Left: Joseph W. Sarno, Confessions of a Young American Housewife, 1974, color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Production still. Anna, Eddie, Carole, and Pete (Chris Jordan, David Hausman, Rebecca Brooke, and Eric Edwards). Right: Joseph W. Sarno, Moonlighting Wives, 1966, color film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Production still. Mrs. Joan Rand and Al Jordan (Tammy Latour and John Aristedes).

“THE HAPPY ENDING is a Hollywood fallacy that I’m not interested in; I like to leave my characters with something to think about, with things they need to resolve.” Strange words coming from a director of what would come to be known as sexploitation films, but, though as prolific as any grind-house purveyor, Joseph W. Sarno was after something more than (just) cheap thrills. He made his first feature, Nude in Charcoal, in 1961, some years after serving in World War II and later chancing into putting together industrial flicks. Throughout the 1960s he directed a number of sometimes exquisitely shot, anxiety-tweaking, exuberantly scored films. Sarno could make a movie like The Bed and How to Make It! (1966), about an exiled young woman run amok in her aunt’s motel, feel ineffably dirty without getting explicit (unless you count the seductively syncopated stripped-down drum-thump that served as a sound track).

Now receiving a weekend tribute at Anthology, the late Brooklyn-born director (who died in April at the must-be-doing-something-right age of eighty-nine) did not resist displays of flesh, and indeed, he survived eras of change when the meaning of exposure in skin flicks got more literal-minded (on through the ’80s video boom). But Moonlighting Wives (1966), for all the semidreamlike stiltedness of the dialogue and pinup color scheme, dwells on an entrepreneurial woman’s problems of fulfillment in business and love—even if the business, in what seems like an American epidemic at the time, was pimping out acquaintances. (“I sell a service. A . . . stenographic service.”) Sarno would attribute his female focus (psychological and sexual) to his mother, a Jewish labor organizer who believed in “powerful women” (and married an Italian onetime bootlegger).

Sarno sometimes shot dialogue scenes that rivaled Welles in depth of field and compactness of composition, in what he called “fore-aft shots”: Whether in a bedroom or kitchen, the two actors are positioned to face the camera as they leer or spar or speak their insinuating minds. Though the “fore-afts” are often cited to demonstrate Sarno’s filmmaking bona fides, the technique wasn’t just a gesture to avoid reaction-shot monotony—there’s a genuine erotic charge to witnessing provocation and reaction at the same time, along with the voyeuristic dramatic irony to the fiction of neither facing the other. It’s one of several examples of Sarno’s forging ahead rather than just working around—even if it did take him until 1974 (Confessions of a Young American Housewife) to name a sex-mad mother character Mrs. Robinson.

Nicolas Rapold

The Joseph Sarno retrospective runs October 29–31 at Anthology Film Archives. For more details, click here.