“The Respectful Prostitute” (1952)

Last night it was The Respectful Prostitute, taken from Sartre’s play about racial tensions in the Deep South, a movie surprising both for its perceptiveness about American culture and its adult, no-bullshit approach. A prostitute (the rather scrumptious Barbara Laage) becomes a pawn in a powerful politician’s plan to frame a black man for rape, but the seemingly predictable theme of two outsiders is undercut by the Northern woman’s inability to comprehend the utter helplessness of the Southern black’s position. Though a word from her could save his life, she’s too busy launching a romance with one of the local bigots—himself a beautifully complex creation—to get involved.

Produced by a French film company, and performed in French by French performers, it’s nevertheless indistinguishable in look and feeling from many American movies of the period, to the point that it’s a through-the-looking-glass vision of what our movies might have been like had they never been subverted by the Production Code: unapologetically political, sexually frank, and pragmatically blunt in language. This is a movie in which unmarried lovers are seen waking up together after a one-night stand, and whose script freely employs the words “bullshit”, “whore” and “nigger” whenever those terms are called for—which is often.

Like the gathering of the lynch-mob in Fury or the road-trip in Nabokov’s Lolita, this X-ray of America by a foreigner is so revealing that in places it’s almost embarrassing. Certainly no white American movie I know of ever bothered to capture the atmosphere of a “coloreds only” railroad coach, much less did it so convincingly. It’s also noteworthy for being the last film of Marcel Herrand, who played the lethal Lacenaire in Children of Paradise, here playing the senator who clouds Laage’s mind with some subtle racist logic. However, I can’t pinpoint in the credits the name of the black actor who played the accused man—which is fitting, in a sick kind of way.

respectful prostitute

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