Is ‘Sweet and Sexy’ meant to be a gritty crime thriller with sexploitation elements, or a sexploitation film with gritty crime elements? It’s a question you may find yourself pondering over during the film directing debut of Anthony Sloman (now better known as a film critic and film historian than a director). One of only a handful of films that could be at home in both British crime and British sex film genres- other examples include ‘Strip Poker’ and ‘Man of Violence’ by Pete Walker and ‘A Touch of the Other’ by Arnold Louis Miller- Sloman’s film emerges as by far the most aggressive and mean spirited of the bunch.
The premise of Sweet and Sexy is a regional reversal on that of the later ‘Get Carter’. Instead of Michael Caine’s southerner busting heads in the North East, here we have Northerner Ted (Robert Case) arriving by train at Waterloo Station. Ted is in the capital looking for his long lost sister Joan, but finds only trouble from the London underworld and unwanted attention from a variety of women. Ted’s first port of call is a suburban B&B where he expects to run into Joan but instead is met on the doorstep by her landlady (Rose Alba). Never actually named in the film, she is a predatory older woman caked in white, ghost face make-up a la Fanny Cradock and cuts a convincingly sex starved figure (“it’s a long time since I had a man in this house” she seductively tells Ted). The Landlady cons Ted into believing that Joan will be home soon, in the meantime she drags him off upstairs under the pretence that he can ‘go for a lie down’ only to then strip off and offer herself up to him.
Actress Rose Alba, who was in her early fifties when the film was made, displays a heroic commitment to the role by not only going fully nude for the scene but being on the receiving end of a few less than complementally comments about her age and figure too. “You’re old enough to be my mother” Ted callously points out, later adding “you’re no banquet”. Not that our man Ted is about to turn her down, and their subsequent sex scene includes a uproarious, and distinctly British, piece of sexual symbolism when the film cuts from her about to yank his Y-Fronts off and blow him to a shot of flying plaster ducks on her bedroom wall, shown as their moans ring out on the soundtrack. It is only afterwards she reveals that Joan left the place weeks ago. News that Ted ungentlemanly responds to by slapping the landlady around, forcing her to dig out a forwarding address for Joan, then adds insult to injury by stealing a bit of cash from her while her back is turned.
Ted’s run in with the Landlady begins a pattern of behaviour that is destined to be repeated endless times throughout Sweet and Sexy, Ted meets a woman who claims to know his sister, but won’t reveal further details until she has had her fun with Ted, only to post-coitally admit she has being lying about his sister all along, leaving dumb, duped Ted back to square one. Next up is Julie (Susanne Rogers) a prostitute Ted meets at a Private Members club that the Landlady believed Joan was working at. Julie, like a number of women in the film mistakes Ted’s inquiries about his sister as mere dirty talk (“I’ll be your sister” and “can’t I be your sister” are two of the typical responses Ted gets from women in the film). Taking him back to her flat, Julie is less than impressed when it becomes obvious that Ted really is only interested in tracing his sister. When he refuses to hand over a fiver for her services, she knocks on the wall bringing her vicious pimp Bert (Jason Twelvetrees) into the room and the equation. In a sequence that illustrates just how closely sex and violence are intertwined in this thing, Ted gets the better of Bert, batters him to a pulp, and then throws him under Julie’s bed. A display of brutality that turns Julie on, to the extent that she and Ted end up making love on the bed, further crushing Bert who is still underneath it!! Realistically the film would have been more appropriately titled ‘Violent and Sexy’ since as the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that there is going to be nothing ‘Sweet’ about Sweet and Sexy.
Ted’s propensity for violence not only earns him a new fan in Julie, but gets him a job as well, when her boss Tony (Max Burns) hears about the incident and immediately hires Ted as a bouncer in his club ‘The Prohibition’ a tacky joint whose strip acts pad out the film and add to its bare flesh content. Proving that it is not only pretty naïve girls like the heroine of Cool it Carol who get lured into vice once they wind up in the capital, Ted discovers that as well as acting as a bouncer, his job at The Prohibition requires him to double as a male prostitute from time to time as well. A career side-line he isn’t aware of until Tony pimps him out to Olivia, a rich, jaded socialite played by Cathy Howard, an enigmatic actress who worked prolifically during a 1969-71 period, clocking up appearances in several other British sex films plus a ‘blink and she’s dead’ bit part in Hammer’s Twins of Evil, before disappearing off the radar and never acting again. The scene that introduces Olivia to the proceedings is distinguished by the unforgettably odd decision to have the majority of her opening dialogue play out over huge close-ups of her eyes, even though the narrative doesn’t throw up any justifiable reason for it (it is not as if Olivia is meant to be a hypnotist or anything). In fairness Sweet and Sexy isn’t the only film to find itself preoccupied by the piercing eyes of Cathy Howard, Antony Balch indulged in a similarly prolonged close-up of them in ‘Secrets of Sex’. Olivia’s business banter with Tony (“he has to do what he is told, things as you know my dear have to go smoothly”) hints that Ted is in for a far from average night. Sure enough when he shows up at Olivia’s place, Ted discovers he has hooked up with a woman who lives in a house whose walls are covered in silver foil and whose rooms are sparsely decorated with such offbeat items as a fake skull, whips and the odd electronic music LP. Having entered the film dressed like a cut price version Holly Golightly, Olivia re-emerges wearing leather boots, black knickers and little else. “You’re not serious” Ted protests as she corners him and tries to give him a blow-job, however eventually he relents offering up the flimsy excuse that “all right, just to prove you are normal”.
filming 'sweet and sexy'
In a genre that would later become the stomping ground for crumpet chasing window cleaners, door to door salesmen and amorous milkmen, Ted cuts a remarkably asexual figure, one who appears to get little out of the sexual encounters he keeps finding himself in, and views sex as a chore and means to an end in order to find his sister. Ted walks through life with a barely contained sexual disgust for the ladies he meets. Ted may well be a tad more physically intimidating that the wide eyed innocents who usually get eaten up by and spat out by the Big Smoke in films of this period, but his uptight attitude leaves him equally unprepared for the freaky characters he meets in 1970s London. Ted’s encounter with Olivia resembles somebody’s kinky nightmare brought to life on film. A shot of her lunging at him- hands outstretched- is worthy of a horror film.
“Scared of little old me?” she asks whilst menacingly holding a whip. Try as he might to deny it Ted certainly does appear intimidated by little old her, especially when he realises his earlier way of dealing with the Landlady, by slapping her about, holds no threat to Olivia. Indeed, being slapped about is exactly what Olivia likes, “again, hit me again you fool” she complains after he knocks her to the floor. Rendered powerless by this, Ted has no choice but to submit to her sexual demands, at least until the first opportunity to split becomes available.
If truth be told Ted is quite a dull, charmless character, and an extremely inarticulate one, save for regularly ordering pints of brown ale and monosyllabically asking about his sister’s whereabouts. The one dimensional nature of Ted only serves to emphasize the playfully outrageous nature of the female characters around him, with Rose Alba and Cathy Howard delivering stand out performances in that respect. That the film doesn’t appear to really care for its lead character does put a bit of distance between it and Ted’s fear of, and hostility towards, women. The fact that Ted is meant to be the hero of the film certainly doesn’t spare him Sweet and Sexy’s sadistic streak either. If anything the film could be accused of getting its jollies by constantly humiliating this second rate stud. In the film’s final third, Ted gets brutally beaten up by Bert and his cronies as payback for his earlier assault on Bert. Bruised and bloodied, Ted is taken home by Sarah (Quinn O’Hara) a singer at The Prohibition who shares her flat with two ‘resting’ actresses. A saucy duo who when they’re not giving each other massages and making love by the fireplace, have their amorous eyes in Ted’s direction, referring to him as a “captive man” and jumping into bed with the semi-comatose Ted, who is too weak to resist them. A kinky, male submissive oriented sub-plot that earned the film its US release title ‘Foursome’. To add to the many indignities that the film throws at him, when Ted comes to he discovers his tuxedo has been returned to Tony, forcing him to wander around the girls’ flat wearing only a loincloth and looking like a hung over Tarzan impersonator.
The backstory of one of Sarah’s roommates lends a hilariously self-aware moment to the film, when she bemoans having been recently cast as an extra in “one of those cruddy swinging London films”. Although the London of Sweet and Sexy is less ‘swinging’ and more decaying, and if you’re after a film that gives you the grand tour of the squalid sections of 1970s London, then Sweet and Sexy is just the ticket. By the end of the film we’ve been taken by the hand and dragged by the collar around drab suburban streets, dark and uninviting private members clubs and striptease joints, plus umpteen shabby bedsits straight out of Rising Damp. Almost every room you see in the film has paint flaking off the walls, and in that ‘London Nobody Knows’ manner you can well believe that the wrecking ball moved in the moment filming stopped. A real peep hole into a world gone by, authentic atmosphere is Sweet and Sexy’s greatest strength, as if during filming its makers realised they could turn their lack of funds into an asset by poking their camera into places other filmmakers would fear to tread, or had the money to avoid having to use. The ultra-low budget does however occasionally embarrass the film, especially when the visual similarities between a few of the interior locations lead you to suspect that poverty had forced the filmmakers to hastily redress the same room for several different scenes. Dare I suggest the novel idea of having Cathy Howard’s character live in a house with silver foil on the walls was born out of the need to cover up the fact that the room in which she seduces Ted had turned up elsewhere in the film?
Given that Sweet and Sexy comes from an era when films like Derek Ford’s The Wife Swappers were still expected to morally justify their existence to the British censor and were virtually bending over backwards to do so (in the case of the Ford film roping in a phony psychiatrist to constantly interrupt the narrative by pontificating how immoral and misguided its characters’ behaviour is), Sweet and Sexy contains an audacious and/or reckless charge in the way that it makes no apologies for being what it is, an unpretentious exploitation film. Like Ted himself, Sweet and Sexy is a film that doesn’t appear to have a great deal going on upstairs. Sex and violence….. women taking their clothes off….. men having their faces punched in….. is the name of the game here. All without a fake psychiatrist in sight.
While the sex scenes in Sweet and Sexy are notably frank for a film made in 1970, what tends to really linger in the memory are the moments of eccentric filmmaking contained within them, a close-up of Julie licking and sucking Ted’s nose that goes on forever, a shot of Ted being woken up by having a huge pair of breasts thrust in his face (accompanied by a bugle call on the soundtrack) and Olivia finishing off giving Ted a blow-job then remarking “My Turn”. A remark that by rights should be addressed to Ted himself, but which Cathy Howard actually says while turned away from him and looking straight into the camera, as if breaking the fourth wall and speaking to the audience directly. Truly strange.
Sweet and Sexy finally opened in March 1972, the same month that one of its stars, Quinn O’Hara, decided to leave the country and resume her career in America where she’d go on to appear in TV shows like Dallas, Knight Rider and The Incredible Hulk. “It’s pure coincidence that I left for California the day before the film opened” she told Cinema X magazine at the time “in any case, I don’t strip right off in the film, so I’ve nothing to run away from”. During filming Quinn was under the impression that Sweet and Sexy would be a far more comedic film than the one that emerged. “Somehow it got totally messed up and that is putting it mildly” remembers Quinn today “how they managed to edit out the humour is beyond me. It wasn't too bad at the first cut but then it wasn't too good either, and that is as kind as I can get”.
Quinn might not have stuck around for the film’s British release, but Sweet and Sexy did manage to find an unlikely champion in the form of former Strangers on a Train star Farley Granger, who sang the film’s praises after catching a screening of it in London. “Don’t ask me why, but show a couple of girls making it onscreen –and pow- the male audience is ready for action” Granger enthused to the British press “the men in the audience really sat up and took notice when those two girls were making love in the movie”. Quite a celebrity endorsement for a film that one of the female characters in said scene from it, would no doubt dismiss as just another “cruddy swinging London film”.
As to whether Ted does manage to find his sister, well…. the answer to that allows Sweet and Sexy to have one last, very wicked laugh at Ted’s expense. Suffice to say it is a resolution that somehow manages to be both highly distasteful and a huge anti-climax, rendering almost everything that has gone before it all rather pointless. Chances are the overwhelming thought of anyone stumbling out of a screening of Sweet and Sexy in 1972 would have been “poor Ted really should have just stayed at home”.
Sexy playing on a double bill in Great Yarmouth, April 1973 (photo: Flickr/dusashenka)