Director: Joe Sarno
Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment

The last few years have seen a renaissance in appreciation for the work of Joe Sarno, the NYC sexploiteer whose unique films catered to both the raincoat and the intellectual crowds. Something Weird finally dipped into their Sarno vaults with two essential double-feature discs a while back, and returning to the work of the sinematic genius, have unleashed another marvelous pairing of two of the director’s least-discussed works.

Kendall Harvey III, a slimy millionaire, prowls the clubs of New York for prey. His desire for beautiful young girls is fulfilled with the help of his private secretary Polly and right-hand man Vince. Enter biker Click, opportunistically anxious to latch onto Harvey’s millions by procuring any number of women for Harvey’s amusement (as he puts it, “consider me a scout…a girl scout”). On a visit to Click’s artist girlfriend Bobbi’s apartment, Harvey is introduced to Peggy Johns and her husband Roger. Harvey takes a liking to Peggy, and will do anything for a couple nights with her. The Johns’ household is soon on the rocks when Roger loses his job and the only way for him to save his career seems to be if Harvey will do him a favor. Peggy finally submits to Harvey’s wanton ways in exchange for a job for her husband, but the sex-filled weekend she spends with the millionaire may jeopardize her marriage and ruin her life.

If THE LOVE MERCHANT sounds slightly similar to the film INDECENT PROPOSAL, it’s because Sarno’s basic premise was lifted wholesale for the 1993 box office blockbuster. But where that film relied on big-name stars and its sleazy scenario quite heavily, Sarno, as usual, has produced here another sophisticated sex film, with emphasis on the film over the sex. Sarno balanced his films between two philosophies: sex as a healing formula, or sex as a destructive force. The latter is the thinking behind most of his 60s outings, including THE LOVE MERCHANT, with lust ruining a marriage and leaving Harvey feeling empty and lonely. The last line, “She’s right. You’re all sick!” is almost spoken directly into the camera, aimed squarely at the 42nd Street audience expecting more tits and ass, not the sudsy soap opera playing before them. Which is what makes Sarno’s films so refreshing in the first place. They were well written, exceptionally acted, and production values top-notch. If Sarno had wanted to graduate to more mainstream fare, he could have, but he remained firmly entrenched in the world of exploitation for his entire career, and fans of the genre are all the better for it. One can appreciate his craft by watching the editing in his films; in a stark contrast to Russ Meyer, another exploitation genius who cut his films so fast and furiously they caused whiplash, Sarno had his actors perform in long, uninterrupted single takes, with little editing, creating heightened sexual tension and drawing the audience further into the drama and giving his actors a chance to prove themselves.

LOVE MERCHANT is also special because it is here where Sarno gathered together what would become part of his regular stable of actors for the next couple of years, and the best ensemble of his career. Some may think his 70s ensemble, made up of porno stars thankful to be acting instead of fucking, is better, but the fact that so little is known about his 60s troupe, many of whom never worked outside of the Sarno universe, makes them much more interesting and fun to watch. Lorraine Claire was one of Sarno’s first real muses, appearing in almost all of his mid-60s gems and delivering incredible emotional performances in all of them. A reluctant swinging housewife in THE SWAP AND HOW TO MAKE IT, a bitchy hotel owner prone to alcoholism in THE BED AND HOW TO MAKE IT, and an occult-worshipping housewife in RED ROSES OF PASSION, LOVE MERCHANT finds her in a “Gift of the Magi” situation, forced to sell herself to a rich sleazeball to save her husband’s floundering career. Even by today’s standards, Claire’s confident performances never miss a beat and it’s obvious that Sarno had great affection for her, as he later would with Rebecca Brooke in the following decade. It’s a shame not more is known about her, as she’s one of the best actresses of the genre and should have moved on to much better projects.

Judson Todd, a leading man whose look and mannerisms seem educated by the Golden Age of Hollywood, is promising as the sexually insatiable Kendall Harvey, and would play many more similar roles for Sarno. June Roberts (“Robin Marks”) pops up in a brief bit as a go-go dancer in a cage, Peggy Steffans (“Cleo Nova”, and future Mrs. Sarno) adds support as a ballet dancer pimped out to Harvey, Doris Wishman favorite Michael Alaimo (“Michael Lawrence”) is Harvey’s right-hand man, and middle-aged Patti Paget is the predatory lesbian secretary whose key scene finds her bludgeoning Click with a chain for pawing her. This is also a rare film where doppelgangers Francine Ashley and Joanna Mills appear together. Sarno usually cast one or the other when his scripts called for a young nymph type, so seeing them together is a rare treat. Blonde Mills (ANYTHING FOR MONEY) is given the meatier role here, as Chick’s artist girlfriend, and brunette Ashley (THE BED AND HOW TO MAKE IT) plays a chipper go-go dancer. And who is Penni Peyton? This buxom blonde, resembling a leather-bound Petula Clark, apparently only made this one film and she’s a striking giantess of a figure, making enough of an impression on the SWV staff to make her the DVD cover model. Louis Waldon is known today for his Warhol films, notably LONESOME COWBOYS and FLESH, but proof of his acting talents could be found in the grindhouse films dotting his resume. He was usually cast as despicable cads (ANYTHING ONCE, THE BIZARRE ONES), and excelled in the part, as if he was acting from experience. LOVE MERCHANT is no exception. Credited here as “Jim Chisholm”, Waldon is exceptional as the sly-talking biker recruiting young lovelies to service Harvey with the promise of cash in return. His last-minute good deed seems hastily written by Sarno, and out of character for such an established degenerate, but Waldon pulls it off capably.

Leaving the squalid streets of New York City, Sarno trekked to the sunny landscapes of Florida for the next feature, THE LAYOUT, one of a handful of features he shot for producer J. Arthur Elliott. By 1969, Sarno had already ventured from New York to shoot films in Sweden, but Florida seems a strange locale for the auteur to have chosen for a black-and-white melodrama considering the beautiful weather and sun-drenched ladies. Designer and architect Pam Ritchie is hesitant at having invited her cousin Ellen to town, but it’s too late to change her plans when Ellen and her Hispanic roommate Marie arrive to strut their stuff through Pam’s suburban neighborhood. Her business partner Wendy Dawn has her own problems, as she carries on a scorching affair with married building contractor Rob, who skips out on his wife Emmy any chance he can get. Emmy learns of her husband’s infidelity, and makes her move on Pam, never suspecting that the two nubile visitors are listening through the door. Seeing her chance to liven up her stay, Ellen makes it her goal to expose Pam’s lesbian practices, and practices her seductive wiles on every woman in her path on the way to her ultimate goal: a lesbian smorgasbord involving all the women of the neighborhood!

LAYOUT revisits well-tread territory for Sarno, namely the plot device of a lovely lass coming to town and converting most of the female residents to lesbianism. Some gorgeous shots, such as the vision of Pam undressing seen through a giant drinking glass (shades of Radley Metzger), in addition to the typically accomplished cinematography, liven up the proceedings, as does the organ-driven score. The issue that keeps LAYOUT from being ranked in the higher echelons of Sarno’s filmography is the acting. His script is well written, if not too familiar, but the dialogue isn’t done justice by the ladies of Florida. Unlike their Manhattan contemporaries, the actresses here are not thespians, thus the performances never reach their full potential. Blonde bombshell Susan Thomas (“Pam”) is a striking beauty, but she flubs a few lines and is at times very hollow. Betty Whitman (“Wendy”) is a cutie, but is half-hearted in her dialogue delivery; her deep husky voice is appealing, though, and sounds as if she’s prepping for a lead role in a John Waters film! Of the leading ladies, Rene Howard (“Ellen”) and Barbara Lance (“Emmy”) give the best performances, but even they miss a few beats. Thankfully, where the performances don’t succeed, the sex is always scorching, beautifully lit and photographed, usually utilizing a loud massaging vibrator, and one incredible scene finds Whitman in a doggy-style position being pleasured by Howard. All of these scenes put similar hardcore scenes to shame, and are probably the most genuinely erotic lesbian scenes I’ve encountered in Sarno’s oeuvre.

As pointed out on the box cover, future Linda Lovelace/Marilyn Chambers husband-manager Chuck Traynor is the only male in the cast, promising lots of lesbian action considering Traynor is far from photogenic. Traynor had shot a few Florida nudie cuties in the early to mid-60s (Something Weird offers I AM FOR SALE, with him in the cast) and it was around the time this film was shot that he was in a relationship with Lovelace. It would only be 2 years after this that DEEP THROAT would be shot in the same area and Traynor would be living the high life, with his wife as his meal ticket. When her profitability ran out, he traded her in for Marilyn Chambers, and history repeated itself in her case, too. Traynor just died in 2002 and it’s a shame no one recorded his memories of working in sexploitation during the 1960’s, instead focusing on his alleged abuse of Lovelace.

Something Weird lucked out in discovering many of the original negatives to Sarno’s black-and-white films, which is the case for both films on this disc. THE LOVE MERCHANT is crystal clear, with sharp contrast and very minimal grain (the only really noticeable instance is during an optical effect as Peggy is slowly disrobed by two harlots at a party). The scene of Harvey finally meeting Dixie, the bountiful biker girl, seems to be abbreviated as a musical and visual jumpcut obliterates footage with Dixie taking off her bra and exposing her melons, but otherwise this is a gorgeous transfer with no room for improvement. THE LAYOUT fares slightly worse, with stronger grain and more dirt and blemishes to be seen, but is still fine-looking with nice contrasts. The mono audio isn’t particularly impressive, due to recording constraints of the time period.

It’s a shame Joe Sarno and Peggy Steffans aren’t present for another excellent commentary moderated by the dynamite team of Vraney and Henenlotter, because I’d like to learn more about Sarno’s glossed-over Florida period and his NYC regular cast members. The best supplements here are trailers for LOVE MERCHANT, MY BODY HUNGERS, RED ROSES OF PASSION, THE SEX CYCLE, and THE SWAP AND HOW THEY MAKE IT. LOVE MERCHANT’s trailer does a good job promoting this unsung Sarno classic, and highlights all the best scenes. Wanna see a Sarno giallo? Check out MY BODY HUNGERS, another masterpiece never discussed among fans for some reason. A lovely young girl travels to New York to find her sister, who she learns was an exotic dancer murdered by a mysterious strangler. Sarno regulars Tony King, Joe Santos, and John Aristides appear, and the leading lady is Gretchen Rudolph, another of Sarno’s 60s muses. SEX CYCLE is another gem from Sarno’s NYC prime, and stars Monique Drevon! Drevon was a supporting actress in PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS and other Sarno films, but she’s very good in this, one of her few Sarno leading roles (or at least her only surviving one). It’s another occult-themed masterpiece following a young girl who inherits the ability to seduce any man she desires with the aid of a pair of mysterious earrings. Joanna Mills pops up, too, as do future director Victor Bertini and other Sarno regulars Marie Brent, Michael Alaimo, Peggy Steffans, and Tony King. The trailer’s theme song sounds like a slow instrumental version of “Buster Brown”, meaning it’s awesome!! I made an error in an earlier review saying that Jess Franco starlet Ewa Stroemberg was in RED ROSES OF PASSION; in fact, this is Sarno starlet Lorraine Claire looking very much like Ewa! This supernatural sex film is one of Sarno’s most accomplished works, and will hopefully surface on DVD sooner than later. You may recognize brunette Helena Clayton (THE BRICK DOLLHOUSE) in a career best performance and other Sarno faves June Roberts and Joanna Mills. THE SWAP AND HOW THEY MAKE IT is already out on DVD, paired with SIN IN THE SUBURBS, and is yet another marvelous Sarno epic of suburban swingers with players from Sarno’s key 60s ensemble, including Lorraine Claire, Peggy Steffans, Sheila Britton, Louis Waldon, Joanna Mills, Judson Todd, and Monica Davis. It is my hope that every feature included in this trailer collection hits DVD as soon as possible; the more Sarno on DVD, the better! In the cases of RED ROSES OF PASSION and MY BODY HUNGERS, much, much better! Two Peepland shorts (how do they figure into the world of Sarno?), “Private Secretary” and “Two Reel Cuties”, and an excellent gallery of sexploitation movie magazine covers caps off this incredible platter. (Casey Scott)