existence of these episodes; after all, they could just as easily serve as mere launching pads for subsequent shoot-outs. But Schatzberg, by using an intelligently woven tapestry of camera setups, opens up these encounters so that they encompass many different meanings. For example, early in his relationship with Fast Black, Fisher meets Punchy (Kathy Baker) in Times Square, and agrees to go with her to a hotel room, so that he can get a story out of her. Punchy, of course, is interested in a different kind of intercourse with the writer. But though their immediate purposes are different, their ultimate ends–to use each other–are the same. Even when they get to the hotel, and Punchy gets the key from the deskman, Fisher can’t resist saying, “Boy, the stories I bet he could tell,” repeating his oft-uttered reduction of humanity to raw material.

Once inside the hotel room, Fisher sits down in a chair while Punchy walks about the room, getting drinks, tossing off her coat. Schatzberg shoots the seated Fisher at eye level, not just letting us identify with his point of view but confirming his position as the watcher, the objectifier of the woman performing in front of him. The shot indicates that, while his lust isn’t sexual, he is still trying to take something, not just from the woman, but of her as well. Schatzberg then shifts to a shot that matches the writer’s gaze of Punchy standing over Fisher. And while it reinforces the previous shot, it also modifies it, because the angle shows the standing Punchy looming over Fisher, watched by him, judged by him, yet somehow dominating him. And the dialogue is equally multilayered, because Fisher is asking the oldest of johns’ questions: How did Punchy get started in the sex trade? And Punchy responds in kind with a long, humorous anecdote that ultimately serves to get Fisher in bed. It’s no longer a case of who’s using who, but who’s using who more.

If it stopped at that, the scene would be a quiet triumph of mise-en-scene, a bit of analysis exceptional by its insight and its presence in a Hollywood movie circa 1987 (although it’s the kind of thing that, say, Howard Hawks did all the time). However, as Punchy slowly teases the reluctantly eager Fisher onto the bed, Schatzberg switches to a longer shot that shows the two in wide silhouette, the bed, and most of the room, while on the sound track, Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” slowly builds in volume. Punchy continues her story, using the turn where she collected her first john’s money to “remind” herself to take Fisher’s. But the laughter of the two, the discreet view of the camera, and the passionate singing on the sound track upset the applecart of cool detachment that started off the scene. This encounter between a hooker and a john becomes unaccountably romantic. But what a cynical romanticism! It’s as if Schatzberg despaired of ever overcoming the social bars that inevitably insert themselves between men and women, and that the only hope is to occasionally ignore them.

The lovemaking scene between Fisher and Punchy is the emotional crux of the film; virtually all the other relationships are measured against it. It throws Fisher’s arrangement with his girl, Alison (they got their yuppie nomenclature down pretty good), into a previously unseen relief of mutual manipulation. Conversely, Fast Black’s marriage to a property-conscious ex-hooker seems less jarringly material-minded. And Schatzberg sets this cold, unsentimental world in a frieze of shots held just long enough to show minds working for that extra angle. And when Fast Black holds a gun to Fisher’s head and says, “I see I got two choices here: I do 15 years in Attica or I walk,” he’s just particularizing the general problem (what I have to do, what I want to do) everyone in the movie faces. Everyone–writer, pimp, whore, prosecutor, publisher–is using everyone else. The more charming characters just admit it.

Schatzberg ends Street Smart with the violent resolution of Fisher’s problems with Fast Black and the law. And though Reeve plays it like an action picture’s typical triumphant reversal, Schatzberg’s camera style–circuitous, distanced tracks that tie victims and victimizer in an equalizing unity–gives the scene a dark, funereal tone. The end of innocence is the triumph of cynicism on these smart streets, and one harmful illusion has been replaced with a deadly heartlessness. And while the tone is downbeat, the bitter realism and quiet virtuosity of Street Smart are, in the forcefulness of their presentation, strangely exhilarating.