There was a stretch there in the 1970s when a fair number of people believed the lines separating mainstream and porn films would eventually disappear—that unsimulated, graphic sex would become as routine a part of the big-screen entertainment package as car chases and shootouts.
1972’s Deep Throat toppled censorship laws while introducing the notion of “porno chic,” briefly making it not only permissible but almost culturally mandatory that sufficiently hip men and women check out XXX cinema. The massive success of that and the following year’s The Devil in Miss Jones, both very low-budget enterprises that look pretty shoddy now, suggested adult movies might well profit by going upscale with better production values and actual plot lines. As a result, some seventies porn flicks (admittedly not many) are actually interesting in terms of style and ideas.
The advent of home video pretty much killed that trend (as well as adult movie houses), essentially returning porn to its 8 mm-loop roots—nobody cared about storytelling or nice sets when movies were used solely as a private aphrodisiac. Plus, the insatiable demand for new VHS product made spending more money on expendable product seem wholly counter-productive. Cheap and to the point—that’s been the essence of porn ever since.
But if things had gone according to what now seems a preposterously unlikely plan, with mainstream cinema and grindhouse “sinema” becoming inseparable, Radley Metzger might have become one of the most famous directors of the era. He was certainly among the classiest purveyors of “arty, European” softcore movies in the years before hardcore became a less-than-criminal form of entertainment; and he carried that artistically ambitious sensibility to the few eXXXplicit features he made when softcore was no longer commercially viable. But despite his obvious skill and imagination, he remained ghetto-ized in the sexploitation realm, leading to a premature career end. Today he’s the object of small but fervent cult adulation that may well get bigger thanks to recent home format re-releases of some vintage titles. (You can even buy sadomasochistic The Image a.k.a. The Punishment of Anne through Wal-Mart!)
Despite the largely Western European feel, settings and financing of his films, Metzger actually started a humble native New Yorker. Already a student of film in college, he served with a photography unit in the Air Force during the Korean War, then returned home to work as an editor for Janus Films, then the premiere U.S. distributor of foreign “art” films. The influence of Italian neorealists was certainly evident in his own directorial debut, 1961’s Dark Odyssey, a naturalistic drama about a Greek emigre in NYC. It won some critical acclaim, but there was virtually no market at the time for independently produced American features not specifically aimed at drive-in or grindhouse audiences.
Metzger licked his wounds, cut his losses and re-focused on importing racy new films from abroad. With their profits, he began directing again, in a similar vein—sometimes even adopting foreign-sounding pseudonyms so audiences would think the movie was coming to them directly from gay Paree, or wherever. (In fact, he’d soon relocate his primary operations to Europe, which he found a more convivial environment to work and live in anyway.) In 1966 he stuck gold as a distributor with I, A Woman, one of several Scandinavian pictures during the decade that pushed the boundaries of sexual permissiveness onscreen around the world.
That allowed him to considerably up the stakes on his own next production. Carmen, Baby (1967) was a widescreen color update of the torrid romance most famous for inspiring Bizet’s opera. It was overshadowed, however, by the great success of the following year’s Therese and Isabelle, a sensitive black-and-white love story between boarding-schoolgirls that broke from the lurid, moralizing tenor that had dominated cinema’s prior few lesbian depictions. It was so popular, in fact, that it was given an in-joke reference in Metzger’s next film: Camille 2000, a splashier variation on the Carmen formula of updating a literary classic, this time turning Alexandre Dumas’ tragic tale into a portrait of swinging European decadence. With its eye-popping pop art interiors, mod costumes and psychedelic music, it was another triumph that even mainstream critics grudgingly acknowledged had some real panache.
They were even more complimentary towards 1970’s The Lickerish Quartet, which opens with a quote from Pirandello that duly prepares the viewer for the teasing reality/illusion games that follow. An elegant wife, her grown son and his stepfather watch a black-and-white porno loop—clearly they’re not your average family—with jaded disdain, then toddle off to the carnival for more thrills. Watching a stunt motorcycle act, they’re startled to discover one of the daredevils looks exactly like a woman in the “dirty movie” they’ve just seen.
They invite the young woman back to the literal castle they call home, intending to have some fun exposing her hidden identity. But instead the visitor turns the tables, coolly seducing each of her three hosts—in sequences sharply differentiated by mood and cinematic style—before the whole business “loops” back onto itself like a self-rewinding, never-ending film spool. The mix of titillation, narrative ambiguity, aesthetic beauty and a gloss of intellectual brinksmanship made The Lickerish Quartet an unusually erudite exercise in screen erotica.
For whatever reason—probably in part the interim rise of hardcore cinema—Metzger didn’t release another feature for three years. Little Mother (also known as Mother, Blood Queen, Immoral Mistress, and other titles, suggesting its repeated attempts to find an audience) was, of all things, a fictionalized version of Argentinian actress-turned-presidential wife Eva Peron’s climb to the top. (This was several years before Andrew Lloyd Webber weighed in with the stage musical Evita.) Despite its daring choice of subject matter, the Yugoslavia-shot softcore epic was not a success.
Next Metzger tried his luck with a straight-up sex comedy: The same year’s Score, based on an off-Broadway play that had featured a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. It centered on naive young honeymooners who meet an older, wised-up marital pair and are introduced to myriad hitherto unknown pleasures—including girl-girl and boy-boy sex. (Thus placing Score among the very few sexploitation movies, even in the “everything goes” seventies, to mix straight, lesbian and gay male action in one package.)
Though different versions offered variably mild-to-graphic sexual content Score was not a hit in any form, going barely seen until it was re-released as a retro Me Decade curiosity in the new millennium.
Metzger faced a tough choice. The kinds of elegant softcore films he’d specialized in were now well out of fashion. So he could either cave and go into hardcore, or retire like fellow cult favorite Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!). He chose the former path, no doubt hoping that he could maintain a high quality standard while transitioning to the XXX field.
In that aim, he was strikingly successful for a while: The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, Naked Came the Stranger, The Opening of Misty Beethoven (a particularly big hit) and Barbara Broadcast are as well crafted as average mainstream releases of the era, and notable for their relative wit in a genre where humor seldom rose above “dirty jokes.” Featuring many of the period’s biggest porn stars, they were far better produced and more story-driven than the adult industry generally allowed then (let alone now).
In their midst, Metzger made The Image (Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers!), which features no actual penetration but is otherwise waaaay beyond the timid erotic-content levels of his softcore features. Based on a novel by a Robbe-Grillet—Catherine, not husband Alain, but that’s still a lot of French intellectual value for your dollar—it depicts the escalating degradation of a beautiful young blonde under the control of a sophisticated older woman and a handsome playboy. No helpless victim, Anne is in fact a willing, submissive participant in all kinky goings-on designed to push her personal boundaries. While there’s plenty of nudity, The Image is a rare “porno” indeed in that its sexy and shocking elements are almost entirely psychological.
Despite these successes (directed by Metzger under the pseudonym “Henri Paris”), by the late 1970s the “porno chic” vogue was long over, and it was increasingly obvious that mainstream movies would never embrace actual sex acts. The Sexual Revolution had made its mark, but most Americans still drew a very sharp line between private and permissible public behavior (or entertainment). Why spend the extra time and money making “good” sex flicks like Metzger’s when the audience was just as satisfied with cheap, plotless efforts so long as they delivered the graphic goods?
Accordingly, Metzger tried an all-around career makeover. The Cat and the Canary, his first non-sexploitation feature since Dark Odyssey, was a mystery thriller based on a stage play that had already been filmed several times. Shooting in England, he had a respectable cast of actors young and old, Yank and Brit on tap including erstwhile “Pussy Galore” Bond girl Honor Blackman, The Poseidon Adventure‘s Carol Lynley, The Servant‘s Edward Fox, Wendy Hiller, Olivia Hussey and others. The hoary “Olde Dark House” story about a killer running loose amidst potential heirs at a will-reading weekend was handled tongue-in-cheek, with a slightly kinky undertow. But it was a complete flop, one rather cruelly disparaged by critics who made no secret of their disdain toward a “porn director” attempting go legit.
After that, Metzger seems to have lost interest. His last credit was 1984’s The Princess and the Call Girl. A return to softcore territory made for cable TV (the Playboy Channel in fact), it once again demonstrated his taste in literature as a sensuous spin on Mark Twain’s “Prince and the Pauper.” But his heart just didn’t seem in it.
Since then his known activities have been limited to involvement in the re-release and restoration of past works—something he still does, even as he nears his eighty-fifth birthday. While it’s a pity his cinematic output ended three decades ago, sheer stylishness assures that Radley Metzger’s prime 1960s and 70s features will retain their hold on cult cinema aficionados for years to come.