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.

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.