“Wilder than you can imagine!” “Explicit beyond belief!” Taglines for the 1973 grindhouse quickie Fleshpot on 42nd Street promise, like its title, a lurid hardcore porno. But actor Fred Lincoln, who had a minor role as a poker player waiting to take his turn with a prostitute, remembers it in a very different way: “It’s more like a Cassavettes film. I went to see it when it came out, and I thought it was art.” That disconnect between marketing and merchandise was thanks to tortured no-budget auteur Andy Milligan, who was once regularly named among the worst film directors to even wield a camera. But the rehabilitation of this truly fringe artist continues with Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration of this salacious title. The new version restores the film to an X-rated explicitness; at the same time, it cements Milligan’s growing reputation for coaxing rich, emotional performances out of actors trapped in exploitation films. And that goes for the movie’s bona fide porn stars too.
Fleshpot opens with camera footage of the Deuce taken from a moving car; the POV of a hustler looking for a mark or a score. The camera finds Dusty (Laura Cannon, credited as Diane Lewis) checking in with the guy she’s living with—an arrangement apparently made for bread. She’s pretty, he isn’t, and he lets her stay in exchange for sex. Dusty puts up with it, to a point, because she can pilfer his belongings and take them down to an antique store, where the owner won’t say anything about stolen goods, especially if the customer is willing to offer something extra. But she’s had it, and strikes out for an uncertain next step.
Yes, Dusty is a hooker, and she’s far from happy. The only people she can trust—but can she really? – are drag queens like Cherry Lane (Milligan regular Neil Flanagan), who lets Dusty stay with her to sort things out. Dusty hangs out with Cherry and her boisterous friends at a downtown bar, where they talk about their trade and perform renditions of “The Good Ship Lollipop.” Which all sounds like good, campy fun. The seedy milieu is an appropriate place for a song associated with childhood; much like in Milligan’s masterpiece Seeds, Fleshpot depicts a group of people who have become corrupted but still retain some of their childlike naiveté, however distorted.
Things seem to be looking up when a handsome, mysterious and straight stranger shows up at the bar. Bob (credited to Bob Walters) is a Wall Street banker, and it doesn’t take long for Dusty to convince him to take her home. He’s her ticket out of this lifestyle, and she doesn’t think of him as a trick; but, since this is a Milligan joint, things won’t end well.
Fleshpot doesn’t sound like much of a porno, does it? One can imagine paying customers lured by the provocative poster expecting easy titillation and instead finding an intimate drama. Sure, the players on screen are members of the sexual underground, but nobody seems to be having much fun. The film’s theatrical release wasn’t even particularly explicit, the horizontal 1:85 framing effectively cropping out anything that would make it hardcore. Vinegar Syndrome presents the 1:37 framing that Milligan shot, which restores explicit penetration but doesn’t make the film any sexier.
The movie is essentially about the hard lives of sex workers, and the star cast as the promising young beau is telling: Bob Walters is, in fact, porn legend Harry Reems, and both he and Cannon (who had a shorter stint in adult films) convey a tenderness and fragility. That Dusty’s knight in shining armor is, in real life, a porn star, is kind of tragic.
While Milligan titles like The Body Beneath and The Torture Dungeon ply their raw aesthetic in typical horror movie settings (albeit frequently shot in and around Milligan’s Staten Island home), this time the carnage takes place among the desperate denizens of the New York sex trade, giving Fleshpot the feel of a sordid documentary. When the hopeful couple take part in one of the director’s signature leitmotifs—sharing a bath together—it’s like a purification ritual. Dusty really is going to get out of the business and lead a conventional middle-class life. Of course, that’s when Milligan pulls the rug out from under her.
“I’m not looking for perfection. As many imperfections as I’ve got, I can’t go through life like that.” That’s what Bob tells Dusty when she breaks it to him that she’s made her living turning tricks. He knows, and he still loves her. It’s the kind of bittersweet moment you don’t expect from porn, or even from Andy Milligan, but that’s what makes Fleshpot transcend its station, if only for a moment.