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The Greatest Adult Film Is This Unlikely ‘70s Classic

Collider 3/24/2023 Luna Guthrie
© Provided by Collider

Trigger Warning: The following references self harm and sexually explicit content.

In the early ‘70s, the world of adult film was booming in unexpected ways. The industry’s offerings went from underground loops to full-fledged movie productions in a few short years, and thanks to the inescapable impact of Deep Throat in 1972, adult film was not only accessible, but being recognized in mainstream media and culture. This era was defined by three very different movies, started off by the goofy comedy Deep Throat, followed up by the minimalistic Behind the Green Door, and rounded off by The Devil in Miss Jones. Although director Gerard Damiano was behind two of these three classics, they couldn’t be more different, and while each of these titles made their own massive impacts, The Devil in Miss Jones was an unprecedented hit that dared to be bigger and better than anything that came before it.

What Is 'The Devil in Miss Jones' About?

Justine Jones (Georgina Spelvin) is a depressed spinster who slits her wrists and wakes up to find herself in the office of a Mr. Abaca, a secretary of sorts to the afterlife. He informs her that despite living a good honest life, her means of death are unforgivable, and therefore she will spend eternity in Hell. Shaken by the injustice of it all, she declares that were she to have her time again, she would live a life “filled, engulfed, consumed with lust”. Apparently boredom is not limited to mortal life, and Abaca decides that allowing Justine her wish will give him something to do in an otherwise dull job, and so sends her on a journey overseen by The Teacher, played by industry legend Harry Reems. But over the course of Miss Jones’ many sexual entanglements, she becomes increasingly ravenous and debauched, to the point that she can never achieve the high that she so desperately chases, and when she is finally recalled back to Hell, she is destined to exist forever with her newly-acquired addiction and no means of satisfying it.

Georgina Spelvin is a fascinating figure in the adult entertainment world. A classically-trained ballerina and Broadway player from Texas, she was well versed in the world of ‘real’ showbiz, but considered over the hill by the time she started in adult film. As a 36-year-old with a willowy ballerina’s body, she was far from the standard of leading ladies in the industry, and she was only on-board to provide craft services originally. However, when she was asked to read opposite another actor during auditions, her considerable acting skills were impossible to overlook, and Damiano offered this unconventional figure the lead role on the spot. Little did Spelvin realize that not only would the movie go on to be seen by people who knew her, but it would catapult her to stardom, and garner her the sort of praise usually reserved for… well, ‘real’ actors.

Gerard Damiano was as unconventional a figure in the adult film world himself. A married father and beauty parlor owner, his conversations with clients revealed to him a buried undercurrent of sex, which prompted him to explore the adult movie world. Damiano maintained a fairly level-headed, some might say cynical, perspective on adult film. He told Roger Ebert in 1974, “the only thing that perpetuates [adult film] is censorship…sexual intercourse does not lend itself to cinematography.” What he wanted to do was make adult film accessible and enjoyable to viewers, and to explore the many facets of sexuality through the medium of film. With Deep Throat, he eased audiences in with his tongue-in-cheek style; by the time he came round to The Devil in Miss Jones, he had honed his craft, developed a sturdy crew of regulars, and wished to take adult entertainment to a new level.

What Is the Meaning Behind 'The Devil and Miss Jones?

The movie can be read in a number of ways, the most striking being allegories of Catholic guilt or drug addiction. Justine’s first high is her greatest, after which she slowly becomes more desperate for the rush, disregarding everything else in pursuit of it. She spirals as her addiction to lust grows, and ends up hitting her rock bottom in purgatory, doomed to chase the high she can never achieve. Justine falls prey to her desires, and in the earnestness of Spelvin, who herself was no stranger to chemical dependency.

On the other hand, Damiano’s own Italian Catholic upbringing may have inspired his writing. There is an undeniable emphasis on guilt, suffering and the hypocrisy of the afterlife, and her approach to sex seems to be one tainted with inherent pain, and she consumes the lust as pain and pleasure in equal parts. Often, the sex seems to be her means of self-flagellation, knowing that it is her downfall, but being increasingly powerless to resist it. According to medieval Christian tradition, those who commit the sin of lust will be “covered in fire and brimstone”; in Dante’s Inferno, they are beaten down upon by wind and rain, with an “infernal hurricane that never rests”, and lust is characterized as an “incontinent sin”, which is apt considering Justine’s punishment seems to be an eternity without control, at the hands of a powerful natural force.

So is it sexy? Well, the film certainly doesn’t hold back - it’s not what people would call tame even by modern standards, but it is arguable that the sex is the vehicle of the story and not the whole point of the movie. It reflects Justine’s fluctuating position in the endless void, and in this sense, does not necessarily play for titillation, but to demonstrate where the character is at in her journey of damnation. The sex is more of a storytelling device than a masturbatory device. The fact that at times Miss Jones is in pain, or frightened, or just slobbering like a hungry dog, does not really lend itself to eroticism. The one scene that could really be viewed as sexy is that between Justine and a nameless woman, in which the leading lady relaxes in a sexual encounter after her first harsh introduction to lust. Alden Shuman’s score is at its best and most serene here, with a gorgeous swelling string symphony bringing a sense of classical eroticism to the scene. Soft, pale lighting and dreamy lingering cinematography by João Fernandes bring it to an ethereal realm in which time stands still, and true contentment is achieved. It is the closest that this damned soul ever gets to Heaven, and in its tranquility and total focus on pleasure, the scene is easily the most enjoyable.

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What Makes 'The Devil in Miss Jones' So Special

The remarkable thing about The Devil in Miss Jones is that it does what many people hoped could be achieved in film: a real, honest to goodness collision between adult film and cinema. The big deal is that the sex is an integral part of the story, as Justine’s means of both exploration and damnation, and the ways in which Damiano and Fernandes choose to frame the sex scenes clearly reflect this. Each scene conjures a very particular mood and emotion in order to illustrate the heroine’s downfall, beginning with slow careful movements and gradually becoming more erratic with frantic camera motions, harsher lighting and choppier editing. In fact, every aspect of mise-en-scène, from the score and lighting to Spelvin’s self-designed makeup and nails, are carefully crafted to demonstrate Justine’s decline. By the time the cavernously desperate finale rolls around, a very clear picture has been painted of a woman decayed by unbridled lust.

There has been some speculation over the years, from critics and even Spelvin herself, that the movie took inspiration from Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play No Exit, in which three people are trapped in a room together in the afterlife, forced to come to terms with the sins that landed them there, and reaching the conclusion that rather than fire and brimstone, “Hell is other people”, and they will be each other’s eternal punishment. The finale of The Devil in Miss Jones sees Justine wander into a barren white room, where a shifty looking man is sat on the floor, rambling about things no one else can see or hear. As manically as Justine tries to seduce him for her own gain, he shushes her, and insists that eventually she will see that he is not crazy. The camera pulls back to a wide shot as Justine wails in raging impotence, realizing that her damnation will be a complete lack of sexual fulfillment. For her, hell is other people’s unwillingness to get her off.

'The Devil in Miss Jones' Kicks Back Against Stereotypes

It is not just the strength of the narrative that elevates the movie, but the thoughtfulness of the dialog itself. The concept of dialog in an adult film is the stuff of widespread stereotype that often involves pizza boys and plumbers spewing corny double entendre and thinly veiled come-ons. Miss Jones manages actual sex talk that avoids cheese, and truly communicates to the audience the overwhelming joy that Justine’s newly afforded sexuality brings her, and later how it eats away at her soul. And when it chooses to, the movie explores the complexities of life, death and existence very well. Justine finds a mentor and confidante in Abaca, and together they mull over the meaning of it all, why certain rules and standards are in place, and who makes them in the first place. When she is called back to face eternity, it plays almost like an intervention, as someone being saved from themselves.

Alden Shuman’s score is one of the film’s many unexpected delights. Another reigning stereotype of adult cinema is its music, commonly consisting of funky wah-wah pedal riffs à la Shaft, and later, generic elevator music that would be equally well suited to a workout tape. So Shuman’s blissfully evocative score is refreshing, with its classical tones and carefully crafted cues. Each individual scene has a very distinct tone, which is understood and emphasized by the score. The famed scene in which Justine plays with a snake, for example, takes inspiration from the Orient, with a taut mystical sound that conjures images of sand, silk and incense. A solo scene of Justine alone in a bathtub is strikingly similar to Ennio Morricone’s work on Once Upon a Time in the West, specifically the Final Duel, with tense twanging guitar sounds that suggest a battle about to erupt. Spelvin tells in her memoir of how Damiano spent almost as much on hiring Shuman as he did on the entire rest of the movie, and it was worth every damn penny.

The Devil in Miss Jones proves that sometimes the stars artistically align in adult films just like they do in regular movies. Between Spelvin’s captivating performance, Fernandes’ rich cinematography, Shuman’s unforgettable score and Damiano’s keen directorial eye, it manages to transcend the boundaries of the genre, crush every cliché and give the audience more to ponder than which actor they would do first. And in its day, some dared to dream that it signaled a turning point in film, and that from here on out, movies could incorporate sex in legitimate ways and play in legitimate theaters. That never turned out to be the case, and Damiano himself attributed the decline of big adult films to the rise in home media and accessibility of film production equipment. But The Devil in Miss Jones did so much for both sex and cinema: it continued the radical tradition of adult film existing above ground; it proved that sex could have artistic value; and it took public consciousness one step closer to acknowledging and enjoying sexuality, without the shackles of shame that have held it down for so many generations.

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