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Retro Review: HUSSY (1980)

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HUSSY 
(UK - 1980)

Written and directed by Matthew Chapman. Cast: Helen Mirren, John Shea, Paul Angelis, Murray Salem, Jenny Runacre, Marika Rivera, Patti Boulaye, Daniel Chasin, Charles Yates, Jill Melford, Hal Gallili, William Hootkins, Rupert Frazer, Sandy Ratcliff, April Olrich, Ric Young. (R, 95 mins)

A deep dive into the seedy underbelly of late '70s London, 1980's HUSSY was in regular rotation on Showtimes late-night "After Hours" in the early '80s, thus lumping it in with other legendary softcore staples like THE STUD (1978) and THE BITCH (1979). It's got a decent amount of skin but it isn't as relentlessly tawdry as those two Joan Collins potboilers. It isn't even the trashiest 1980 movie to star Helen Mirren, as she also had CALIGULA in theaters that same year. 1980 also found her co-starring in the British gangster classic THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, and while the similarities pretty much begin and end with the presence of Mirren, HUSSY more or less abandons the T&A around the midpoint as things take a decidedly darker turn with sketchy criminals and clandestine drug deals. Mirren is Beaty Simons, a high-class London prostitute who works out of a cabaret called The Baron Club. She catches the eye of Emory (John Shea), an American expat who works sound and lights for the club, and on his night off, he makes arrangements for her services despite her insistence that "You're broke and I'm expensive." Though she makes good money, she has dreams of getting out of the life, moving to the country, and owning an antique shop, all part of a plan of establishing a more respectable existence and regaining permanent custody of her ten-year-old son Billy (Daniel Chasin). Emory is running from his own past as well--he's widower whose wife died under mysterious circumstances involving poisoned berries, for which he blames himself for letting her eat. It's a story so heartbreaking that Beaty's immediate response when he tells her in a parked car is, in true softcore fashion, "Make love to me. Right here."






As their relationship grows and Emory bonds with Billy on his Sunday visits and, predictably, has a hard time handling the realities of her job as she comes home smelling of booze and men, their plan of starting a new life runs into a couple of snags. Max (Murray Salem), Emory's shady, flamboyantly gay friend from the States, is in town to set up a lucrative drug deal and wants Emory to be a part of it; and Alex (a terrifying Paul Angelis), an unstable, anger-management case ex from Beaty's past, reappears to pick up where they left off after a stint in either prison or a mental hospital (his story keeps changing and asking for clarification only provokes him). Alex crashes with the two of them at Emory's place and refuses to leave, and even informs Beaty of his intention to kill Emory rather than let her be with him. Realizing that Max is only inviting him along on the drug deal because he needs a fall guy in case it all goes to shit, Emory decides to bring Alex in on it as well, which goes about as smoothly as you'd expect, especially when the perpetually obnoxious Max keeps aggravating and insulting an already volatile Alex.





It's around the halfway-point that HUSSY finally introduces its dual antagonists in Max and Alex. Until then, it focuses on Beaty and Emory, thus confining the "After Hours"-worthy content to the first 45 or so minutes. Mirren classes it up quite a bit and, as in CALIGULA, she isn't shy about disrobing and showing everything. It's too bad she more or less becomes a secondary character once the drug deal takes center stage, but she manages to create a somewhat complex character in Beaty, a woman with a dark past and self-destructive, self-sabotaging tendencies but who's a good person deep down. An acclaimed Broadway actor--he originated the role of Avigdor in the 1975 stage production of YENTL that would be played by Mandy Patinkin in Barbra Streisand's 1983 film--Shea did some TV work (most notably playing Joseph in the 1978 TV movie THE NATIVITY) before making his big-screen debut in HUSSY. He would go on to co-star with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek in Costa-Gavras' 1982 film MISSING, but is perhaps best known these days for his stint as Lex Luthor on the 1993-1997 ABC series LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. Cleveland native Salem had small roles in the 1977 TV miniseries JESUS OF NAZARETH and the same year's 007 outing THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. He would abandon acting soon after HUSSY to focus on screenwriting, selling several scripts to Hollywood studios but only seeing one of them produced--the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy KINDERGARTEN COP--before succumbing to AIDS at just 47 in 1998.


HUSSY also marked the debut of British writer/director Matthew Chapman, whose directing career never really took off (his only other notable effort being the 1988 Jennifer Jason Leigh psychological thriller HEART OF MIDNIGHT), but he found some steady work as a screenwriter on projects as varied as the 1992 wife-swapping thriller CONSENTING ADULTS, 1994's gonzo COLOR OF NIGHT, the 2001 Martin Lawrence/Danny DeVito comedy WHAT'S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN? and the 2003 John Grisham adaptation RUNAWAY JURY. Just out on Blu-ray from Twilight Time (because physical media is dead), HUSSY suffers from a seriously abrupt ending, and while "After Hours" insomniacs and pre-pubescent boys probably didn't find it as consistently trashy as THE STUD or THE BITCH (sorry, Mirren doesn't go for a spin on the Joan Collins fuck swing), it does do an effective job of capturing a snapshot of a distinct time and place. The sordid atmosphere of The Baron Club and the denizens it hosts in its own way conveys that vivid sense of empty melancholy that permeated the sweaty, smoke-filled confines of Fontaine Khaled's posh disco Hobo in THE STUD.


This review is dedicated to film historian and Twilight Time founder Nick Redman.


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