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Fred, the nephew of a senator,has murdered a Black man on a train. The two only witnesses are Lizzie McKay, a prostitute from New York, and Sidney, a colored man. Fred decides to seduce Lizzie in order to make her give false evidence according to which Sidney has attempted to rape her. The uncle also puts pressure on the young woman. After much hesitation, Lizzie finally accepts but Sidney, who has nearly got lynched, takes refuge at her home... Written by
one of the most mixed reactions I've had to a movie in quite a while
I checked out The Respectful Prostitute, and heard about it in the first place, for one reason- that it was the only video I could find, anywhere for the moment, that had the mark of Jean-Paul Sartre on it. In the interest of full disclosure, his works have impressed me over the years, even when the writing becomes dense like in his ontological studies. His essential principles and ideas concerning existentialism, free will, being and nothingness, have provoked my thinking and spurred it on in ways few other philosophers have been able to do, and has even been an influence via his fiction like The Age of Reason. It was for this admiration I sought out this ultra rare, low-budget quickie from France, based on one of Sartre's plays, and decided to check it out. The final reaction, unlike the other commenter here on IMDb, is that of a similar admiration for what I've come to expect from Sartre in making characters fitting the idea of responsibility directly attached to free-will (Man is only what he makes of himself, he once said), but at the same time seeing it as a disappointment without a doubt. It's a shame that a work that should inspire me to want to revisit it, to go over the crucial dramatic choices these characters make, and of the suspense in seeing how the racially charged attitudes unfold, is kind of shoddy and without much depth, at all.
The filmmakers are pushing an agenda, anyway, instead of making it purely a human story, which is veers into from time to time, and even in a powerful moment where the story takes a turn as the prostitute is forced by the Senator to sign a document there's some very bizarre, almost laughable moment when a bust of George Washington *speaks* to her as though it were some booming voice from the heavens. The American south, as it were, is depicted without any sense of there being order or balance, which was probably part of Sartre's original design in his play. And for the period, there is a vital point that is made, at least from time to time, about what it is by making choices in this environment that makes a difference, that it's not all pre-determined by the rule-by-law of the white man against the black man. Not only does the prostitute have to choose between keeping to her stringent, New York common-sense and tell the truth or lying to take the easy way out, she has to be responsible for what she's done once she's signed the paper. Ditto to the senator's son, who- in one of the film's not totally explained terms- changes his mind and upon seeing his black-killing cousin (as the cousin's murder of a black man on a train spurs on the hysteria) and rejects him.
On the front of the questions that are raised, if only in some basic fundamental ways, the film is actually successful and sort of intriguing. But then it comes back to the filmmakers' methods, who ironically are a duo, Charles Brabant and Marcello Pagliero, yet direct as if it's their first time around and have taken a couple of notes from the noir school before abandoning them for just trying to figure out how to shoot the frigging thing (one director had this as his debut, the other had done some documentary work). Although it goes without saying that it takes a lot to get past the English dubbing on the Cinematheque collection VHS tape I watched, and that it would've been strange enough hearing French non-stop in an American setting, the people doing the dub work are not good at giving the proper tones and right characterizations. The woman playing the prostitute, Lizzy McKay, for example, sounds closer to someone like Alice Kramden than a woman who either sings on stage or resorts to working the streets. And some of the accents just sound like put-ons. But aside from this, the film moves along with a bad sense of pace and with little time given to add more nuance to a scene except for unnecessary gestures like filling up a glass or sitting around aimlessly. One shot does become memorable though, when Lizzie is standing by the window in the morning with her robe on, as her pose and the way its shot looks actually sensual in a low-quality way.
Now, to be fair, I haven't read the play that the film's based on either, but it would be somewhat of a fair guess that the filmmakers changed around a good deal, at least with the settings, and maybe beefed up some locations and shots for things. Once or twice they even manage to try and make a scene suspenseful, like when the black guy is running through the shadows to escape the white mob. But the problem too lies in the fact that this only available version is incomplete, so the twenty minutes that were cut out may or may not provide what seems to be sorely lacking here, which seemed to be in abundance when Sarte worked without a net in Age of Reason. Not that I would expect too much on such a budget and barely two-dimensional character scale, though it leaves me as a fan of the original author not feeling the need to revisit this very soon, except for an occasional reference point in conversation. And, in its current state, should only be sought out by the most die-hard of existentialists- and even then, as one might find, it's far from No Exit.
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