Two Films from Joe Sarno: The Love Merchant and The Layout

Sexploitation isn’t exactly known for its sophistication and artistry, but when one watches the best of the “genre” (you have to use the word loosely here) it becomes clear that they knew how to make films with more under the surface than big breasts and orgasms. Joseph W. Sarno is certainly one of the masters of the genre, and perhaps one of the more overlooked directors of the generation. It’s telling that even Andrew Sarris singled him out for being an auteur of note. Prior to this double release by Something Weird Video I had only seen Sarno’s All the Sins of Sodom, which, despite its budgetary handicap, cheesy writing and acting, was an usually well done sexploitation film replete with interesting characters and some wonderful black and white cinematography. Neither of the films on this disc live up that reputation, but both certainly have their moments.

The Love Merchant

The Love Merchant finds Sarno heavy on story and light on sex. Kendall Harvey III (Judson Todd) is a rich playboy who spends every night with a different girl and whiles away his days supporting the arts. Despite Harvey’s enviable life, he’s still lonely, until one day he meets Peggy Johns (Patricia McNair), the wife of advertizing entrepreneur Roger Johns (George Wolfe), through one of the artist he supports named Bobbi (Joanna Mills). Kendall also meets Click (Louis Waldon) through Bobbi. Click is eventually hired by Kendall’s assistant, Polly Fields (Patti Paget) to hunt down the best babes for Kendall. But Kendall can’t help but lust after the forbidden fruit of the married Peggy. When Roger’s business falls on hard times, Kendall finds an opportunity to bribe Peggy with a job for her husband if she’ll agree to spend 48 hours with him.

The Love Merchant is obviously a product of its time, not only marked by the dated idiomatic language (groovy!) but by the fascination with swinging and sexual liberality. It’s also a film from a time that was just beginning to allow to nudity and sex in films, and Sarno’s extensive 60s filmography plays like a document in increasing explicitness. The early films—based on the reviews I’ve read—are little more than melodramas with hints of sexuality, like, say, a see-through nightgown. By the time of The Love Merchant, Sarno is able to show nudity, but he’s still no able to indulge in sexual activity as much as he’d like. The film’s “orgy” scene consists of close-ups of couples kissing, so don’t go into it expecting Eyes Wide Shut. Considering some of the odd editing, it seems that Sarno was even pressured to tone the film down even more to slip by the censors.

What’s in place of any explicit sex is Sarno’s unusual attention to character detail and psychosexual melodrama. Kendall Harvey is an unusually equivocal male lead in a sexploitation film; even if the premise of a rich playboy who has everything except the one thing money can’t buy isn’t original, it’s still odd to see it in this milieu. Judson Todd also happens to look, sound, and act like a thinner, creepier, and less talented version of Orson Welles, which makes the film almost like an erotic Citizen Kane. Peggy might not be as interesting, and she certainly isn’t as complex or provocative as Russ Meyer’s best female protagonists, but she does have the film’s best character progression—from an icy, prudish housewife to a woman driven near mad with guilt.

Whatever the strengths of the characters, The Love Merchant still suffers from the typical problem that plagues the prolific exploitation directors in general, and that’s that it feels way too rushed make up for its miniscule budget. That’s not terribly surprising when you consider it was made in a year where Sarno released 7 films. But without the sex, Sarno can’t help but fill the film with extended scenes that play out in the same minimalist locales (a bar, a bedroom, art studio, frontroom, etc.) where very little actually happens. One thing you can rarely say about exploitation films is that they’re carefully or well plotted and paced, and The Love Merchant particularly suffers as, without the eroticism to make up for it, the film desperately needed a stronger narrative to sustain itself.

Ultimately, The Love Merchant feels like a failed opportunity to synthesize the worlds of sexploitation and more narrative/character driven mainstream cinema into one. Of course, with it being this early in the genres inception it’s likely that such a discreet split didn’t even consciously exist in the minds of its auteurs. Perhaps the worst thing I can say about the film is that it’s simply, at times, downright boring. Like so many of its ilk from the era it screams out that it was made hurriedly without enough content to fill its runtime. However, it’s still not a complete waste as it shows Sarno really beginning to find himself as one of the leading artists (yes, artists) of a much maligned genre.

The Layout

If The Love Merchant is too light on sex and too heavy on story, The Layout goes to the other extreme. Made 3 years after the aforementioned film, The Layout feels as if it belongs in a completely different time to a completely different director. It stars Suzan Thomas as Pam, a successful designer who shares a place with her business partner Wendy (Betty Whitman). Wendy plays the sexually liberated wildcat to Pam’s frosty prude, carrying on an affair with their contractor, Robb (Chuck Traynor). Robb is married to Emmy (Barbara Lance) who turns her attention to Pam when she discovers the affair. Matters are exacerbated when Pam’s cousin, Ellen (Rene Howard) and her friend, Marie, arrive for a visit where Ellen takes it upon herself to sexually liberate Pam.

While The Layout begins in rather standard fashion with the establishing of the characters and the relationship, towards the second half and end the film devolves into scene after scene of masturbation (or girl-on-girl stimulation) with an industrial strength vibrator, the very same one (or, at least type) that appeared in All the Sins of Sodom. If Sarno had been able to balance his story and characters as he did in that film, The Layout likely would’ve been a more worthwhile effort, but what we’re left with is a film that never generates any narrative drama or tension. It also suffers terribly from the lack of any substantial characters or any real plot at all, for that matter.

If anything can make up for the above, it’s Sarno’s now fully-formed visual aesthetic. As in All the Sins of Sodom, Sarno is still more about sensuousness than sex, bathing the sex scenes in high contrast with deep blacks and the wonderful white textures of the characters’ skins popping out luminously against the background. The masturbation/girl-on-girl scenes are certainly gorgeous to look at, but as the long-takes begin crossing into several minutes, one gets the feeling they’re watching vintage porn rather than exploitation (there is a fine line). Compounding the problem is that, with a few exceptions, they’re all shot in the same way: from a right or left profile with one girl laying on her back and another operating the vibrator just slightly out of frame so we never see what’s happening down there. There are a few exceptions, but the above description certainly captures the most egregious example in the finale, a genuine orgy that must stretch on for a good 10 minutes or more with Sarno cross-cutting between the different girls and their partners. You get the feeling that this is what Sarno would’ve liked the orgy scene in The Love Merchant to be.

About the only other positive to say about the film is that it continues Sarno’s motif of characters involved in visual arts (Sodom had a photographer, Merchant a painter, and The Layout has designers), and it’s certainly still tackling the theme of female sexual liberation. The film, for all its sleaziness, could be viewed as an attempt to free Pam from her inhibitions and embrace her lesbianism. But Sarno never can generate any motivation for the characters; Ellen seems to take an interest in Pam’s love live (or lack of one) arbitrarily, and the advances made by the characters in the film are clearly artificial. Maybe one shouldn’t hold sexploitation up to naturalistic standards, but the better directors have always anchored the manufactured sex to some context where it works (even Meyer understood that if he could create cartoonish worlds he could create cartoonish depictions of sex).

Ultimately, both films are a letdown for me after the surprisingly good All the Sins of Sodom, which, in retrospect, feels like a near perfect amalgamation of these two extremes. The Love Merchant gets the slight not even with its lack of sex (or even sensuality), if only because The Layout is so sadly bereft of story and character to drive it too close to the pornography line for my taste.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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