As a director, he usually divides his fanbase into two distinct and yet equally compelling camps (with some substantial cross-over, naturally). For some, his best work lies within the Swedish softcore romps that began with the quasi-classic Inga. For others, his explorations of the seedier side of suburbia stand as testaments to the dawn of the free love movement. Either way you take him, Joe Sarno is surely one of the few auteurs in the exploitation arena. Often called the grindhouse Ingmar Bergman, this prolific filmmaker used a distinctive style along with carefully crafted scripts to expose the soiled underbelly of everyday existence. He also crafted carefully controlled compositions, images filled with medium shot tableaus that symbolized a kind of anti-Norman Rockwell reality. As he got older, sex became more saleable, and where once a strident social commentator sat, a decidedly dirty old man came to the fore.
As the two latest entries in this disturbing deconstruction of interpersonal morays, Something Weird Video offers another pair of Sarno sensations as part of their February release schedule. In The Love Merchant, a lonely playboy with a penchant for paid companionship sets his sights on a fetching blond babe. The only thing that stands in his way is her sense of pride - and her hardworking husband. In The Layout, the college cousin of a successful Florida interior designer comes down for a visit. She soon finds herself embroiled in bitter memories of far from innocent touching and uncomfortable nights of self-satisfaction. And if as to show just how divergent Sarno's approach can be, Merchant plays out more like a stained soap opera than a regular flesh feast, while Layout is just one continuous sequence of vibrator-enhanced masturbation broken up by bits of exposition. Merchant in lean on the bare bodkin, while everyone is practically a nudist in Layout. Together they make a perverted pair of patented Something Weird wonders, amazing displays of Sarno's cinematic strengths.
When we first meet "rich bum" Kendall Harvey III, he is sitting in a local go-go club, eyeing the entertainment with incredibly bad intent. By his side are his faithful girl Friday and a mostly silent valet who more or less acts inanimate. Into their life walks Click, The Love Merchant, local con man and biker dude with a very interesting proposition. Seems that Click has a collection of available ladies at his beck and call, and the minute Harvey says the word - and forks over the dough - he will no longer be lonely. One of our motorcycle man's regulars is an artist who specializes in nudes. Another is a hog honey with a substantial set of personal handlebars. Once our wealthy bon vivant is introduced to this bottomless well of wantonness, he wants more...more...MORE!!! One day, he runs into Peggy Johns. Like a lightening bolt, lust creeps over this playboy pervert and he must have this Miss immediately. Naturally, she rejects him, so he goes about emotionally blackmailing her, Indecent Proposal style. Peggy's husband is failing in his advertising business, and Harvey will help him - in return for a few favors from the worrried wife. If she agrees, all will be saved - but at what price. What price indeed.
Short on poon but plump with plot, The Love Merchant is like a salacious mini-series set in the sleazy side of the post-beatnik Village scene. More happens in the 79 minutes of movie here than in a couple dozen standard exploitation epics. Sarno really enjoys expressing his characters inner iniquity, and since he can't show much (by 1966 standards) he ends up using dialogue and situations to highlight their horribleness. Everyone in this film is a freak - from the only well-to-do wretch in the entire world who has to actually cough up cash for his carnality (instead of just hinting at future fortunes), to the ballerina who balls because a $500 check arrives at the end of the erotica. Hoping to illustrate that everyone has his or her price and that passion can be bought and sold like so many stock options, The Love Merchant meanders around from individual to individual, letting each one expose themselves for the creep, cad or crackpot that they are. Even Click, who is nothing more than a pimp in Wild Rebels regalia, has an even more miserable side to his already sullied persona. And Sarno wants to take us along for the awful, unappetizing ride.
We really do hate all the people here. No one is worthy of sympathy and there is not enough contempt in this world to fill our vilification vats. They are dull, dumb, and yet driven, willing and complacent to play pawn in each other's intersecting sex games. When Click gets a buxom knockout to seduce both Harvey and his far from fetching female assistant, you just know he is up to something incredibly evil. Yet it turns out his plans are far more mundane, which in turn makes them that much more malevolent and misguided. All throughout his narrative (and there is a lot of it here) Sarno sidetracks to set up his telling tableaus. As action occurs in the background, people will be positioned up front, facing the camera, speaking in carefully considered sentences about the inner most workings of the human heart and the individual libido. Such confessionals are common in a Sarno story, and they make his movies very intriguing and quite memorable. While the finale doesn't really live up to the expectations expressed by the scenes before, The Love Merchant is another tawdry treasure in this filmmaker's canon of corrupt corporeality. The only thing missing is the skin - we see a couple of breast shots, but that's about it.
Leave it to The Layout to more than make up for the lack of nude lewdness. This is one narrative that is almost all fascinating flesh. Pam is a well-known interior designer, and she works with her live-in platonic partner Wendy. While Pam takes to her bed alone each night, Wendy goes out and "handles the affairs" with their building contractor, Robb. She loves the dirty, dangerous things he does to her. When college-age cousin Ellen and her Honduran playmate arrive for a visit, they sense something unsettled in the household. The young girl remembers inappropriate intimacy with Pam, and is aroused by the notion that a bedside vibrator is her relative's only companion. One night, she overhears Pam getting it on with the spouse of Wendy's paramour, and the vibrations are so vehement they get Ellen all hot and VERY bothered. She is determined to prove that Pam is a lesbian, and begins an elaborate set of sex games that include seducing her Hispanic roommate, confronting Wendy, emotionally blackmailing Robb's sheepish spouse and teaching everyone the joys of the handheld "massager". It all ends up in a way out orgy filled with self-love and self-loathing, with Pam both aroused and disturbed by what has been awakened inside of her.
If you enjoy your exploitation loaded with DiVinyls-style goodness, look no further than The Layout. This mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, masturbation-fest is a tantalizing self-touch-athon, a literal love letter to the pleasures of pleasing oneself. Though it starts out similarly to some of Sarno sullied suburbiana, once the hand-held motor boater arrives on the scene, the movie switches from potboiler to peepshow. While it may be impossible to believe, the last 40 minutes of the narrative are actually taken up with various combination of ladies all electrocuting their loins with an extraterrestrial-looking vibrator. If it's not Pam reliving a life in search of the perfect paramour, it's Wendy being waxed by a jaded, jealous Ellen. There are a couple of scenes where good Christian love is explored, but then it has to go and get gratuitous when one of the lovers asks for things to get "wild" and "painful". Indeed, The Layout contains one of the first references to anal sex this critic can remember in the exploitation realm. If Sarno hadn't fallen in love with the she-stimulator, we might have had another steamy slice of adult angst masking a nasty underbelly of naughtiness. But with gals getting frisky with their fetlocks over and over again, all subtlety is tossed out the window. Instead, this is an all out exploration of a terribly taboo subject, and naturally it's handled with the director's typical aesthetic aplomb.
One of the more striking aspects of this production is the feeling that nothing has been faked. Usually, in softcore situations (like the above referenced booty banging), the actors have to fudge the fun, otherwise we start slipping directly into the hardcore arena. But here, Sarno walks a fine line between authentic and arty. When these ladies get down to diddling, electric dildo style, one honestly can sense some real vixen vibing. The actresses sure sell the shockwaves (they all buck like unbroken broncos during the deed) and Sarno adds a little aural element - a grinding and groaning vibrator 'buzz' - to increase the realism. On occasion, the camera moves down a tantalizing torso, and we see the device diving into a compliant crotch. Since many of the performers here are first timers in the Sarno oeuvre, this unknown quantity quality really supports the pseudo-sex. Though the typical telling dialogue is kept at a minimum and the plot plays out in ways rather similar to other Sarno films (including the co-feature here) one might get the impression that The Layout is a lesser effort in the director's canon. Actually, the opposite is true. By brazenly exploring a certain fetish, and fleshing it out rather nicely, Sarno delivers a serious, satisfying softcore scenario. You may not remember the narrative once it's over, but the sound of that diving and surfacing sex toy will haunt your most wanton dreams for days to come.
You can really see the filmmaker straddling his demographic here. On one hand, The Love Merchant offers up sophisticated smut (with very little skin) for the serious art house crowd. One can easily see the so-called swells lining up to take in the latest lewd epic being gabbed about in "straight" society circles. For Sarno, it's the ideas that are the most perverted, not the acts. The Layout is exactly the opposite. This is pure, unadulterated raincoat crowd fodder, an all show and very little tell trip into the forbidden facets of the female boudoir. While the rampant lesbianism is nothing new (all exploitation has same sex shenanigans - it's practically a mandate), masturbation was a personal pariah for most, and by making his movie nothing but femme fleecing, this director created and cornered the market simultaneously. While others will clamor for his Swedish softcore extravaganzas, it is Joe Sarno's suburban sleazoid showcases that really reflect his cinematic abilities. Not only are they well crafted and expertly filmed, but they get to the heart of the most tainted subjects without being gross or graphic. They stand as definite testaments to the times and the social temperament in which they were made - and they are not to be missed.
Since Something Weird Video has access to many of this filmmaker's original negatives, the image here is amazing. The 1.33:1 full screen transfer is a near pristine piece of monochrome magic. As stated before, Sarno was very careful with seemingly mundane motion picture particulars like lighting and framing. He wasn't a prurient point and shoot kind of guy. He carefully staged his stunted psychodramas and his attention to detail is rampant throughout these flawless black and white images. On the sound side, Sarno enjoyed odd underscoring. For Merchant, he manages an almost all percussive backdrop, with lots of bongos and drums driving the narrative. In Layout, a single organ (or an occasional piano) plays pensive fugues to self-satisfaction. In these clean, crisp Dolby Digital Mono mixes, the dialogue is always discernible (unless the actresses are whispering, which they occasionally do) and the conversations clear. As for extras, we are treated to a collection of Sarno trailers (with Red Roses of Passion and My Body Hungers looking like real winners) and a pair of Peepland shorts, both featuring gals getting undressed. Hurrah! Add in the typical gallery of underground sexploitation movie magazine covers with audio oddities (read: radio ads) and you've got quite the complete package.
So whether you like his efforts in sin or skin, you'll find plenty of both in The Love Merchant/ The Layout. Prior to packing on the porn, Sarno truly was an exploitation innovator, removing much of the camp and kitsch from the genre to instill a kind of staged theatricality to his stories. There was almost always a moral (usually something like "lust is not love") and he balanced perversion with properness to indicate the dense duality of human nature. Some can argue that his efforts were nothing more than high-class carnality, stripped of much of the grindhouse's seedy set-ups to fly under the radar of raunchiness. But one view of the film's featured here, and you'll soon realize that Sarno was much more than a serious smut peddler. This was a filmmaker with something to say about our newly liberated love life, a critical eye on a developing dimension of human sexuality that really needed a thoughtful, discerning discussion. While he would later simply give in and just peddle flesh, the first films of Joe Sarno offer a glimpse into a part of perversion that is now reserved for near urban legend status. Leave it to the Bergman of the raincoat crowd to draw drama out of depravity. These are wonderful, wicked masterworks.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here