Play Motel concerns a blackmail ring which is run out of the titular establishment, involving a two way mirror and prostitution ring which has links to a porn publication. A young couple, Roberto and Patrizia, come forward with evidence which suggests that the strangled wife of a prominent businessman, who was apparently killed during a botched robbery in the countryside, was actually murdered at the Play Motel. The local Inspector, who has recently left the Vice Squad, gives a clue as to why his career is floundering by pressing the couple, who are aspiring actors, into service as undercover cops, rather than using actual undercover cops for the job. Predictably enough, Roberto soon finds himself in a race against time to save Patrizia as they try to blow the case wide open.
It's not just the blackmail ring which is blown in this film, particularly if you watch the porn version. Right from the first moments, we're thrust (oh!) into a world of flesh, desires and exploitation. Exploitation in the sense that we're very much watching an exploitation pic, but also one which deals in blackmail-a form of exploitation-and touches on the conditions which the prostitutes at the centre of the plot must endure. It doesn't exactly delve deep into the latter theme, but at least acknowledges that the women who work as photographic models and general bodies-for-hire mightn't necessarily enjoy the transactional nature of their work. Of course, being directed by an Italian, the film has its cake and eats it, with every single female character selling their own body to and performing nude scenes. (If you want a giallo which delves a bit deeper into the lot of a prostitute, check out Death Occurred Last Night.)
'Sexuality' is often cited as one of the main giallo tropes, alongside black-gloved killers, outré scores and murder scenes, whodunnit plots, etc. I'd question this-there's a difference between showing sex and exploring sexuality. Most gialli, if they dip their toe in the sex waters at all, are happy to remain paddling in the former pool; the deeper, more interesting waters of the latter remain unbreached (Deep Red, which contains no nudity, is one of the most prominent execptions). Sex is primarily an excuse to show female nudity, which is typically depicted in a manner which both reveres and condemns the woman whose putting her wares on show.
Willy, the aptly-named photographer in Play Motel (both the film itself and the motel within it) succinctly embodies this approach, when Patrizia comes to him under the guise of an aspiring actress. After convincing her to drop her drawers (the producers won't be interested in her unless they see everything she has to offer, he tells her) he reassures her by saying that he sees countless naked women as part of his work. After a lengthy shoot, however, which fetishises and worships her body, he can't resist literally throwing himself at her. After she pushes him off, they both shrug off this attempted rape and agree to continue the shoot with some nice close-up shots. Willy's apologetic nature as he convinces Patrizia not to leave is the only deviation from standard procedure here; if he was truly the embodiment of the archetypal Italian film he'd instead condemn her for daring to bare and not be prepared to see things through to their 'natural' conclusion.
The ambivalent attitude of Italian films towards women can probably be linked to the prevalence of religion in their society, with the uncertain attitude towards bare flesh being one step removed from a madonna/whore complex. Religion is a topic which is addressed (again, fleetingly) by Play Motel, with the characters in its Red Room engaging in role-playing and fancy dress, with religious garb apparently de rigueur. Another consequence of the dress-up action is that the film depicts sexuality as much as sex, with old-fashioned missionary action superseded by the exploratory and boundary-pushing Red Room action. Notably, the nominal heroes of the film, Patrizia and Roberto, enjoy a sex session which is as experimental and, frankly, odd as almost anything enjoyed by the other characters.
I say 'almost anything', because one sexcapade does stick out from the rest-a hypocritical banker who, when he's not preaching the virtues of piety to his assistants and hosting cardinals for parties in his house, reads porn mags. Through the pages of the blackmail ring's mag (he's not aware of the blackmail bit) he arranges a Red Room meet-up with a hooker. This sex session, which begins just like all the rest, takes a bit of a turn towards the end with the introduction of a champagne bottle (to the lady's ass). This character would appear to function as a quasi-mouthpiece for the filmmakers, embodying a form of societal hypocrisy towards sex. The fact that Patrizia and Roberto are open about their own sexuality, making no attempt to hide their motive for visiting the Motel from the police, suggests that they represent the filmmakers' ideal-a healthy, open appreciation of sex.
The film does fall in line with established representations of sex and human bodies-full frontal nudity galore from the females, none from the males (apart from those who participate in the hardcore inserts*)-which means that it's not exactly trail-blazing. At least it does have the balls to position itself squarely in a world of sex and nudity from the very beginning, which means it doesn't need to make flimsy excuses and pretences for its carnal indulgences; the plot revolves around sex, so the film can too. It's also worth noting that Ray Lovelock's Roberto contributes almost nothing to the investigative process, with Patrizia leading the way (a woman having such agency is extremely rare in gialli). The fact that she uses her body to get ahead does makes sense given the themes and subject matter of the film (that her sense of excitement at being part of the investigative process is undiminished by the rape attempt is a bit odd though). Making less sense, however, is the Police Inspector who's guiding her through the investigative process.
As stated, the use in the first place of Patrizia and Roberto as investigators is highly questionable. It does pay off, however, with the couple having the case 90% cracked after some Motel sleuthing, thanks in part to a nifty fake moustache which in no way disguises Ray Lovelock's face, yet which somehow fools the Motel's receptionist. The problem is that there's about half of the film remaining at this point, which gives the filmmakers two options. The first is to add another dimension to the plot, and incorporate further twists and turns. The other is to have the police put off taking those final few steps necessary to crack the ring, and just show some tits instead. No prizes for guessing which road was taken.
It's a shame that the film takes this route (not that seeing loads of tits is necessarily a bad thing, up to a point), because for the first half it's actually a near-excellent giallo. The T&A-fest does drag it down, though, in a manner redolent of The Cold-Blooded Beast (albeit this film scales far higher heights before the sex takes hold). The sex is far less gratuitous here, and the addition of a bit more plot could have put this film towards the top of the late-70s giallo tree. One consequence of the lazy attitude towards plot is that you may feel that the film's adopting a similarly-lazy attitude towards the solution to the mystery. Don't fall into this trap-the solution is actually quite clever, and does stand up to scrutiny.
I've been writing about Play Motel, as I do every film, as if the filmmakers are responsible for, and have consciously chosen, everything that ends up on screen. It would be remiss not to return to something mentioned in the opening paragraph: namely that producers wielded most of the power in Italian genre cinema, unless an Argento, Bava or Fulci was at the helm, and as such Mario Gariazzo's hands were likely tied by the salacious demands of his producer. (One wonders if Armando Novelli, the producer in question, had a taste for champagne.) Even operating within whatever strictures were imposed upon him, Gariazzo has crafted a flawed but very interesting film, which is well worth checking out. If you like warbly disco songs, so much the better.
*The film's actors and director have claimed that they had no idea that there would be a hardcore version of the film. A couple of the hardcore scenes are quite obviously inserts which used body doubles, but at least a couple used the original actors. If Gariazzo really had no idea about the hardcore content being shot, surely his suspicions must have been raised by the fact that everyone hung around waiting for him to leave at the end of the day. Plus, when you're working with Marina Hedman, who had already participated in hardcore scenes for Joe d'Amato, you must have an idea of what's on the cards.