Friday, January 02, 2015

The Sex Thief (1973)

It's not often that a seventies British sex comedy can proclaim on its DVD box that it's 'from the director of Casino Royale and Goldeneye'.  But The Sex Thief is indeed directed by Martin Campbell - notching up one of his earliest directorial credits - thereby giving the lie to the popular contemporary notion that the genre was simply tacky crap turned out by talentless opportunists.  The fact is that back in the seventies sex comedies were amongst the only profitable films being produced in the UK, playing in regular cinemas to huge audiences.  As far as film industry professionals were concerned, they were pretty much the only game in town if you wanted to work on feature films rather than TV episodes.  Consequently, a lot of these supposedly tacky and poorly made sex comedies are actually very professionally made pictures, slickly shot and often well performed by casts of surprisingly familiar actors.

The Sex Thief is a case in point.  Not only does it feature the talents of Martin Campbell behind the camera, but in front of the camera it can boast cult favourite David Warbeck, (just before he was to find fame in Italian horrors movies), Diane Keane (in an early leading role and a long way from the cosy sitcoms, soaps and TV coffee ads she's known for nowadays), Christopher Neill (later to star in Adventures of a Private Eye and Adventures of a Plumber's Mate as well as writing several hit songs for Paul Nicholas), Christopher Biggins, (in the days when he was still known as a character actor - he keeps his clothes on here) and Christopher Mitchell, (later to be known for the sitcom It Ain't Half Hot Mum).   Also featured in an acting role is Michael Armstrong, perhaps better known as a writer, producer and director, most notoriously on the 1970 horror film Mark of the Devil.  As well as appearing in The Sex Thief, he also provides the script.

And it isn't a bad script at all.  Capitalising on his image as a former 'Milk Tray Man', Warbeck plays Grant Henry, unsuccessful thriller writer turned cat burglar, who doesn't just rob his female victims but also seduces them.  Of course, his performances are so accomplished that his 'victims' give the police false descriptions of the burglar, leaving Scotland Yard baffled.  The attempts of the police and Diane Keane's insurance investigator to apprehend Henry forms the bulk of the film's plot, with a sub-plot involving a visiting American film actress claiming to be one of his victims for publicity purposes, resulting in Henry paying her an actual visit, under the noses of the police.  Another sub-plot involves Armstrong's Detective Sergeant Plinth, who 'helps out' the obscene publications squad by reading seized porn magazines on duty and his attempts, with the assistance of Neill's dodgy tabloid journalist, to illicitly distribute porn films seized as evidence.  This latter sub-plot yields some of the film's best dialogue, with Neill observing, whilst discussing a Scandanavian adult film, that the Danes 'make minge look classy'. 

It all culminates with Keane and Plinth's boss attempting to entrap Henry, using her as bait, with surprising consequences.  Nicely shot on London locations, The Sex Thief moves along at a fair pace, with Campbell providing the viewer with some of the most energetic, not to say inventively shot, sex scenes I recall having seen in a British sex comedy of the era.  One thing that would seem jarring to modern audiences, particularly those too young to have lived through the early seventies, are the frequent jocular references to rape.  The fact is that, back then, rape wasn't treated, in popular culture at least, as seriously as it - rightly - is now.  Indeed, back then, 'rape' was defined, in the popular mind, rather differently than it is now, seen less as a serious sexual assault as being some kind of female fantasy, in which a woman is taken by some masculine fantasy figure, much as in one of those 'bodice ripper' novels.  Although initially unwilling, they actually enjoy it and are, to some extent, a willing participant.  Such a view of rape seemed to derive from the classical definition of rape as being the abduction of a woman (as in the 'Rape of the Sabine Women') rather than the legal definition of it as non-consensual sex.

Provided you are prepared to put aspects of the movie such as this into an historical perspective, The Sex Thief remains a highly entertaining film.  As with the Lindsay Shonteff films I looked at last year, I'm not making any claims that this is some kind of lost classic.  What I am claiming is that it is a well made commercial film in its own right and a good example of an oft-maligned genre.   The snobbery of contemporary film critics frequently prevents them from treating films like this fairly.  To them British sex comedies are all lumped together as poorly made smut with no artistic value, something they'd rather sweep under the carpet.  However, the fact is that they represent a vital part of the UK's film history - without the money they generated and opportunities they afforded film makers, there would be no British film industry to speak of today.  So, think on that next time you are tempted to dismiss Confessions of a Window Cleaner, say, as trash.  



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