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The last few years have seen a renaissance in appreciation for the work of Joe Sarno, the NYC sexploiteer whose unique films catered to both the raincoat and the intellectual crowds. Something Weird finally dipped into their Sarno vaults with two essential double-feature discs a while back, and returning to the work of the sinematic genius, have unleashed another marvelous pairing of two of the director’s least-discussed works.
Leaving the squalid streets of New York City, Sarno trekked to the sunny landscapes of Florida for the next feature, THE LAYOUT, one of a handful of features he shot for producer J. Arthur Elliott. By 1969, Sarno had already ventured from New York to shoot films in Sweden, but Florida seems a strange locale for the auteur to have chosen for a black-and-white melodrama considering the beautiful weather and sun-drenched ladies. Designer and architect Pam Ritchie is hesitant at having invited her cousin Ellen to town, but it’s too late to change her plans when Ellen and her Hispanic roommate Marie arrive to strut their stuff through Pam’s suburban neighborhood.
Her business partner Wendy Dawn has her own problems, as she carries on a scorching affair with married building contractor Rob, who skips out on his wife Emmy any chance he can get. Emmy learns of her husband’s infidelity, and makes her move on Pam, never suspecting that the two nubile visitors are listening through the door. Seeing her chance to liven up her stay, Ellen makes it her goal to expose Pam’s lesbian practices, and practices her seductive wiles on every woman in her path on the way to her ultimate goal: a lesbian smorgasbord involving all the women of the neighborhood!
LAYOUT revisits well-tread territory for Sarno, namely the plot device of a lovely lass coming to town and converting most of the female residents to lesbianism. Some gorgeous shots, such as the vision of Pam undressing seen through a giant drinking glass (shades of Radley Metzger), in addition to the typically accomplished cinematography, liven up the proceedings, as does the organ-driven score. The issue that keeps LAYOUT from being ranked in the higher echelons of Sarno’s filmography is the acting. His script is well written, if not too familiar, but the dialogue isn’t done justice by the ladies of Florida.
Unlike their Manhattan contemporaries, the actresses here are not thespians, thus the performances never reach their full potential. Blonde bombshell Susan Thomas (“Pam”) is a striking beauty, but she flubs a few lines and is at times very hollow. Betty Whitman (“Wendy”) is a cutie, but is half-hearted in her dialogue delivery; her deep husky voice is appealing, though, and sounds as if she’s prepping for a lead role in a John Waters film! Of the leading ladies, Rene Howard (“Ellen”) and Barbara Lance (“Emmy”) give the best performances, but even they miss a few beats. Thankfully, where the performances don’t succeed, the sex is always scorching, beautifully lit and photographed, usually utilizing a loud massaging vibrator, and one incredible scene finds Whitman in a doggy-style position being pleasured by Howard. All of these scenes put similar hardcore scenes to shame, and are probably the most genuinely erotic lesbian scenes I’ve encountered in Sarno’s oeuvre.
As pointed out on the box cover, future Linda Lovelace/Marilyn Chambers husband-manager Chuck Traynor is the only male in the cast, promising lots of lesbian action considering Traynor is far from photogenic. Traynor had shot a few Florida nudie cuties in the early to mid-60s (Something Weird offers I AM FOR SALE, with him in the cast) and it was around the time this film was shot that he was in a relationship with Lovelace. It would only be 2 years after this that DEEP THROAT would be shot in the same area and Traynor would be living the high life, with his wife as his meal ticket. When her profitability ran out, he traded her in for Marilyn Chambers, and history repeated itself in her case, too. Traynor just died in 2002 and it’s a shame no one recorded his memories of working in sexploitation during the 1960’s, instead focusing on his alleged abuse of Lovelace.