Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Agony of Love (1966)

The Agony of Love is a 1966 Harry Novak-produced sexploitation feature that tries to combine sleaze with artiness, and actually succeeds reasonably well.

Pat Barrington is Barbara Thomas, married to a successful businessman, with a beautiful house and all the material goods anyone could wish for. But her husband is just like her father. He gives her money and things, but he doesn’t give her his time or his love. She’s bored and feels worthless, and she suffers from severe existential angst. She deals with this by having a secret life as a high-class call-girl. She becomes Brandy. If men are prepared to pay for her, it means they want her, and she feels worthwhile. She only feels she’s worth anything to men in bed.

She sees a psychiatrist, but she feels (quite correctly of course) that he only pays attention to her because he pays him. But she doesn’t mind that. To her, love and attention are something you buy with money. Her dreams are of her father, and of money, and of men paying attention to her in the only way she understands, by having sex with her. When she entertains a client she tells him that since he’s paid for her, she’ll do anything he wants. Which is more or less the way she sees her marriage.

In some ways it’s a low-budget version of Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece Belle de Jour, although in fact it pre-dates Buñuel’s film. It also anticipates Alan J. Pakula’s underrated Klute in its emphasis on the psychological motivations of a prostitute. Those films of course had the advantage of great actresses in the persons of Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda. Pat Barrington isn’t exactly in their class! But the best sexploitation movies of the 60s, such as Joe Sarno’s films, had a way of making virtues out of their limitations. In this case Ms Barrington’s non-acting adds to the atmosphere of alienation, and the stark sets and harsh lighting have a similar effect.

That’s one of the joys of these sexploitation movies, seeing them using the kinds of techniques that were used by artistically respectable movements in film such as cinéma vérité, the Nouvelle Vague and Dogme, but they’re doing it mostly to compensate for having practically non-existent budgets! But at times it can work almost as effectively.

There’s also the joy of seeing the sleaze which had to be there to satisfy the grindhouse audiences being employed to good effect to add to the feel of alienation and ennui. In this case the nudity is fairly tame and the sex is so tame it would barely warrant a PG rating, but it has that existential sleaze vibe to it! And while this was the era of the “roughie” there’s virtually no violence at all in this one.

Writer-director William Rotsler made this movie in a kind of film noir style, even to the extent of telling the whole story in flashback. The opening sequence is superbly done, with Barbara running through the streets of night-time LA but at that stage we don’t know what she’s running from. There’s the same sense of being trapped, of being doomed without quite understanding why, that you get in the best examples of film noir. And like the classic film noir hero, she isn’t a bad person, she’s just lost her way somewhere along the line.

There are shades of the Doris Wishman technique at times, of shooting inanimate objects like telephones rather obsessively while the characters are supposed to be having sex. And there are even touches of the foot fetishism that for some reason crops up so often in these sexploitation movies. It’s also worth mentioning the soundtrack, which is rather engagingly bizarre.

I’m not suggesting this movie is in the same league as movies like Belle de Jour and Klute but its artistic aspirations are not entirely futile, and like so many exploitation movies it’s more interesting and more entertaining than most of the big-budget major-studio productions of its era. It’s also worth pointing out that at a time when (as feminist film critic Molly Haskell has pointed out) Hollywood was becoming increasingly obsessed with male-centred movies such as buddy films and cop thrillers sexploitation was one of the few areas where the focus was very much on female protagonists and female issues.

As usual Something Weird have managed to find a remarkably good print of this forgotten grindhouse classic. The disc includes another William Rotsler sexploitation movie plus several shorts, only two of which I’ve had time to watch as yet. Pat Barrington on Acid is basically just a naked girl gyrating to acid rock with typical 60s acid-trip special effects. It could have been fun but goes on too long. As for Lesbian Hooker Turns a Trick it’s pretty much what the title promises, with a woman earning her living having sex with men while fantasising about having sex with other women. They’re just amusing oddities but they make fun extras.

If you’re a fan of this genre then The Agony of Love is very much worth getting hold of.

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