Prior to turning into a Swedish softcore shill, Joe Sarno was deconstructing the sexual morays of the seedier part of the swinging '60s—and Judge Bill Gibron couldn't be happier.
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When we first meet "rich bum" Kendall Harvey III, he sits, sulking, in a local go-go club, eyeing the entertainment with incredibly bad intent. Into his 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 bawdy 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. Of course, 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 lightning bolt, lust creeps over this playboy pervert and he must have this Ms. immediately. Naturally she rejects him, so Harvey 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 worried wife. If she agrees, all will be saved—but at what price. What price indeed.
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 Layout of the household. The young girl remembers inappropriate intimacy with Pam and is aroused by the notion that an electric bedside "buddy" is her relative's new carnal 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.
Short on skin but plump with plot, The Love Merchant is like a salacious mini-series set within the sleazy schism of the post-beatnik Village scene. More happens in the 79 minutes of movie here than in a couple dozen standard exploitation epics. Flesh-feast auteur Jo Sarno really enjoys expressing his characters' inner iniquity. Since he can't show much (by 1966 standards), he ends up using dialogue and situations to highlight their horribleness. 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. As a result, 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. 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. 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.
If, on the other hand, 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. While it may be impossible to believe, the last 40 minutes of the narrative are actually taken up with various combinations of ladies all electrocuting their loins with an extraterrestrial-looking sex toy. There are a couple of scenes where good Christian love is explored, but that's about it. Indeed, The Layout contains one of the first references to anal sex this critic can remember in the exploitation realm. Interestingly, one of the more striking aspects of this production is the feeling that nothing is being faked. Usually in softcore situations, the actors have to fudge the fun. But here, Sarno walks a fine line between authenticity and art. When these ladies get down to diddling, one honestly can sense some real vixen vibing. The actresses sure sell the shockwaves and Sarno adds a little aural element—a grinding and groaning vibrator "buzz"—to increase the realism. Though the typical telling dialogue is kept at a minimum and the plot plays out in ways rather similar to other Sarno films, 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 scenario. You may not remember the narrative once it's over, but the sound of that diving and surfacing "marital aid"will haunt your most wanton dreams for days to come.
Since Something Weird Video has access to many of Sarno'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, this director was very careful with seemingly mundane motion picture particulars like lighting and framing. He wasn't a prurient point-and-shoot kind of guy. 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 and The Layout. Joe Sarno 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. Leave it to the Bergman of the raincoat crowd to draw drama out of depravity. These are wonderful, wicked masterworks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Something Weird Video
• Bonus Joe Sarno Trailers
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