Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Playbirds

London, the late 1970s. Someone is killing the models of porn magazine Playbirds. With no real leads to go on, the police decide to send one of their own undercover / uncovered in a bid to make the maniac reveal himself from amongst the suspects already identified / proposed. They are:
  • The Playbirds photographer with a history of violence.
  • The politician who preaches virtue in public and practices his vices in private.
  • The Christian prophet of doom.
  • The Playbirds owner who finds that his sales increase with each new murder.
Now, when you consider that the film is the product of the real life Playbirds owner David Sullivan, you can immediately strike two of these four suspects off the list, namely the men making their livelihoods off the porn industry. Concomitantly the likelihood of either of the anti-porn types being the killer is doubled.

Alan Lake as / is David Sullivan

Not that the film really open up space for discussing pornography anyway, other than to mock the anti-porn types of the time – as Sullivan did by naming another of his magazines, Whitehouse, after the religious puritan campaigner of the same surname. Still, the way in which his own alter-ego is presented seems somewhat curious. For he is crass, lacking in taste, obsessed with his horse racing (“use the whip!”) and generally someone you would very much like to see get his comeuppance.

We also get some footage of the mechanics of porn business, with copy upon copy of Playbirds being printed and stapled, rolling off the presses and being bundled up and into boxes for distribution: Fascinating from a documentary point of view, but distinctly anti-erotic.

The work of porn in the age of mechanical reproduction

Much the same can be said of the glamour shoots: Although the intention is clearly to make things seem sexy and exciting, the very fact that we're aware of this intentionality, or a lack of spontaneity and authenticity serves to distance us.

This emergent auto-critique also applies to the funniest and sleaziest moment in the entire film, in which Inspectors Porno and Bribeasy – er, Holbourne and Morgan – interview volunteers for going undercover and uncovered as a model in a bid to root out the maniac. Bump and grind music plays on the soundtrack as a succession of unsuccessful candidates strip off, the camera retaining a detached, observational eye throughout. Then, when glamour star Mary Millington steps into the breach, the camera becomes an active participant, moving around her and going in for close-ups as her routine continues.

Cue obligatory pseudo-lesbian scene

As with the giallo-inspired murder set-pieces, it's a moment of spectacle that makes us all the more aware of the banality of the bulk of the film, be it the detectives at work or 'Sullivan' at the racetrack.

Willy Roe is also the kind of point-and-shoot director whose attempts at visual style, such as a hand-held mirror based sex scene, don't really come off anyway.

Like other Sullivan productions most of the cast divides into two camps: Besides the models and porn types who cannot act but are happy providing the nudity and simulated sex, we also have various slumming thespians happy for just about the only work available them at the time.

Suzy Mandel

Somewhere in between, in uncredited roles, there are also some interesting other figures: unlikely 50-something porn performer Derek Aylward as a client in a massage parlour, candidly / knowingly acknowledged as the front for a brothel that the police are fully aware of, and performance artist / musician Cosey Fanni Tutti as a model; while her work within the British porn industry was also part of her wider art project – she posed for Sullivan's magazines and mounted an exhibition called Pornography – the film does not address this subject.

Playbirds goes off the rails a bit towards the end and finishes with one of those shock endings commonly found in weaker thrillers.

Yet if it leaves you dissatisfied and feeling cheated, this is perhaps apropos given the film's milieu, of a product which promises more than it can ever deliver and leaves you wanting more. (Not that such charges can only be levelled against porn...)

Insofar as the film is essentially 1959's The Cover Girl Murders revamped for a more permissive age and filtered through contemporary exploitation trends, intertexts are not difficult to find: The politician recalls the judge in Night after Night; the use of computer profiling in an attempt to narrow down the list of suspects The Bird with the Crystal Plumage; the glamour/model/sleaze setting Strip Nude for Your Killer, Delirium: Photos of Gioa and so on; the Playbirds of reality/Playbirds of fiction element the diegetic and non-diegetic Tenebres; the cod occultism Virgin Witch or Satanic Rites of Dracula; and fetishistic shots of black gloves around women's necks and a clue concealed in the photographic blow-up countless gialli.

The hands of doom

The white heat of the Scotland Yard computer system

The film also features plenty of jaw-droppingly funny / bad and just plain distasteful dialogue (“O goody, I'm going to be raped, I've never been raped before”) and some nice location shots of Soho for good measure.

[See also:

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

I'd love to see this film. I've read about it for years but I can't find any copies in the US.