Guest Star Jessica Ritchey returns this month with another entry into her series, Cahiers du Cannon. Last Month, Jessica wrote about Castaway. This month she looks at Christopher Reeve in Street Smart (1987).
Until Batman V Superman disgraced itself in theaters the most reviled Superman property was easily Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. The reasons for its reputation were legion, a budget constantly being shaved left it trying to do blockbuster set pieces with what was left with predictable results. A truly terrible villain in Nuclear Man who inspired not so much fear as giggles at his toast lycra unitard and press on on nails of doom. Not helping matters was Christopher Reeve’s visibly bored performance as the big blue boyscout. What does this have to do with today’s Cahiers du Cannon entry? After getting the Superman franchise the only way Cannon could lure Reeve back for one more go at the role was agree to make a project he’d been trying to do for some time. And so the cost of one of the dumbest comic book films ever made was one of the smartest, toughest films of the decade that has since fallen into undeserved obscurity.
Reeve plays a reporter eager to make his name. So eager in fact that he decides to invent a story about a charming, dangerous pimp for his magazine. Unfortunately an actual charming, dangerous pimp played by Morgan Freeman thinks the story is about him and wants to get to know the writer. Even more unfortunately, the two cops after Freeman think Reeve has the inside scoop and want him to turn over his notes. And soon Reeve finds himself tangled up with a prostitute, played by Kathy Baker, who works for Freeman and trying to keep the cops and his editor from discovering the original piece was a sham.
The film’s sharpness about people happy to consume crime as entertainment and make money selling it has not dulled. Reeve is peddling what his editor is eager to gobble up, and the gleam in his eye at the prestige and money they could rake off the story leapfrogs over any concerns of factchecking. The piece makes Reeve a celebrity of his own. And the adoring yuppie faces at parties and fine restaurants only encourage him to keep the lie going. Reeve is very good as a man rapidly getting in over his head and compounding it by his efforts to save himself. It’s impressive that Reeve wanted to play this part. A callow man who has counted on his charm and boyish good looks to get him out of scrapes. And in the end he does get away with far too much. And at much too high a cost for other characters.
Those familiar with Morgan Freeman as the dignified elder statesman of American movies are in for a shock here. He is excellent and terrifying in equal measure as Fast. Just friendly enough for you to let your guard down to then get sucker punched with an unexpected burst of violence. A taught string of menace runs underneath every smile and forced bit of good humor. He picked up an Academy Award nomination for his role. Kathy Baker is no less excellent as Punchy. She has no illusions about her life, but she’s managed to find moments of tenderness and comfort in it. She’s easily the most heartbreaking character in the film. Both men in her life ultimately cruelly uninterested in her as a person in their own ways. The rest of the cast is solid, deftly sketching who they are and what they want in a few brief scenes. Mimi Rogers as Reeve’s girlfriend enjoying the perks of 15 minute fame and trying to tamp down her conscience at the reason for it. Erik King as Reggie, Fast’s wheelman who idolizes and fears him in equal measure.
Street Smart was directed by Jerry Schatzberg who’d helmed New Hollywood cornerstones like Scarecrow and The Panic in Needle Park. His eye for people on the margins keeps the film from being a gawking tour of poverty. It’s a look at the encroaching Giuliani era that would eradicate Old Dirty NYC for good. He doesn’t sentimentalize Freeman or Baker’s characters or their world. But he shows that it’s a place rich in its own culture and society as the loft apartments and art galleries of Reeve’s. The film never slips into preachiness about the very people driving working class NYC out being eager consumers for lurid tales of Time Square. There’s a weary cynicism in the film’s belief that we’re all basically hustlers of one stripe or another. Each trying to work our angle to our best advantage. That was true in the go-go eighties, and it’s true now. And there’s something queasily full circle about the age of Trump Tower and The New York Post having birthed Trump the Presidential Candidate and Gawker. That may not be truth or justice, but more often than not that’s the American way.
Jessica Ritchey is a freelance writer based in Maryland.