[14 February 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.
Sin in the Suburbs/The Swap and How They Make It
On this quiet street in this exclusive neighborhood, the bored housewives are having a heavy petting field day. Mrs. Geraldine Lewis loves her workaholic husband, but the beefy martini drinker just doesn’t show her enough affection. So when he goes to work and her daughter heads off to school, Gerry invites friends over for drinks and naked debauchery. Next door, Lisa Francis is an equally efficient elbow-lifting lonely heart whose spouse won’t quit his job and stay home with her. She has to find a way to uncork her carnality, and random workmen off the road crew—or a full bottle of Jack Daniels—seem to do just fine. Further down the block, Mrs. Talman and her deviant brother Lewis look in on all the secret sexcapades and decide to make a mint off the salacious socialites. They start an exclusive swingers club and invite the entire borough to join in. All goes as planned until the partner swapping leads to those notorious “strange bedfellows.” Then taboos are broken like so many promises. It’s all part of the scandal, the shame, the Sin in the Suburbs.
Elsewhere, Mona and Karen are new in town and bored out of their gourds. Their aluminum-extruding husbands work all kinds of long hours, and the sequestered sweethearts are just squirming in their Capri pants. They need satisfaction and they need it now! While Karen jumps into the arms of a college jock joke, Mona visits her next-door neighbor, the bawdy Brooke, who tells her about the arrangement she has with her horny hubby. They both belong to “The Exchange,” a canoodling couples cooperative where marrieds make bargains for bonking with other like-minded enlightened lovers. All it takes is a phone call, and you can trade in your usually tame tryst for one night of naughtiness. After you join, the monthly parties consist of dancing, drooling, and dignity demoralizing. At first, everyone is in for the sin, and lovin’ every lewd minute of it. But when Karen cuts off Joe College, he gets all blackmail-ly and wants in on the sexual switcheroo. What our university-educated boy toy doesn’t understand is that adults like to protect their proclivities from prying eyes…and they are about to teach the silly student the real rules of The Swap and How They Make It.
With titles suggesting a sleazy peek into the sordid lives of salacious suburban swingers, and a gritty black-and-white style that further emphasizes the nasty noir of it all, Joe Sarno was, and remains, the Sultan of Sophisticated Smut. Sin in the Suburbs is one of his best films, a bold experiment in style and subject matter that would still be branded as borderline scum, even in today’s so-called tolerant environment. An exceptional exposé of the then-popular swingers’ scene of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, this perfectly plotted masterwork of story and shot selection is more like a post-millennial walk through the seedy side of society than a standard early exploitation film. There is barely any nudie and hardly any cutie to the events and individuals populating this perverted Peyton Place.
Fans will focus far too much attention - as lovers of exploitation usually do - on the Olga-meets-Ilsa dynamic in the movie (Audrey Campbell, the infamous Olga, plays Geraldine Lewis, while the She Wolf of the SS herself, Dyanne Thorne, essays the sleazy seductress Mrs. Talman). But this would be doing a disservice to the utter greatness of Sin. Long before Bob and Carol met Ted and Alice, Sarno was dealing realistically and effectively with the issues of swinging, swapping, and sex clubs. His details ring true, and his attention to tone makes everything feel authentic. Even with minimal nakedness, this movie absolutely sizzles with sensual Eros. When Thorne and another famous Olga, Alice Linville (playing daughter to mother Campbell) play their seductive game of lesbian suggestion, there is sure not to be a dry seat—or free hand—in the house.
On par with the perfection of Sin in the Suburbs, The Swap and How They Make It is another carnal classic from Sarno’s sour brain. Instead of the cult-like convolutions of the sex club scene, complete with masks and miscreant rituals, the focus this time is on an organized version of that water cooler joke source, wife swapping. With another excellent script full of character insight, and a dandy cast of performers, this movie matches Sin in intricacy and intimacy. Sarno employs a new kind of camerawork here, a mostly medium and close-up concept that renders the backdrops and settings insignificant. We never fully get our bearings as to where we really are, and the feeling of being lost lends a very dramatic air to the proceedings. Whenever actors interact, they come toward the camera and play out their scenes as if the lens was another witness, an innocent party to the prurient planning. The performances are again sublime, each individual finding that faultless balance between disconnected and dispirited to make his or her overripe desire seem that much more palatable. The narrative never sways—it builds to a climax of criminal corruption that is as shocking as it is shrewd.
You can sense Sarno’s intention to remove the focus from the acts and onto the people partaking in them. He knows that true drama derives from thoughts and personality, not bare butts bouncing around. The Swap also has one of the greatest sequences of obvious double entendres in the history of skin flicks. When Karen discusses “Dick” with her friend Mona, only using the name and no other personal reference, the implied explicit humor is hilarious. Along with a mostly drumbeat soundtrack (a truly novel and deranged choice) and an equally emotional tone to match its mattress machinations, Sin in the Suburbs and The Swap and How They Make It provides a one-two punch that will give any lover of the tawdry and the tainted right to rejoice.