The Hang Up (1969)
Directed by John Hayes
Starring Tony Vorno and Sharon Matt
Release Date: November 26, 1969
Sgt. Robert Walsh (Tony Vorno, HELP WANTED, FEMALE) has a chip on his shoulder. He’s a tough-nosed, judgmental, unbending, effective vice cop…and he’s got a hang up. Years of pursuing (and sometimes protecting) people he calls the “scum” of the Earth has made him believe all that is sensual is sinful. He can’t begin to entertain that those he despises may be people forced by a black or white/wrong or right society into the underworld. He is shocked that, during a bust that otherwise would be routine, he feels a spark of sympathy for a young prostitute. Helping her to escape the cops who are closing in, he takes her under his wing and into his life. But the young woman isn’t all that she seems and Walsh finds that he carries the same dark impulses as the people he has always condemned.
Director John Hayes (HELP WANTED, FEMALE) has quite a tale to tell with this film. In its fleeting 75 minutes, THE HANG UP asks more questions than it answers. Is Walsh a fine example of all that is moral and upright? Does giving into temptation inevitably lead to a man’s downfall? Is redemption even possible for an unapologetic bigot or a wayward prostitute? Are the those of the underworld victims of an unforgiving world, people who have no choice but to exist in the shadows? The film gives us little in the way of answers, but lays all the cards on the table for us to come to our own conclusions, for better or worse.
When we first encounter him, Walsh seems nothing more than the Alf Garnett of the vice squad. He’s disgusted by people he sees as the dregs of society and utterly convinced of his own superiority. Underneath, however, we find a conflicted and deeply unhappy man. He’s a man who has suppressed his own needs and urges, something he must do to maintain his cherished illusion of being above the motley crews he battles as a vice cop.
The film opens in a co-ed gay bar where Walsh and his partner, in rather hideous drag, are picked up by two well-to-do gentlemen. When the johns discover that it is all a setup, one of them begs Walsh to keep his name out of the papers. A disgusted Walsh refuses, making no bones about how he feels about “queers.”
Walsh’s hang up goes beyond his aversion to “deviates.” Sex itself turns his stomach. Returning home after his in-drag vice bust, his comely landlady attempts to seduce him. A nude Walsh sees her undressing across the hall but drapes on his bathrobe, a layer of protection from carnality, before taking her on the bathroom floor. Despite her pleas for more, Walsh can’t close the deal and sulks back to his own apartment where he rubs one out in desperation. Even that act of self-satisfaction repulses him.
The next day, after coldly greeting his landlady as if nothing has happened, he hops on his motorbike to bust another brothel. After roaming the mansion’s catacombs, encountering many a sexual tableaux along the way, he meets a young prostitute called Angel (Sharon Matt, BABY VICKIE). Something about the innocent-eyed Angel softens his heart and Walsh helps her to escape the police. Brought back to his apartment, Angel tells Walsh that her real name is Laurie and a May-to-December romance begins to blossom. Now that he sees a Laurie, a prostitute, as a person it begins to effect his work. When his partner roughs up a stripper in yet another bust, Walsh comes to to the frightened woman’s aid.
Walsh readily agrees when Laurie asks him to meet her free-wheeling friends. She takes him to an al fresco poetry love-in where Walsh sheds all of his inhibitions…and this act of liberation leads to his soul-crushing downfall. Walsh soon finds himself a part of the underworld it was once his life’s work to destroy.
Lead Tony Vorno (billed here as Sebastian Gregory) gives a memorable performance as the tortured vice cop. Walsh’s gruff manner and flinch-inducing prejudice could easily read as one-dimensional. Vorno, however, keeps a glimmer of vulnerability in his eyes. He knows that Walsh hates himself as much as he hates those he has grudgingly pledged to protect. When Walsh commits a particularly disgusting act as the film heads toward its climax, Vorno manages to keep a grasp on the audience. Not through dialogue but through Vorno’s performance we see Walsh is as repulsed by his behavior as we are. It’s a tightrope walk from which many other actors may well have fallen.
Leading lady Sharon Matt had but a brief career in films. She appeared in just six titles, all in 1969. She took the titular lead in Hayes’ smutty BABY VICKIE (also starring Tony Vorno) and shot two for Herschell Gordon Lewis (THE ECSTASIES OF WOMEN and LINDA AND ABELINE) before vanishing from the screen. Why she left films and where she is today are a mystery.
Director John Hayes had a varied career in films. One of his earliest efforts, the short film THE KISS (1951), earned him an Academy Award nomination. Despite this critical success, Hayes is probably best known for a slew of low-budget potboilers such as MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS (1974) and the shock classic GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (1972). He would later round out his career in hardcore with such bizarre, unsettling features as BABY ROSEMARY (1976). He rarely had much money to work with or top-shelf talent in front of his camera to exploit, but he always managed to crank out something interesting. THE HANG UP is no exception with its sordid vibe and ambiguous morality.
Long unavailable in anything other than washed-out gray market editions, Vinegar Syndrome has done it again with their beautiful restoration of THE HANG UP. Paired on DVD with another Hayes effort, SWEET TRASH, this film is the stronger of the double bill and the disc is a technical delight. The colors are nicely saturated, detail is strong, dialogue crisp and Mario Toscano’s lush and effective score is well-served . The DVD release features the film’s spoiler-addled trailer as a bonus. This trailer also includes a brief glimpse of a sex scene between Walsh and Angel excised from the final film. An HD version also can be found on Vinegar Syndrome’s 5 Years – 5 Films Blu-Ray collection.
While THE HANG UP meanders a bit in its first half, the film picks up in the final act. Shot more like a police procedural than an exploitation dirge, it features a startling denouement that will remain with the viewer after the credits have rolled. While some may find the convoluted plot twists and downbeat ending somewhat heavy-handed, THE HANG UP maintains a refreshingly-staunch refusal to moralize. Like life, the narrative is untidy, unpredictable and left up to us to decide what it all means. Recommended.
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REVIEW Help Wanted, Female