Though it becomes bogged down with conventional thriller elements near the end, Hussy (1980) is a fairly good little film, though despite an excellent performance by Helen Mirren what reviews the picture did receive were dismissive and uniformly negative. The Time Out Film Guide thought it an ordinary romantic melodrama while one Helen Mirren fansite absurdly calls it a romantic comedy. The film's advertising promised Hot Stuff, while First Run Features' DVD jacket coyly asks, "How Much Sex Is Enough...?" In fact, Hussy is basically a character study about a past-her-prime London hooker (Mirren) and her relationship with an enigmatic American (John Shea). Ultimately it's a lot closer to the sexual character dramas of Atom Egoyan than Pretty Woman.
Beaty (Mirren, her character's name sounding like "B.T."), works as a hostess/prostitute at an upscale - if still rather sleazy - cabaret where she meets mysterious American Emory (Shea), who works in the club's rafters as a lighting technician. They eventually fall in love, but predictably he grows increasingly uncomfortable with her line of work.
Complicating matters is the arrival of Emory's gay friend Max (Murray Salem), who wants to cut Emory in on an upcoming drug deal; and Beaty's abusive former lover (and pimp?) Alex (Paul Angelis), a strong-arm gorilla type fresh out of prison, or maybe the nut house. In any case Alex is clearly a brutish psychopath who threatens Beaty and Emory's future.
Hussy's main assets are its strong performances and writer-director Matthew Chapman's (Runaway Jury) successful efforts to capture the milieu of an ordinary prostitute's daily grind in smoke-filled clubs where you can almost smell the sweat. (The show's MC is like a British Bobby Bittman.) It's a singularly unglamorous portrait, the antithesis of Pretty Woman, and to her credit Mirren subtly plays Beaty as a woman with a lot of mileage on her. She looks older than her years and, quite unlike the complimentary poster art, borders on the grotesque with overly made-up features: thick eye shadow, too-bright lipstick, etc. (Most of the other hookers are no better and frequently even more grotesque.)
Agelis, who credits include the voice of Ringo in Yellow Submarine (!), is disturbingly real as abusive Alex, who so terrifies everyone around him that they walk on eggshells in his presence quietly humoring him lest he lash out like a rabid dog. Both Mirren and Shea (Lois & Clark, Mutant X) internalize their emotions, playing them close to the chest, yet also convey these feelings to the audience. The first half of the film, which focuses on their complex love and sexual relationship, is better-written than the more conventional second act (though it has a nice Get Carter-like atmosphere), especially in its casually frank conversations about sex. Prudish American movies, gluttons for graphic violence, are rarely this adult when it comes to showing and talking about sexual matters.
Video & Audio
First Run Features' DVD of Hussy is 16:9 enhanced, but that's about the only good thing that can be said for it. A 35mm release print, complete with splices and occasional jump cuts was sourced, and the image is soft and notably greenish. It looks like a 20-year-old master reformatted for widescreen TVs. (Indeed, many 4:3 DVDs reformatted/zoomed on 16:9 televisions fare better than this enhanced job.) Worse, it appears to be a PAL transfer, and the 92-minute running time (despite the 95 listed on the box) suggests some speed-up as well. The mono sound is about what you'd expect from a print source. There are no subtitle options.
The only supplements are a Selected Helen Mirren Filmography, basically useless, and a pretty good Photo Gallery of publicity stills that only serve to emphasize how bad the movie looks by comparison.
Hussy is much better than its reputation would suggest, and worth a look for its fine performances alone.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.