A SAINT… A WOMAN… A DEVIL (1977; D. Peter Savage)

About halfway through Peter Savage’s 1977 hardcore effort, A Saint…A Woman…A Devil, I breathed a sigh of relief as I had quite accidentally dodged a bullet. You see, at the time, I had a stash of mushrooms that my wife and I had been saving for a special occasion. As we were both inexperienced in regards to their effects, I was a little leery about wasting them on a movie where the reaction might be a poor one or, worse, psychologically damaging.

“Never do mushrooms and watch porn,” my friend counseled me a week before. “Watching naked people while tripping is kind of weird and gross.”

Of course, not taking his warning very seriously, I almost threw caution to the wind and strongly leaned toward ingesting all the mushrooms we had on hand and then going all in on a film in which I had absolutely no clue what would transpire. When the film’s dark and unsettling flashback sequence occurs in the middle of the action and a child’s fingernails are pulled out by her alcoholic mom and she then assigns all of her pain, misery, and multiple personalities to her creepy doll that accompanies her everywhere, I thanked my lucky stars the mushrooms were still in the decorative jar in which our friends had delivered them. What would I tell my wife if we had been under the influence and that horror would have rolled over us, which was as unexpected as it was unannounced? What would I say when the little girl is slapped over and over and then tossed across a front lawn? Or when, as a teenager, the main character is almost drowned in a bathtub by her mom for masturbating? That the only reason I had this thing in my collection because my interest was piqued by the Peter Savage connection? The thought of trying to even get into the granular trivia which necessitated my blind purchase from the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome sounded exhausting.

Now, Peter Savage is probably someone you’ve seen before. The john in Taxi Driver who sits in the backseat of Travis Bickle’s cab with the African-American hooker who’s wearing that fantastic platinum wig? That’s him (the john, not the hooker). The guy named Jackie Curtie that Joe Pesci is introduced to in the Copacabana in Raging Bulll? That’s him, too. And, not for nothing but he also co-wrote the book on which the latter movie was adapted with its subject, Jake La Motta. But here he was, big as life (and playing the part of Doctor Balaban, the man who will eventually save the day), writing and directing a hardcore spin on Sybil, the Sally Field TV movie that took America quite by storm and created an opening for multiple personality syndrome to become a hook for mass entertainment.

Also released in a severely edited, R-rated cut retitled Sylvia, A Saint…A Woman…A Devil might be a little overlong in its hardcore cut but it is nevertheless still very entertaining. And instead of dealing with someone with true psychological issues that deserve much more than the treatment found in a soap opera or a grocery store paperback, the film (wisely) only really sets out to examine the three broadest factions of sexual identity (the prude, the willing, and the insatiable) where pop psychology can comfortably intermingle with pornography without being too terribly offensive.

The plot of A Saint…A Woman…A Devil concerns itself with Sylvia (Joanna Bell, here credited as Joanna Fields), a spinster who lives alone in her very 70’s suburban home where she spends her time praying when she’s not inhabited by Mona, her wild and uninhibited personality who will fuck any man right in half, evidenced by her transformation and seduction of a door-to-door vacuum salesman (porn veteran Marc Stevens, aka “Mr. 10 1/2”). This strange behavior alarms Sylvia’s cousin, Toby (Pamala Serpe), who has always known Sylvia to be a religious and buttoned-up type. After giving Toby a roofie so she can sleep through Sylvia’s transformation into the denim-clad lesbian Tony and Tony’s subsequent seduction of Toby’s friend, Sheila (Helen Madigan), Toby begins to go on a quest to find out just what in the heck is going on with Sylvia and tries to reverse her destructive behavior before it is too late!

While it’s far from the best hardcore film ever made, A Saint…A Woman…A Devil does a nifty job in using the Sybil/Three Faces of Eve formula to explore sexual identity and gets points for arguing for a blend all the layers of Sylvia’s sexual being into becoming a more whole person. And to his credit, Savage pushes back on extremes on both side of the sexual spectrum while never being condescending to Sylvia in her natural, dowdy state or to her much more libidinous alter egos. Less successful are Savage’s attempts to hide his intentions of making a throwaway sex picture by short changing the narrative at a few junctures, most especially the handling of Sylvia’s Mary personality and then again with the introduction of a couple of junkies who are picked up at an orgy and utilized for Mona’s devious ultimate plan (one of whom is played by Sonny Landham who can’t help but look directly into the camera during one of the film’s many rimming scenes).

Additionally, Savage isn’t all that concerned with crew shadows during some of the hardcore moments but they’re otherwise well done and all of the performers pass the test in appearing to be having a grand time, most especially the wildly enthusiastic Joanna Fields who has to perform with almost every cast member both male and female while donning different personalities while doing it. From the completely closed off and uptight to the absolutely predatory, Fields runs the gamut and then some. Additionally, the violence in the film is captured in an interesting way as Savage utilizes a reverse shot/backward printed effect that lands without ever being too convincingly brutal and, thankfully, the one scene featuring a terrifying sexual assault is executed over the clothes which, not surprisingly, was NOT the norm for hardcore features of the day. And at 108 minutes, it’s one of the longer adult films I’ve seen and it’s hard not feel that, in the film’s closing moments, a couple of minutes featuring the stabilization of Sylvia could have been lost.

Porn acting is a skill. It’s like elaborate dinner theater level performing. It needs to be just good enough to sell a slight illusion and, on that note, the performances in A Saint…A Woman…A Devil work just fine to help move the story along to its conclusion. What makes the film tick is the hard patina of the era such as the ridiculous wigs, the fashions, the interiors, and the film’s high soap opera feel courtesy of Savage and a gaggle of NYU film school undergrads led by production manager, assistant director, and future cult filmmaker, Bill Lustig. Kids, it doesn’t get much more 42nd Street than that.

It should also be mentioned that Vinegar Syndrome’s presentation of A Saint…A Woman…A Devil is quite nice. Though it doesn’t port the Lustig commentary from its previous release on the After Hours label, Vinegar Syndrome’s release includes both the hardcore cut and the much shorter, Sylvia cut. As they are wont to do, they give the film the velvet glove treatment, turning out a picture and sound that is worthy of a Criterion title and giving folks little reason to pass this title up.

Oh, by the way and FYI: Almost three weeks after viewing A Saint… A Woman… A Devil, we’d go against my friend’s advice with the most reckless abandon and dare Shaun Costello’s Afternoon Delights while stuffed to the gills with the remainder of the stash. When the Vanessa Del Rio story began to unspool, the mushrooms took hold and I realized that the advice my friend had given me was, indeed, sound and should have been taken more seriously.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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