Abigail Lesley is Back in Town (1975)

In the early Spring of 2010, filmmaker Joe Sarno quietly passed away, stranded just before the cusp of his 90th birthday.  No stranger to anyone regularly perusing any of the Distribpix websites, he left behind a legacy of accomplished adult efforts on both sides of the explicit fence. Sex was more means to an end than goal in itself for him, providing another layer of characterization. The French, who take their grindhouse fare more seriously than anyone else, deeming it worthy of the same critical analysis as the works of Jean-Luc Godard, consider him seedy cinema’s answer to Ingmar Bergman ! Reeking perhaps more of unneeded intellectual excuse for lofty film fans to get down ‘n’ dirty than a proper appraisal of Sarno’s achievements, such monikers merely look good on paper or flickering back from a computer screen. Simple truth of the matter is that he was an excellent director, in a measure not just limited to the “Adults Only” universe though his eventual output puts him smack dab in the middle of it. Like Claude Chabrol, to whom he could be much more fruitfully compared if such need be, his focus was firmly on the hypocrisy stifling the middle class from doing the things they wanted, but foregoing that fine French filmmaker’s customary distancing cynicism.

Credit Something Weird‘s Mike Vraney for first reviving interest in Sarno’s body of work, unearthing believed to be lost ’60s gems like Sin in the Suburbs and The Swap and How They Make It for new generations of trash cinema enthusiasts on video and subsequently DVD. When fans go gaga, the mainstream sooner or later takes notice, making Sarno one of the few disreputable directors to achieve a modicum of “real world” appreciation within his lifetime. In recent years, this begrudging acknowledgment has extended to include his simulated skin flicks shot both home and abroad in Scandinavia during the first half of the ’70s but still fails to assess the excesses he was to commit later on, most often as Karl or Erik Andersson. Now that French TV’s culture channel Arte has ported over Retro Seduction‘s pristine copy of Abigail Lesley is Back in Town for their upmarket R2 release in their “The Other America” series, can a Cinematheque double bill of The Trouble With Young Stuff and Slippery When Wet be far behind ? Ah, if only…

Most elusive among his ’70s gems, Abigail Lesley may be the most solemn of a lot that includes the much better known because more widely seen Confessions of a Young American Housewife and Laura’s Toys. Providing a presumably unwelcome dose of angstridden reality for fantasy-starved flea pit patrons of the day, it must have made for a tough sell when compared to Sarno’s comparatively unencumbered tales of marital infidelity, hence one possible explanation for its subsequent obscurity. Rising to the surface after three decades of absence, the movie can now rightfully take its place as the director’s crowning achievement as well as one of the finest independently produced American films of the decade, an unbelievable statement to some perhaps in light of Sarno’s habit of casting hardcore talent in non-explicit roles, all of whom rise to the occasion beautifully.

Though her name is in the title, Abigail Lesley’s not so much the main character as the catalyst in other people’s lives, having left the quiet little fishing hamlet of Baypoint in a huff years ago after being caught in flagrante with married Gordon Howe (the also recently deceased Jamie Gillis in an uncharacteristically subdued performance) by his unsuspecting spouse Priscilla, played to perfection by the exquisite Mary Mendum a/k/a “Rebecca Brooke“, Sarno’s magnificent muse who – according to one persistent rumor – ended up marrying a Muslim extremist !  Their marriage never recovered from Gordon’s spur of the moment transgression and she has been conducting a chaste afternoon romance with laid off fisherman Chester (Eric Edwards, never better) whose lonely sister Alice Anne (an excellent turn by lovely Chris Jordan, Eric’s wife at the time, who sadly passed away from cancer at an early age) is left to pick up the slack as the family’s sole bread winner. As if economic reality’s not hitting these people hard enough, bad girl Abigail (quite possibly the highlight of Jennifer Jordan’s checkered career) returns to the place of the crime, hellbent on wreaking even more havoc in retaliation for having been wronged.

The plot’s twists and turns could be construed as pure soap opera if it weren’t for the compelling earnestness with which they are presented, aided immeasurably by plausible characterizations and the convincing bleakness of a small town forever out of season, courtesy of another haunting Jack Justis solo guitar soundtrack and the autumnal shades of Bill Godsey’s intricately composed shots. Skin display’s frustratingly frugal – for good reason – during the slow build-up, only to explode by the halfway point when it’s basically one scorching simulated sex scene after another. The masks of respectability come off as characters are forced to confront each other and, perhaps even more frighteningly, themselves. None of this comes off as tedious because Sarno has already worked up a full head of steam narratively by this stage. The seemingly liberated Abigail, whose carefree attitude hides unrequited longing, has simply put the inevitable clockwork mechanism into motion and now it won’t stop until all the guilty secrets have come out.

In addition to those already mentioned, and since no good cast should go unpraised and porno people are rarely the recipients of such, Jennifer Welles has a field day as Priscilla’s naughty aunt Drucilla, hunky beau (and future Kentucky Governor wannabe until his illustrious past caught up with him) Sonny Landham in tow. Julia Sorel, who registers strongly as hot to trot best friend Lila, was a minor league adult actress who turned up in Howard Ziehm’s loop carrier Sexteen and Kemal Horulu’s ambitious but flawed The Virgin and the Lover. Hiding behind the pseudonym “Anne Keel” and playing bitchy buddy Tracey to perfection is carnal cult favorite Susan Sloan, best remembered as the star of Robert Sickinger’s lavish adaptation of anonymous Victorian porn novella A Man With a Maid a/k/a The Naughty Victorians.  As with much of the director’s softcore output, the sex has such a realistic edge to it minus the explicit “evidence” that hardcore could offer causing rumor to spread that the cast were simply doing what came naturally to them anyway, even the beautiful Brooke having had a brief brush with full color penetration in erstwhile paramour Radley Metzger’s The Image and his Continental compadre Max Pécas’ overseas Félicia.  Figuring audiences would remain interested as long as they were kept guessing, Sarno did nothing to dispel these murmurs, claiming he left it up to his actors’ own discretion how far they would go in order to achieve the most credible performance possible.  Anything but a shrinking violet both on screen and off, it was Jamie Gillis of all people who was to set the record straight, emphasizing that everyone behaved most professionally on set as the accomplished actors most of them were and no actual sex took place on any of the Sarno softcore shoots for which he was present.

Directed, written & edited by Joseph W. Sarno. Produced by Armand Weston for High Ground Productions. Photographed by Bill Godsey. Music by Jack Justis. Starring Rebecca Brooke (Priscilla Howe), Eric Edwards (Chester), Jennifer Jordan (as Sarah Nicholson) (Abigail Lesley), Jamie Gillis (Gordon Howe), Chris Jordan (Alice Anne), Jennifer Welles (Aunt Drucilla), Susan Sloan (as Anne Keel) (Tracey), Julia Sorel (Lila), Sonny Landham (Bo) & Alex Mann (Tyler). Running time : 100 minutes.

Unsung genius of erotic cinema both simulated and explicit : the late great Joe Sarno

By Dries Vermeulen

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