Times Staff Writer

If nothing else, "Streetwalkin' " (citywide) proves that a woman can exploit extreme violence against both women and men just as surely as a man can. That director Joan Freeman does it with such skill makes this movie seem all the more repugnant. A feature debut could scarcely be more cynical.

There's no denying that Freeman, who wrote the script with her producer-husband Robert Alden, knows how to grab us and plunge us into the garish, ultra-dangerous world of Manhattan hookers. The credits are barely over when a desperate teen-age runaway (Melissa Leo), accompanied by her younger brother (Randall Batinkoff), is snared and turned out by a smooth-talking, handsome pimp (Dale Midkiff).

There's not a wasted second in the tightly structured "Streetwalkin' " as it propels Leo toward catastrophe with explosive force. Leo has barely hit the streets when Midkiff, as a raging psychopath, beats his other woman (Deborah Offner, very effective) to death when she tries to leave him. In her terror and naivete, Leo decides to "choose" another pimp (Leon Robinson), which is tantamount to a declaration of war with Midkiff.

"Streetwalkin'," Roger Corman's premiere production for his newly formed Concorde Pictures, doesn't tell us anything new about the psychology of hookers and their pimps, but Freeman and Alden spent enough time with prostitutes in several Eastern cities to bring to the film a distinct freshness and grit. (The raw, shadowy look that cinematographer Steven Fierberg has given the film is sensationally--in both senses of the word--effective.)

As Leo heads for disaster, one incident triggers the next, conveying forcefully the precarious, self-deluding hooker existence and allowing for a gallery of sharply drawn, alternately comic and poignant vignettes. But as "Streetwalkin' " builds momentum, it lapses into a feminist revenge fantasy, sweeping away whatever merits and sentiment it may have accrued in a protracted and progressively ludicrous exercise in violence for its own sake. (Although there's ample nudity, sex is, for the most part, merely suggested.)

A number of actors make vivid impressions, starting with the lovely, auburn-haired Leo as the trapped, vulnerable street novice. Clad throughout the film in little more than a red satin corset, the statuesque Julie Newmar plays a veteran of the streets, long on advice but seemingly short on customers. Khandi Alexander is another of the ladies, elegant but hiding a corrosive fear behind a facade of wit and cool. Midkiff has just the right pretty-boy, spoiled-child demeanor for the crazed pimp. Equally good are Antonio Fargas, as Alexander's pimp, Greg Germann as Midkiff's weirdo sidekick and Annie Golden and Julie Cohen as other young streetwalkers.

There's a fleeting sweetness in Leo's relationship with Batinkoff, with the ill-fated Offner, and also with a nice john (David Chandler) who really loves her (but to whom she is too afraid to respond). But make no mistake about it: "Streetwalkin' " (a very hard R) is first and foremost a blood bath.

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