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East End Hustle

1976, Starring Andre Pelletier, Anne-Marie Provencher, Margaret Ann Bates, Michle Mercure. Directed by Frank Vitale.

In between producing and releasing French-Canadian sex comedies like Love In a Four Letter World and Pile ou Face, the distribution arm of Montreal's infamous Cinepix corporation imported a variety of American and European grindhouse films for exhibition in Canada. But by the mid-1970s, Cinepix vice-president Don Carmody noticed that the exploitation film genre was beginning to change. The cheescake films had given way to much more violent offerings, like SS Experiment Love Camp and Deep River Savages. Following their lead, Carmody's Canadian productions gradually introduced a strong measure of violence to supplement the nudity and sex that Cinepix productions were notorious for. One of the first and most graphic examples of this sensibility was East End Hustle, a sleazy little Canadian flick that often comes off like Norma Rae for prostitutes.

It's appropriate then, that our main character's story begins in sweatshop-like conditions. Young Mary Ann supports her family as a seamstress in a dismal factory, keeping her job by engaging in extracurricular sexual activities with her sleazy boss. Her boss introduces her to Joe, an equally sleazy pimp who specializes in high-priced call girls for politicians and mobster clients. After an argument with Cindy, a call girl who quits and storms out, Joe decides Mary Ann she would make a fine replacement and hires her. As the girl is escorted outside, Cindy suddenly strikes from the shadows like some sort of Super Prostitute, swooping down to rescue Mary Ann before she can get too involved with Joe's racket. Before the boss man's strong-arm thug Goldie realizes what has happened, the new friends are already speeding through the city in Cindy's car.

During the ride, Cindy explains herself. The Montreal operation was one big happy family of prostitutes until the Johns started getting violent. One day, when a hooker is badly beaten by a customer, Joe takes it out on the poor girl, and within days, she turns up dead. That's why Cindy broke free, and why she rescued Mary Ann. The others prostitutes are scared, but still work in Joe's upscale club where they must entice clients with strip acts before leading them upstairs to prepared rooms.

Over the course of the night, Cindy shows Mary Ann that revenge is a dish best served with a side of backbacon. First, they go to a pool hall where Cindy mops the floor with a couple of mulleted hosers who whistled at Mary Ann earlier. Later, driving on the strip, two guys try to pick them up. Initially, Cindy refuses, but after they start getting violent, Cindy agrees. When one leather-jacketed stud gets her to go in the backseat of her car, she pulls a knife out to teach the guy some manners. Finally, Cindy invites Mary Ann to stay with her and her boyfriend Peter (Allan Moyle).

Joe is already upset with Cindy for leaving, but when he loses Mary Ann on the deal as well, he decides it's time for some retaliation of his own. Goldie and a couple other lackies follow Cindy around the next day, and when she ducks into a washroom, the thugs burst in and brutally rape her, tearing all of her clothes. Rather than discouraging her, this inspires Cindy even more since the other girls want to break free of Joe, Cindy arranges for them to be picked up safely while working their shifts. Cindy and Mary Ann set the converted call girls up in a dilapidated flop house where they can hide from Joe and his thugs.

Joe is livid after two of the girls take off in the middle of servicing Tony and Sal, two New York mob cronies that Joe imported to take care of The Great Hooker Rebellion of 1976. He forces Heather, one of the few remaining girls, to act as a decoy by threatening to bring her sister into the fold. Heather reluctantly agrees, and arranges a pick-up so Joe can discover the location of the flop house. But Cindy starts to get suspicious after seeing Heather's erratic behavior. Before it's all over, Cindy knows she must confront Joe to end his persistent and dangerous exploitation of the girls.

Distributed in the US by New World Films and later, Troma, East End Hustle was the second and final film made by the directing-screenwriting team of Frank Vitale and Allan Moyle. Their obscure first effort, Montreal Main, stars both Vitale and Moyle, and was a critically well-received dramatic look at Montreal's gay community. While Vitale didn't go on to much more after directing East End Hustle, Moyle achieved moderate success. He followed up East End Hustle with The Rubber Gun, a crime film about Quebec's drug culture, before going on to script and direct a few Hollywood hits, as well as a Canadian b-films Red Blooded American Girl and Xchange.

Spurned by a surge in urban violence, Quebec was home to a rash of crime dramas throughout the 1970s and 80s. Films from Ontario often drew on true crime for their stories, but Quebec's were wholly fictional and tended to push boundaries a little further. In fact, East End Hustle may repulse some viewers with its disturbing mix of exploitation and gritty cinema-verite. Cindy's rape is a particularly brutal sequence, not well contrasted by a later scene in which Moyle tenderly seduces her. Many of Montreal's crime dramas are more in the pulp tradition of "police procedurals" which focused on the solving or the execution of crimes, but this film is different, portraying urban crime and violence as facts of life that must be worked within, not eradicated. This is true of all of Moyle's films at the time.

As distasteful as East End Hustle can be even today, it was outdone just one year later by another Cinepix production. Ivan Reitman and Jean LaFleur's Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia brought cinema's most notorious dominatrix back to Canada to run a Quebec brothel of her own. While Tigress is much campier and over-the-top than East End Hustle, however both show the violent tendencies that were beginning to creep into Cinepix's productions by the mid-1970s.

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