“Don’t paw me, you’re not part of my contract.”
Based on a Jean Paul Sartre play, The Respectful Prostitute explores the moral choices experienced by a white prostitute after she witnesses a crime committed against a black man.
Set during the segregation period, the film begins on a train traveling to a small town in the Deep South. A white woman, prostitute/singer/hostess Lizzie McKay (Barbara Laage), is manhandled by two white men who are drunk. During the scuffle, a white man kills a black man who is an innocent bystander. The white man, the nephew of a local senator, is hauled off for the crime. In jail, he’s perfectly happy to brag about the killing, but his uncle and cousin want him set free and decide a little witness tampering is the perfect solution.
The plan is to get Lizzie to sign a statement that the murdered black man was trying to rape her, and that the white man came to her rescue. There are only two impediments to this plan–Lizzie and the only other witness–the murdered man’s black friend. Both the senator and his son decide that Lizzie can be bought or persuaded to sign the false statement, and they try a number of different tactics to win her compliance. As far as they are concerned, she shouldn’t testify against a member of her “own race”–and whether or not the white man is guilty is beside the point. Lizzie, however, is already on the fringes of society. She doesn’t exactly relate to the privileged white set, so the dilemma for the senator becomes a matter of making Lizzie identify with her race.
In the meantime, the black witness is terrified. He doesn’t expect Lizzie to tell the truth about what happened, and now in hiding, he knows he’ll be lynched if found.
Lizzie is a hard character who’s tough enough not to buckle to fear, but she’s not immune to other rhetoric. As an outcast from mainstream white society, she becomes humanised by her experience with the slimy southern politician and his ‘old boy network’ who would quite happily sweep the crime under the rug.
The film is dubbed. It would probably be too absurd for a French film set in the Deep South to have subtitles, but the dubbing is an unfortunate feature of the film. Luckily, there are not many close-ups, so the dubbing isn’t too distracting. The Respectful Prostitute is an interesting story that explores the ugliness of racism, and in Sartre’s hands, Lizzie’s moral choices become the focal point of this tale.