Monday, 14 September 2009

A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine (1966)

A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine is a notorious 1966 “roughie” from legendary sexploitation producer David F. Friedman. And it’s one of the most entertaining movies in this particular sub-genre.

Sharon Winters (played by the extraordinary Stacey Walker) is a tease. She’s not just a tease, she’s the ultimate tease, and she destroys men for kicks. She uses her sexuality as a weapon. And not just against men - a lesson her lesbian room-mate learns when she tries to entice Sharon into bed. This prompts Sharon to utter one of the classic lines in exploitation cinema: “I may be a bitch, but I’ll never be a butch.”

Sharon works in an office, and her latest chosen victim is the firm’s newest accountant (she destroyed the previous one). Inevitably her games are going to end in bloodshed, and so it proves. And than at about the midway point we get an extended dream sequence, brought on by Sharon’s teasing acting on the overheated imagination of the luckless accountant. There’s almost a touch of very early psychedelia to it, and it’s certainly a highlight.

This is the sort of movie you could find offensive if you took it seriously, but anyone who takes this one seriously is spectacularly missing the point. This is the strange fantastic world of the sexploitation movie, the world of bizarre twisted visionaries like Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman, and it’s a world in which the story-telling is done with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It’s also worth pointing out that the old-style exploitation film-makers (and Friedman definitely falls into this category) operated very much in the mode of old-time carny hucksters - to take their movies literally is to betray oneself as one of the “marks” who falls for the tall tales spun for them by the carny folk.

The movie is shot in the exaggerated melodramatic style typical of the genre. The acting (and I’m perhaps being generous in using the word acting) is delightfully over-the-top. Whatever deficiencies Stacey Walker may have had as a serious actress she has undeniable presence and her performance is effective the way a sledge hammer is effective. I think she’s wonderful.

The black-and-white cinematography is by László Kovács, who went on to shoot movies such as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters and New York, New York and to win numerous awards. And his cinematography is striking and effective. It’s really a rather competently made movie as far as the technical aspects go. It was filmed in LA and captures a rather nice mid-60s sleazy ambience.

Friedman was rather embarrassed by the soundtrack, provided by an obscure LA band of the time, but I think it works extremely well. At times when they get into extended instrumental breaks they almost sound like a California version of the early Velvet Underground, with a definite hint of urban paranoia thrown in. It worked for me anyway. When they attempt a conventional song they fall apart completely, but that just adds to the charm of the movie.

The movie is not only about a tease, the movie is (like any good 1960s sexploitation film) a tease in itself. Friedman’s technique, the technique of classic sexploitation and of course the classic carny technique, was always to promise much but to show little. There’s abundant nudity but nothing even remotely approaching actual sex. The result is a movie awash in suppressed sexuality that manages to be very erotic in its own warped way.

Something Weird’s DVD release not only includes two other sexploitation features, it also includes an immensely enjoyable commentary track done by Friedman himself and Something Weird’s Mike Vraney. Friedman is funny, utterly shameless and completely delightful and has a vast store of terrific anecdotes about the odd little world of sexploitation film-making. This commentary track is enough on its own to justify the purchase price, so the fact that A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine is outrageously entertaining simply comes as an added bonus! If you’ve never delved into the world of the “roughie” this one (along with Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go To Hell) provides a great starting point.


Classic Maiden said...

Definitely want to see this film as it has a great reputation in the sexploitation genre.

Great review as always.

dfordoom said...

Stacey Walker's performance is unforgettable. She only ever made two movies, which is tragic. It's one of the must-sees in this genre.

Samuel Wilson said...

Movies like these are really historical documents now. They open windows on aspects of the past that are often and sometimes willfully forgotten. I really miss the Something Weird double and triple features for that reason. I've listened to that commentary track and it is great fun, as is the film itself.

dfordoom said...

I think that exploitation movies often capture the spirit of their age more effectively than mainstream movies. They weren't trying to be respectable, so they're often more honest in reflecting actual attitudes.