Bite Size: All The Sins Of Sodom (1968)

Joe Sarno was a pioneer of sexploitation cinema, and his best works are engaging tightrope acts between the arthouse and the grindhouse, combining the forbidden content the sticky seat masses desired with a distinct minimalist aesthetic that those supposedly too highbrow for such lurid fare could use as the tailor made excuse to buy themselves a ticket.

After shooting proto softcore hit Inga in Sweden, Sarno returned to his native New York to lens his next few films. All The Sins Of Sodom was shot back to back with Vibrations, with both movies released in 1968. While the US was in the midst of the roughie boomlet, All The Sins Of Sodom‘s influences lean more toward European cinema of the same approximate period, with a protagonist and setting reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, and a bit of Ingmar Bergman’s (of whom Sarno was an admitted admirer) constant questioning of the complex mechanics of identity and desire. Livening up the cross continental reference mix is some biting dialog and a pulpy fixation on the creative professions as only a half step from vice dens, full of damaged, wanton seekers.

Henning (credited by IMDB as Dan Machuen, but uncredited on the print I saw, so proceed with caution) is a relatively successful (enough to go by surname only) photographer of cheesecake prints and art nudes, happy to live in his studio and draw from his models as single serving bed partners when the mood strikes. A fantastic session (in both senses) with the charmingly gamine Leslie (Maria Lease, see above) breaks the usual pattern, and the two begin what might be an actual love affair. However, his new muse is slowing his pace on paid assignments, and Leslie can’t quite emote what’s needed for Henning’s next project.

Protecting her 10%, Henning’s agent (Peggy Steffans, who was married to Sarno at the time, and fills in several roles behind the scenes) sends him a sultry brunette waif named Joyce (Marianne Provost, supposedly) who might better suit the brief. Henning is a preacher’s son, and full of the standard issue Madonna/whore complexes and sexual repression such an upbringing usually implies. He wants a model who can be the ultimate temptress, a Jezebel in high heels who embodies lust in its darkest forms. Joyce, with her jaded affect and free wheeling ways, has a dark carnality that Leslie lacks, and soon she’s making her home in Henning’s spare storage room and acting as his personal muse.

Deep in the throes of artistic obsession, Henning is the only one who doesn’t notice that Joyce’s libido fueled cunning goes farther than the photo series she’s posing for. Soon she’s woven herself into his personal life, driving a wedge between Henning and Leslie in the guise of assisting him in capturing his vision. Not content with her machinations, she also carries on a clandestine affair with one of Henning’s best models, a closeted (and obviously conflicted) lesbian.

It’s clear Joyce’s end goal is eventually to seduce Henning himself, and the closing in of a doomed love triangle is reflected in the sparse, claustrophobic nature of the production. There’s just a hint of ambient noise from the street below, the only music cue a rattling, rising heart of a drumbeat when things get steamy. Henning’s single mindedness in regards to his art, is capably echoed by set dressing that shows a living space that would better suit a monk than a swinging photographer.

Nearly the entire film takes placed in the cramped environs of Henning’s apartment/studio. Yet the tiny spaces feel distinct, with the studio lit hot and bright white, an empty canvas for Henning to fill with the models who act out the tableaux he conjures up. The photo shoots are expertly framed, and its one of the few instances in cinema (exploitation or mainstream) where you can see how the session as depicted would produce beautiful stills.

Meanwhile, Joyce’s storage room domain is an inky black underworld, like some shadow dwelling succubus for whom dragging someone into bed is only the first step in dragging them down, period. While there is a slight tentativeness in the sex scenes, it’s likely no coincidence that the stark lighting is focused on the faces, contorted in ecstasy that could also be agony, the literal translation of le petit mort made visual reality.

Despite the title, this isn’t as sinful or as overtly sexual as one might expect, with the sex scenes well integrated into the larger plot. There’s plenty of time to let each character expose their traumas and insecurities before all of these hurt people, hurt people. Sex is just another tool in the arsenal. While the ending of the film is predictable, the journey to that forgone conclusion is consistently engaging.

While there are definite moments of overacting from the less than experienced cast, all of them are far more capable than expected with oft barbed dialog. It’s Maria Lease’s Leslie who steals the show, full of spry sunshine followed by lovelorn fragility as she loses hold on Henning. In the film’s strongest scene, Henning directs Joyce to sexually stimulate Leslie as they shoot, and Leslie’s combination of arousal at the physical touch at odds with her revulsion for the conniving interloper is about as strong a performance as you are ever likely to see in this era of sexploitation film.

All The Sins Of Sodom, while not one of Sarno’s best known features, is probably one of the best arguments for his work being placed alongside with Radley Metzger’s in terms of erotica with ambition and style to spare, overdue for more mainstream reassessment and acclaim. Beautifully photographed in black and white, its a meditation on shades of gray, between love and hate, dedication and obsession, pleasure and pain. One definition of erotic is “to arouse desire”, and All The Sins Of Sodom is a tense, effective character study of the frustration it is to be driven by unquenchable need, sexual or otherwise.

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