Here is a perfect example of why it is unwise to criticise the low budget sexploitation film out of hand. For New Zealand-born director Martin Campbell, who debuted with this film and followed it up with Eskimo Nell subsequently went to Hollywood and made the likes of Goldeneye, Zorro and Casino Royale – i.e. big-budget, major-studio productions. If these are not the kind of films that qualify him as an auteur, they do suggest a competent and reliable journeyman.
With regard to the Bond films, this is also the reason why Quentin Tarantino will never get the opportunity to direct one: his own directorial personality is too strong, such that he would bone up on 60s spy films and seek to make a meta-commentary on the form.
Such references are not arbitrary given the Bondian elements of The Sex Thief; the casting of David Warbeck, who was both an understudy for the role of Bond and played the Sex Thief-like Milk Tray Man in a long running-series of adverts, in the role; and Tarantino’s own avowed enthusiasm for the film.
Returning to Campbell and the importance of exploitation, it is also significant is that, according to exploitation veteran Stanley Long, the debutant director was not the most technically aware at this time, requiring advice on the importance of eye-line matches and the like. Either Campbell was under the influence of new wave directors like Godard and needed to be disabused of such notions as distanciation or – perhaps more likely – he just didn’t know the rules before breaking them.
The two approaches come together to a degree within the film anyway, insofar as it features one of those speeded-up sex scenes, like A Clockwork Orange, that arguably make you aware you are watching a film, along with the characters of a crass agent and a dumb starlet. This said, Eskimo Nell takes things far further in this regard, seeing that it is itself set within the world of the British (s)exploitation industry of the time. (For what it’s worth, I recently entertained the idea of programming Eskimo Nell and Godard’s Contempt with one another.)
If The Sex Thief is not as endearing as Eskimo Nell, it is also more problematic in terms of its attitudes.
The first thing here is the character of the Sex Thief himself. He’s a Bond meets Diabolik meets Milk Tray Man jewel thief, black clad and wearing a domino mask. His modus operandi is to break into the houses of wealthy couples when the husband are absent, steal the valuables and make love to the wife by way of compensation: Not quite a housebreaker-rapist, insofar as the women consent to sex, albeit sometimes in a vaguely no to yes manner, but enough to highlight division between 70s and 90s / 00s mores.
Seeing this is a British softcore sex film, it also serves to again foreground the differences between the form and its contemporaneous US hardcore counterpart, as a viewing of the Vietnam veteran rape-trauma entry Forced Entry will make particularly clear. Similarly, when The Sex Thief was circulated in the US under the titles Handful of Diamonds and Her Family Jewels it was with hardcore inserts.
The second is the way the manager and starlet try to take advantage of the Sex Thief’s notoriety to grab a bit of publicity for their latest project, by claiming that he broke in, stole her (non-existent) valuables and raped her no fewer than seven times – one time for each of her previous films.
Since the Sex Thief’s victims enjoyed their experience and were placed in compromising positions with regard to their respected, society husbands, they told a somewhat different story. Their thieves, one purportedly a six foot six Russian, another a midget, and so on, had only committed burglary, not rape.
One issue here is the growing disbelief that emerges at the press conference as the starlet describes her purported ordeal with ever increasing implausibility. It’s played for laughs, but you don’t have to be much of a feminist to see that the filmmakers are thereby treading on rather thin ground. Another is the way in which the Sex Thief responds to this challenge, by actually breaking into the starlet’s apartment and giving her what she was ‘asking for’. Again, it’s played for laughs, and is not ‘really’ a rape scene, but probably wouldn’t be done today.
But the film is saved by Michael Armstrong and Tudor Gates’s witty script and its equal opportunities approach to offending sensibilities. Thus, Armstrong’s vice squad officer is less concerned with catching the sex thief than taking advantage of his position to steal porn from the customs vaults, which he then trades with the equally sex-obsessed journalist assigned to report on the case. The figure of the corrupt cop also, of course, allows the filmmakers to comment on what they and everyone else in the exploitation industry knew was a fact at the time: That the vice squad were on the take.
While not sex-obsessed, the male half of the insurance team investigating the case and another male cop are basically pathetic and incompetent, both in marked contrast to the smart, sassy, karate and judo expert female insurance adjustor on the look out for a real man able to satisfy her carnal desires…