The invaluable podcast & film blog The Rialto Report frequently argues that the hardcore pornography & dime-a-dozen smut that was made in the cheap-living days of NYC (before the city was cleaned-up & Disnified by Mayor Giuliani) has an archival value in the way it documents a specific era of history that’s largely ignored by mainstream documentaries. Usually, the archival nature of NYC’s 70s & 80s smut is an unintended symptom of underground filmmakers having free rein over the city (as long as they could avoid arrest for indecency) and assuming that their own XXX-rated material wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone after its brief, localized theatrical runs. Fleshpot on 42nd Street feels like an outlier in that way. The 1973 pornographic melodrama opens with an intentionally documentarian eye. Andy Milligan (the film’s writer, director, and cinematographer) juts his handheld camera outside the passenger window of a moving car, intentionally capturing the faces & places that lurked around its titular district of streetwalkers & porno arcades. From frame one, Milligan is clearly more interested in documenting the lowlife personalities that populate 42nd Street than he is in exploiting their bedroom activities for titillation, exemplifying the archival value of the medium that The Rialto Report so often promotes.
That documentarian impulse was likely a result of Milligan’s increasing boredom with making pornography in general. Fleshpot on 42nd Street was the shameless schlockteur’s final sexploitation film before transitioning into cheapo horror productions full-time. You can tell his heart really isn’t in the genital-grinding end of the business here. The main focus of the film is building a dirt-cheap Sirkian melodrama around the life & crimes of a low-level sex worker (Laura Cannon), not inspiring erections among the sleazy patrons of NYC grindhouses. Much of the film recalls the deranged melodramas of Russ Meyer’s collaborations with screenwriter Jack Moran – titles like Good Morning … and Goodbye! & Common Law Cabin. Characters bicker over the scraps life has left them in sweaty dive bars & public hangout spots around the city, displaying more bitter anger than horned-up libido. When they do have sex, their emotional & physical engagement with the act ranges from total boredom to inhuman cruelty. Characters violate our protagonist’s boundaries of consent in high-risk group sex and S&M scenarios. When tending to lower-maintenance johns, she yawns & rolls her eyes while receiving head, scheming on how to rip the bloke off once they tire themselves out. The few moments of passionate lovemaking she finds are with an outsider Prince Charming businessman from Long Island, who promises to set her free from a life of sex work by transforming her into a suburban housewife. During these romantic trysts, the film takes an out-of-nowhere swerve into hardcore depictions of full penetration, further underlying how different her rare moments of sex-for-pleasure are from her more frequent, tedious, and dangerous professional encounters.
I wonder how much of Milligan’s blatant disinterest in the erotic aspects of this story stem from the fact that he was openly homosexual. Fleshpot on 42nd Street details the heterosexual exploits & romances of one female sex worker as she navigates the scummiest corners of Times Square, so the amount of queer content Milligan allows to creep into the frame is continually surprising. Because the director mostly populates his cast with off (off, off) Broadway thespians he was fiends with on the theatre scene, the performers brings a lot of over-the-top gay energy to even the film’s explicitly hetero roles. Many of the protagonist’s johns are clearly disinterested in her sexually, which helps further defang the eroticism of the picture while also heightening its melodrama. Her comic relief sidekick character is a flippantly cruel trans streetwalker who quips at length in a lived-in, queer-as-fuck dialect that guides most of the film’s tone. Even the tragic hetero romance with the Long Island business prince plays with a breathy melodrama that would appeal to gay kids who’d fake sick to skip school and watch soap operas with their mothers. Fleshpot on 42nd Street may be costumed as straight porn, but it’s mostly over-the-top gay theatre in its execution, if not only through Milligan subconsciously expressing his own interests from behind the camera.
You should know by now whether this sleazy slice of NYC grime would appeal to you. And because we live in a golden age of physical media for cinephiles of all stripes, the film is now available in an ungodly pristine digital restoration of the original 16mm print on Blu-Ray via Vinegar Syndrome. There isn’t much to Fleshpot on 42nd Street content-wise that you wouldn’t be used to seeing in other sexploitation relics of its era. The only distinguishing touches to the film are where Milligan’s auteurist sensibilities happen to slither through: the queer bent, the disinterest in hetero erotica, the shameless indulgence in romantic melodrama, the documentarian eye for a horned-up era in the city’s history that was sure to shrivel up quickly. Even if Milligan was growing tired of making hetero porn, this still comes across as a hands-on, personal project. The camera tilts wildly as he literally climbs into bed with his actors or steals candid shots of NYC street life. You never forget his presence behind the camera as he lights the transactional sex, flippant cruelty, and casual racism of his home turf with a single flashlight, as if he were documenting a crime scene. I don’t know that Fleshpot on 42nd Street has made me any hungrier to track down any other Rialto Report-ready sexploitation pictures of its ilk, but it certainly has me interested in Milligan’s work. At the very least, I bet he’d make one hell of a sleazy horror picture under the right circumstances.