Bite Size: The Playbirds (1978)

If you were going to make a hazard index for genre cinema occupations, models would definitely be near the top of the list, right alongside sex workers, camp counselors and babysitters. There is a certain amount of practical logic in this, as most audiences will read “model” as a shortcut to glamour and glitter, and it’s an occupation that requires little budgetary strain to convey onscreen. Some white backing paper, a few hot lights, and someone to announce “Beautiful!” or “Good!” while the shutter loudly snaps on the soundtrack is usually enough to establish the basic idea.

Additionally, there’s plenty of tried and true storyline possibilities for everything from sweet country girls corrupted by the big city, to catty backstage melodrama, or obsessive stalk and slashers of a wide variety of stripes. It’s also pretty easy to dial up the level of skin, sin and sleaze depending on if the model in question is a high fashion catwalker, a pin up, or an adult industry star. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the actress can actually pose, as the goal is not the still images anyway. It’s an easy win for all parties concerned.

This movie’s titular magazine (gifted with its own disco lounge theme song playing over the opening credits) is your typical sort of mainstream nudes, a touch naughtier than Playboy, but nowhere near as explicit as Hustler. It is the crown jewel of Harry Dougan’s (Alan Lake) smut empire, who uses the fortune he’s made from the skin business to live a leisurely life of casting couches, champagne, and horse racing. His idle rich routine gets interrupted when Playbirds centerfolds start turning up dead.

Grizzled Inspector Holbourne (Glenn Edwards), and his less cynical younger partner Inspector Morgan (Gavin Campbell) are assigned to the case, but the elusive killer leaves no clues aside from a rising body count. Desperate to find a solution before the case gets taken off their docket, the pair sends in Lucy (70s adult film queen Mary Millington) to pose as a centerfold, hoping the female officer can act as a deep cover honey trap to draw out the killer.

If The Playbirds rips more than a few of its plot beats from 1958’s The Cover Girl Killer, in practice it also has a lot of surface similarities to 1973’s Massage Parlor Murders!. There’s the disgruntled older cop not terribly receptive to his partner’s ideas. The fresh faced younger partner gets romantically involved with a lovely young lady important to the investigation. Tons of (likely permitless) footage provides a time capsule tour of sleaze epicenters gone by (London’s Soho instead of New York City’s Deuce), and the utilization of both a massage parlor and the pool at a swingers’ party to squeeze in some additional nudity.

If only the film had continued in Massage Parlor Murders!‘ cheerfully cheap vein, with Morgan blithely blathering about “the unholy trinity: sex, witchcraft and horses” and the choice of undercover cop being determined via superior officer sanctioned striptease. The procedural elements are pretty flat, with a sex offender jockey and a prone to temper photographer with a fondness for shooting occult themed spreads providing the required red herrings.

Yet for all of the familiar British television actors dotting the cast, the movie never manages to muster much energy, the celebrity names all clearly watching the clock. Mary Millington struggles valiantly to bring some life to her line readings as Lucy, but it is glaringly apparent her skills lie elsewhere.

In fact, it tends to play the giallo-lite contours of its plot for sex farce style comedy. The women in this film are perpetually naked, dead or both, and no one seems much bothered by it. The cops can barely bring themselves to grab printouts from their insanely retro wall of computers “lab”, and Dougan finds the whole thing a damper on his moneyed fuckboy antics. In fact, the film likes nothing better than to cut from the killer’s latest victim to Dougan’s endless runtime padding days at the Newmarket races (supplied by stock footage).

While never as violent or explicit as something like The New York Ripper or Giallo In Venice, The Playbirds coats itself in an oily sheen of sleazy misogyny that could easily rival either. Victims worry about turning the kettle off before being strangled to death, or in the film’s absolute nadir, cheerfully announce they’ve never been sexually assaulted before, as if it was just another experience to check off on a Bingo card.

What elevates The Playbirds from gross ineptitude to something truly baffling is that the entire film is basically product placement for a girlie mag. Producer David Sullivan had made a fortune in various pornographic endeavors, and Playbirds was one of the magazines he was publishing at the time. Alan Lake as Harry Dougan, smut peddling boy king, was basically a self insert. The character of Dougan is clearly written to suit what Sullivan thought was the height of suave swinger cool, but in actual effect comes across as the sort of self interested perfect suspect that likely would knock off his models for the sake of tawdry publicity and a bump in sales.

The fact that this portrayal was certainly approved by Sullivan to make the final cut hints at a startling level of narcissism. If that perhaps isn’t quite convincing enough, the pointless cruelty of the downbeat ending becomes even more vicious in light of the knowledge that David Sullivan and star Mary Millington were once lovers.

Sullivan had more than enough cash to throw around to fill his cast with well known actors who likely wouldn’t otherwise touch this sort of fare, if not for the need for a paycheck in a fallow period of their careers. Distributor Tigon Studios, once a respected producer of UK genre fare (Witchfinder General, The Blood On Satan’s Claw), was also in its twilight years. The in house film production had ceased some half decade earlier, and they had taken to distributing sex films and quickie schlock to keep the lights on a while longer.

As for Mary Millington, police raids on her sex shops and persecution related to her time as a porn star took their toll. Addicted to drugs and deeply in debt, she took her own life in August of 1979, roughly a year after the film’s release. Co star Alan Lake wasn’t far behind her. Relapsed in his alcoholism and still grieving the loss of his wife, screen actress Diana Dors, he also took his own life in the fall of 1984.

As for David Sullivan, he continued to profit off of Mary Millington, producing 1980’s Mary Millington’s True Blue Confessions, a morbid Frankenstein of a film pieced together from interviews, archive footage and unseen sex scenes she had completed before her untimely death. After a 1982 conviction for living off immoral earnings of prostitutes, he began to transition out of porn to more “legitimate” businesses, eventually becoming a billionaire.

The Playbirds isn’t particularly notable as a police procedural or as a sex film, but is one of the more readily available examples of an exploitation picture in both senses of the word. The meta aspects catapult what would be a forgettable bit of scuzz into far more disquieting territory, and not just because this depressingly cynical film is often listed as a comedy in online databases or when it pops up on mainstream streaming services. The Playbirds is a 94 minute testimonial to the shallowness of the personal freedom and anti censorship talking points that so many pornographers and exploitationeers make part and parcel with their public images. When it’s time to pay the crew what they’re owed, or when the women in those centerfolds part their lips to speak of desires that aren’t as easily commodified, it’s strictly business as usual. Silence is preferable to anything that might have an adverse effect on the bottom line.

4 Comments

  1. I saw The Playbirds circa the summer of 1982 in Philadelphia through the old, oddball ON-TV over-the-air subscription service. For a monthly fee, you got a small UHF antenna, which you were always adjusting, and a decoder box. They showed some big movies, but the real treats started at 1:00 a.m., when it felt like you were having a fever dream–Brit smut like The Playbirds, the filmography of Radley Metzger a/k/a Henry Paris, and I believe they also showed Eraserhead. At least I think that it wasn’t a fever dream. It was better than going to film school.

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    • I can only imagine how much cheaper and uglier The Playbirds would seem immediately following either David Lynch or Radley Metzger (the latter of which I’ve been meaning to go to on here eventually). The late night is always the witching hour for the best trash…..my entire interest in film was kindled by schlock that would play while everyone else was sleeping.

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      • The Playbirds was cheap and ugly looking back then. Upon repeat viewing years later, it still looked cheap and ugly. (I saw a documentary on Mary Millington recently. She had a sad, sad life.) The Brits had some phenomenal films in the 70s; softcore stuff was not among them. I like Metzger’s films, especially The Image a/k/a The Punishment of Anne and Camille 2000. Even when they weren’t filmed in Europe, it always felt like they were. I find it interesting that when competent adult directors tried to cross over to mainstream, they always did a horror film. Metzger did The Cat and the Canary, Armand Weston had The Nesting, and Gregory Dark directed a bunch of Shannon Tweed Cinemax-After-Dark thrillers. You should do a blog on this phenomenon. 🙂

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      • I love all of the moments in history where the boundaries were more porous between the mainstream, exploitation cinema and pornography (soft or hardcore) as it always produces something interesting, even if not all of the examples are successful in their goals. The Playbirds is pretty terrible, but people like Chris Warfield managed to produce some things I found genuinely engaging.

        There’s so many things to write about, and so little time, but at some point I would like to examine pornographers attempts to go mainstream. 🙂

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