In the subbasement of American movies known as sexploitation--tawdry tales made on the cheap, with a little female flesh--a few artists toiled to realize dream worlds as distinct as Ingmar Bergman's. Among these grind-house gurus were Radley Metzger, Russ Meyer ... and Joe Sarno, who died April 26 in New York City at 89.
A Navy airman in World War II, Sarno directed industrial films before landing in sexploitation. Made on minuscule budgets with Z-list actors, his mid-'60s films (Sin in the Suburbs, Moonlighting Wives) were seedy explorations of New Yorkers who looked for free love and paid steeply for it. Viewers came for the (fairly chaste) sex, stayed to see the artful chiaroscuro lighting and four-minute dialogue takes, always from the woman's viewpoint.
He made his biggest hit, 1968's Inga, in Sweden (and in Swedish), followed by the delirious Young Playthings--naked women in clownface! Back in the U.S., he had one mini-masterpiece, the mom-and-daughter drama Confessions of a Young American Housewife, before finally going hard-core (under pseudonyms).
If not exactly a feminist, Sarno certainly understood women. He was less a sexploitationist than a psychiatrist--an acute observer of the horny heart.