The always edifying topic of Los Angeles hustlers gets yet another workout in the determinedly gritty Skin and Bone. Aspiring thespian Harry (B. Wyatt) is top stud in the stable of ruthless Hollywood madam Ghislaine (Nicole Dillenberg). 'I'm an actor!' he repeatedly, rather desperately, tells his johns as he fulfills their every fantasy, from brutal cop to whip-wielding leather master. He takes succulent young rookie Dean (Alan Boyce) under his buffed wing, successfully instructing him in the subtle art of play for pay. However, it soon becomes evident to them, as in countless other whore-themed movies, that the primrose path ain't all that. Ghislaine turns out to be an avaricious monster who stops at nothing-not even murder-when it appears that her boys want out of the trade.

Writer-director Everett Lewis cannily employs a shoestring budget to tell his decidedly unpretty tale. It's shot in alternating grainy black-and-white and desaturated color, with a battery of flashy editing techniques and ambient sound effects. Lewis fully captures the garish, desolate, weirdly alluring milieu of rentboy turf from Santa Monica Blvd. to Selma Ave., all strip malls, newsstands and slow-cruising cars. He is also highly attuned to the pitilessly venal world of agents and casting directors, insensitively wolfing down tuna sandwiches during hopeful auditions, only concerned with their ten percent and pound of flesh. The first half has a buoyant verve, with Harry doing a salacious Prof. Higgins to Dean's ingenuous Eliza Doolittle. 'Never wear deodorant,' he admonishes. 'The johns wanna smell you.' For his part, Dean has a droll 'Rain in Spain' moment when he finally learns a significant axiom about Applied S/M: 'I got it! Never tease a Westerner or bruise a Brit!' There's a touching subplot involving another novice (Garret Scullin), whose extreme innocence lands him in very hot water. A bouncy music score (with contributions by Pansy Division) fuels it along. The movie only begins to bog down in the darker, ensuing scenes, with Lewis piling on the pain rather over-strenuously. We may be able to accept Dean's near saint-like servicing of a bitterly closeted paraplegic, but his self-mutilation with a cigarette during his big, tortured confessional and Harry's sudden rape by a deranged regular client seem a bit much. By the climactic, tragically 'ironic' denouement, you feel as if you've been made to pay for all the early, dirty fun, as in some bizarrely self-imposed Hayes Code. The use of an on-line screen listing of various client options (type, e.g., 'cowboy' or 'cop'; locale, e.g., 'barn' or 'dungeon'), clever at first, quickly becomes a tiresome narrative linking device, needlessly stretching out the running time.

Lewis has been lucky with his two leading men, who are both game, gesturally hip and highly empathic actors. They're plenty comely to boot, with Boyce doing pouty, pretty-boy versatility (and skillfully keeping genitalia off camera range), while the more uninhibited Wyatt is a resolutely vulpine top (until his comeuppance, that is). Scullin plays loopy, dumb blonde to a fare-thee-well and the various johns all have their oily, pointed moments. (There's a boutique scene that's a funny update of a classic moment in the granddaddy of all Hollywood hustler epics, Sunset Boulevard, when that memorably unctuous salesman whispered, 'As long as the lady's paying...') Most of these sequences will doubtlessly find a highly appreciative, knowing audience. Dillenberg is less successful, stiffly plying monotonous attitude in lieu of creating a real character, rather like a female impersonation of female impersonator Jackie Beat.

--David Noh