Good intentions alone cannot redeem a lousy movie, but at least they can excuse it. Let that be the epitaph for ON THE BLOCK, a dreadfully sincere and sincerely dreadful look at the seedy side of Baltimore.
It's called "the Block"--Baltimore's real-life red light district, a concentration of porno palaces, strip clubs and flophouses where prostitutes, junkies, johns, exotic dancers and cheap-thrillseekers congregate. ON THE BLOCK was filmed on location, and utilizes some of the Block's actual
stripper joints in telling the tale of Libby (Marilyn Jones), a recovering addict and part-time hooker, newly arrived in town. Attractive and tough on the outside, Libby's got the proverbial heart of gold inside; getting a job as a dancer at the 2 O'Clock Club, she treats her co-workers with
motherly attention, especially a young runaway Mimi (Erika Bogren), who's sliding into drug abuse herself. Libby also befriends Hugo (Michael Gabel), a seedy-looking handyman who does all the cleaning chores around the peepshow booths. She even dances well.
The Block's patrons begin to notice Libby, and prominent among them is Police Lieutenant Tom Rucci (Jerry Whiddon), the most sexually repressed religious psychotic since Torquemada. At first Rucci seems normal, even a little sweet in his shy approaches to Libby. But as his obsession with the
dancer grows, the unstable rosary fondler turns into a violent madman. In the end faithful Hugo makes the ultimate sacrifice to save Libby from the crazed Catholic.
Throughout this lurid stuff producer-director-co-screenwriter and editor Steve Yeager interweaves details of daily life on the Block, replete with nudity, catfights, public showers, and needles plunging into junkie veins. Yeager, a Baltimore-based industrial filmmaker, apparently does not want to
glamorize this environment, yet he portrays opponents of the Block as utter scoundrels. The vice cops range from overzealous to useless, anti-porn activists are a chanting rabble, and Howard E. Rollins, Jr. (RAGTIME, TV's "In the Heat of the Night") shows up as smooth-talking developer Clay
Beasley, who is determined to tear down the "morally reprehensible, corrupt block of trouble" and replace it with office buildings. (But he also receives homoerotic interracial rubdowns from a male masseur, a cheapshot attempt to paint Rollins as a sleaze himself.) He's contrasted with Sammy (Irv
Ziff), the paternal proprietor of the 2 O'Clock Club. In defending the Block, Sammy states that one regular customer has Parkinson's disease, and strip clubs allow him the one opportunity to be "like a human being" and mingle with pretty girls.
Famed ecdysiast Blaze Starr, whose affair with Louisiana governor Earl Long was dramatized in the 1989 film BLAZE, makes a cameo appearance as herself, waxing nostalgic with Sammy about the vanished Good Old Days. She: "When I danced I was a class act." He: "You're still a class act, baby." Ms.
Starr not only performed at the actual 2 O'Clock Club in her heyday, she actually owned the place, and locals still refer to her affectionately as "Mayor of the Block."
ON THE BLOCK takes no prizes in the technical department. Scenes are poorly matched to one another, with sudden shifts in lighting and optical quality. During one intense two-character confrontation a crew member or someone blithely strolls past in the background. Yeager underscores dramatic
scenes with heavy-handed use of slow motion, Wellesian low-angel shots, and shock-cut flashbacks (yes, Rucci still hears the scornful laughter of a whore who traumatized him in his youth).
The actors all give this stuff a brave try, Jones putting heroic effort into her cliched role. Every once in awhile a scene works--like Libby's struggle to save Mimi from her first overdose--and ON THE BLOCK appears to be on the track at last. But just around the corner is another garish moment
of melodrama or jaw-dropping plot development, and the viewer wonders what the filmmakers were thinking. For what it's worth, ON THE BLOCK is dedicated to the memory of America's great maverick filmmaker, the late John Cassavetes.
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: Good intentions alone cannot redeem a lousy movie, but at least they can excuse it. Let that be the epitaph for ON THE BLOCK, a dreadfully sincere and sincerely dreadful look at the seedy side of Baltimore. It's called "the Block"--Baltimore's real-life… (more)