Sarno has been described as the Ingmar Bergman of sexploitation films. That might be hyperbole but Sarno certainly did approach the genre in a surprisingly thoughtful way.
Sarno’s career falls into two distinct periods, the early black-and-white sexploitation films made between 1961 and 1969 and the later glossy colour softcore films of the 70s. His 1970s movies have their virtues but personally I think his 1960s output is more interesting. 1960s Sarno is more about the price of decadence than the glories of free love.
Sarno approached sex as something that went far beyond the soulless mechanical couplings that characterise so much of so-called erotic cinema. Sarno was interested in the emotions unleashed by sex, and in the effects on personal relationships. Despite the ultra low budgets and the often rather dodgy acting there’s always a certain intelligence to Sarno’s work. People in his movies have reasons for doing the things they do.
The Love Merchant introduces us to Bobbi (Joanna Mills), a small-town girl who has transformed herself into a bohemian New York artist. She’s not a major artist but she makes a living. Her old school friend Peggy (Patricia McNair) comes to visit and to show off her new advertising executive husband Roger (George Wolfe). Bobbi’s boyfriend Click (Louis Waldon) is a far cry from the ultra respectable Roger. The leather-clad Click is a grifter with ambitions.
Click sees his big chance when he meets Kendall Harvey III (Judson Todd) in a night club. Kendall Harvey III is very very rich. He likes exquisite things. When he sees something exquisite that he likes he buys it. This includes women. Now Click does some thing. Bobbi paints lots of nudes and she has a reputation for finding exceptionally beautiful models. She has a whole roster of these beautiful models. By making use of this convenient fact Click should be able to supply Kendall Harvey II with all the feminine pulchritude he could possibly desire. Click might be able to turn this opportunity into a full-time job supplying the millionaire playboy with pliant bed companions (and Bobbi’s models are mostly very broad-minded girls).
All goes well until Harvey decides he’d like Peggy as one of his bed companions. Peggy and Roger are rather old-fashioned. They believe in marriage. Peggy is not to be bought. Kendall Harvey III however firmly believes that everybody can be bought and he’s sure he can take certain steps that will persuade Peggy to see reason. Harvey’s passion for Peggy will have momentous consequences.
Harvey’s private secretary Polly (Patti Paget) has her own problems, involving her obsession with the statuesque blonde Dixie (Penni Peyton). Polly will discover that her willing participation in Harvey’s woman-collecting will have consequences for her as well.
The performers in a Sarno movie had to do more than take their clothes off. They were required to act as well, and this they attempted to do (with varying degrees of success). In this case Patricia McNair does a pretty fair job. Judson Todd as Kendall Harvey III has the most demanding role in the film and he gives a very creditable performance. Harvey is superficially a bit of a monster but there’s an edge of despair to his character. He’s a man who thinks that everything can be bought - sex, beauty, happiness, fulfillment. There is a part of him though that has its doubts about whether life can really be so simple. There’s a key scene in which he has just spent the night with a luscious young ballet dancer but in the morning, instead of triumph, he feels only emptiness. Todd really proves himself to be quite a capable actor.
One of the joys of 60s sexploitation cinema is the women. They don’t look like models or pornstars. They look like real women. They don’t look like they’re more silicon than woman. They’re pretty but they still look like the sorts of women you could actually meet in the real world.
This is by later standards very mild stuff. The sex scenes are brief and very very tame and there’s not much nudity, just the occasional topless shot. Today the film would have no difficulty getting a PG rating at most. What it does have is emotional intensity. Buying and selling women has emotional consequences, both for the woman who is being bought and for the man who is doing the buying.
The movie has intelligence and emotional depth but it has one other major asset - it has go-go dancing! Lots of go-go dancing. Bliss!
Something Weird have demonstrated their usual uncanny ability to find excellent prints of obscure 60s sexploitation titles. The Love Merchant looks pretty good. It’s fullframe but it’s probable that the movie was shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio.
The Love Merchant is most certainly not a softcore porn film. It’s all about sex but it’s really a psychological melodrama and a fairly effective one. The low budget is very much in evidence but Sarno’s characters are complex enough that the viewer is unlikely to be bothered by this. On the whole this is a fine Joe Sarno film. Highly recommended.