Street Smart
DVD Savant Review

Street Smart
Olive Films Savant Blu-ray Review

Street Smart
Olive Films
1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date July 7, 2015 / available at the Olive Films website
/ 29.98
Starring Christopher Reeve, Kathy Baker, Mimi Rogers, Jay Patterson, Andre Gregory, Morgan Freeman.
Adam Holender
Production Designer Dan Leigh
Art Direction Serge Jacques
Film Editor Priscilla Nedd
Original Music Robert Irving III featuring Miles Davis
Written by David Freeman
Produced by Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Who says The Cannon Group turned out only bad movies? Early in 1987 I became a promo, TV spot and trailer editor in that department, nested just two floors down from the executive suites at Cannon central near Wilshire and La Cienega Blvds.. In those few years when Golan and Globus grazed the higher strata of filmmaking, some good shows came through our department, such as Andrei Konchalovsky’s unheralded Shy People. Another was Street Smart, a snappy New York- based thriller. Clever of script and uneven in direction, the show got plenty of attention and an Oscar nomination for powerhouse actor Morgan Freeman. Also scoring solidly is Kathy Baker, who whips the thankless role of a generic Times Square hooker into a soufflé part.

It’s a hot summer in the city. To save his job, maladroit magazine journalist Jonathan Fisher (Christopher Reeve) pulls a Stephen Glass and fabricates a story about a fictional Times Square pimp he calls Tyrone. Actual pimp Leo Smalls, known on the street as ‘Fast Black’ (Morgan Freeman), happens to be on trial on a murder charge. The D.A. assumes that Smalls is the basis for Fisher’s story, and seeks to subpoena the writer’s notes. Smalls knows that Fisher’s story is baloney, and with his attorney plans to blackmail the writer into providing an alibi for the killing. Fisher is soon up to his neck in trouble. A judge threatens prison on a contempt of court charge, while the streetwise Fast Black knows how to take advantage of his position. Neither is afraid to use threats to get his way. Jonathan is also caught between his upscale girlfriend Alison (Mimi Rogers) and Fast Black’s main streetwalker Punchy (Kathy Baker), with whom he forms an unstable friendship.

If Jerry Schatzberg’s direction had a little more finesse, Street Smart might have been more than a modest hit. In 1987 Cannon was still fronting good distribution for its higher-tier product, and this sleeper had critics praising Morgan Freeman and Kathy Baker to the skies. Their scenes have an immediacy and power that eluded many another ’80s tale from the sidewalks of New York. Morgan Freeman had avoided ’70s blaxploitation productions, and played a regular role on the educational program The Electric Company. Freeman dives into the role of a domineering pimp, and makes of it a breakthrough opportunity.

The toughest thing to do in a modern crime film is to put teeth into scenes of menace and jeopardy. Any crimer can invent various kinds of grisly murders, etc., to little dramatic effect. Freeman grabs every situation he’s in, fiercely intimidating his girls, his chauffeur Reggie (Erik King) and the foolish reporter Jonathan Fisher. Fast Black is in a bind for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s accustomed to getting his way through bald intimidation, and when pushed he’s capable of anything.

Street Smart is supposed to center on the Christopher Reeve character, but that’s not how it works out. Although Jonathan Fisher claims the most screen time his part is perfunctorily handled. Christopher Reeve isn’t bad but he doesn’t command the screen or make us believe Fisher in any great depth. Here’s a bigtime scribe who cheats on both his profession and his girlfriend, and his only reaction is to ruthlessly retaliate. His newfound job as a television man on the streets makes a nice point about unearned rewards for dishonesty. Fisher traps NYC scammers with his sting cameras are sub- 60 Minutes hijinks, reality programming as opportunistic and predatory as Fast Black’s prostitution setup.

Morgan Freeman’s half of the story is full of surprises. The smartest man in the film, Fast Black plays his side of the game perfectly, even when he’s dishing out the violent threats. And Kathy Baker’s Punchy is practically an ad for the Times Square hooker as official NYC greeter. Her convincing seduction of Fisher comes off as shooting fish in a barrel. Seen only intermittently in films, Baker’s first screen role was as Louise Shepard in The Right Stuff. Mimi Rogers is reasonable in a lesser role. The other various magazine execs and legal troublemakers are sketched on the broader side. Reporter Fisher’s boss Ted Avery (Andre Gregory of My Dinner with Andre) is a real 5th Avenue bozo, used for comedy relief. Fast Black complains of being patronized at Avery’s uptown party, but so is everybody else.

The movie has a slightly rushed pace and a few unfortunate editorial choices. Odd dissolves intrude in the party scene, and the song ‘Natural Woman’ is unnecessarily superimposed over the seduction scene. Some of the clever plotting makes things happen far too conveniently. Fisher is twice imprisoned for contempt, once for not giving up his article notes and once for saying they never existed. When he later fabricates some notes, giving Fast Black the alibi he wants, Fisher’s ethical stature really takes a dive. Not only is there no ‘investigation’ of what this dishonesty means to Fisher the hasty detail-skipping begs some important questions. Why would the judge let Fisher go after finding out he’d withheld the information that Black had an alibi? After two flagrant lies, why would the Judge believe anything Fisher said? A little honest conversation between Fisher and the prosecutor Leonard Pike (a very good Jay Patterson) might have straightened the whole thing out.

(spoilers) The end of Street Smart allows the fairly unsympathetic Fisher to resolve his problem as if it were one of his obnoxious TV sting operations. Fast Black is not a good guy, but for this particular crime he is being railroaded by the D.A.. The way things work out, he becomes an unredeemable villain. Fisher gets off scot-free, retaining his career and getting his girlfriend back, albeit with some stitches on her stomach. In reality, Fisher’s lies and prevarications are what caused all the grief. The scummy street life that the film seems so afraid of is once again made a separate, evil world. It needs to be suppressed so that yuppies like Jonathan and Alison can feel secure. This was before NYC’s ’90s clean-up campaigns, I think.

One classy symbolic image involving a white dove appears late in the show. It communicates its point beautifully to most audiences. Schatzberg has not set us up for expressionist asides. It’s unexpected, and eerily effective.

Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Street Smart is a slick encoding of this fairly good-looking New York-set production. It’s not a showcase of the city, as the average images concentrate directly on the characters. Yet it doesn’t look like a TV movie of the day either. We get deep into the difficulties between Fisher, Punchy and Fast Black, and our attention never wanders.

No trailer is included, which is too bad. The older DVD from 2003 does have the trailer, an excellent example of the work of the Cannon advertising department at this time. It expresses the excitement and some of the content of the film in a freewheeling montage format, but without telling the whole plot or boring us with runs of moronic narration.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Street Smart Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: English
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

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