by Anthony King
If you've read me in the past or listened to me on a podcast, you know that I long to live in the Deuce era of New York City. The 1970s: where the streets were full of hustlers, porno theaters and grindhouses had barkers out front pulling in unsuspecting tourists to the latest sleaze show, and the marquees were full of titles I could only dream of seeing on opening weekend on the big screen. It's the 42nd Street of Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, and Manhattan. In Bill Landis's Sleazoid Express, a beautifully horrific picture is painted of this time. Landis also paints an ugly portrait of the period of decline on the Deuce that began in the early/mid '80s. Heroin came into the picture, AIDS was killing off thousands, and the city started kicking everybody out and turning all those iconic theaters and buildings into unaffordable living spaces. Gentrification became the dirtiest word in Manhattan. But the period of the late '60s and early '70s Midtown? I dream of that place weekly.
Paul Morrissey's Forty Deuce, like Landis's Sleazoid, gives you the idea of what life was really like on the Deuce in the early '80s. It wasn't “Fun City” anymore, the nickname snidely uttered by residents after Mayor John Lindsay said he thought New York was still a “fun city” in an interview during the 1966 transit strike. I've always wanted to live in “Fun City.” But I've had literal nightmares about the Forty Deuce era (era) of Times Square. The year Forty Deuce comes out is the beginning of the scummiest period and decline of the Deuce of my dreams.
Like most of Morrissey's films, it's cheap and dirty and you may need subtitles to understand these hustlers and their strong New Yawk-ese. Bacon, as usual, is fabulous as a burned out, twitchy junkie who, in the same year, plays a completely different type of character in a completely different type of movie, Diner. Morrissey's photography and knowledge of his adopted home of the Deuce gives the feeling of a documentary. The handheld camera strolls past a line of hustlers looking to make a fast buck: “Coke. Speed. Cock,” they say on repeat. As is usually the case in movies taking place in Times Square in the '70s and '80s, the marquees are prominent. Here we see on display showtimes for Superman II, The Starlets, Games Women Play, Practice Makes Perfect, and Cheech and Chong's Nice Dreams.
The final act is basically a filmed version of the play. Morrissey decides to take a split screen approach while the final 20 minutes are played out entirely in the tiny apartment. He shoots the final act with two cameras – one set up as a close shot and the other a medium. The blocking of the actors passing from one side of the screen to the other is seamless and really shows how brilliant Morrissey really is. The group of hustlers finally devise a plan to handle the dead body by inviting a previous client, Mr. Roper (a pedophile), up to have his way with the boy. Blow and Ricky will give Roper some of the Drano-spiked heroin to smoke, and he'll pass out. When he wakes up everyone will say he killed the kid. As the final moments take place, we're treated to seat-shifting tension where Ricky slowly becomes unhinged as his patience runs out with Roper. Finally, we're blessed with one of the greatest monologues I have ever seen on stage or screen by Roper as played by Orson Bean.