For years the easiest Radley Metzger film to see in the UK was also his least representative. In 1978 he’d decamped to Surrey for an all-star remake of The Cat and the Canary that featured such instantly recognisable names as Honor Blackman and Edward Fox. Given the strong British connection it’s never struggled for distribution over here – a cinema release in 1980, various VHS and DVD incarnations, even the occasional mid-week daytime television showing. And yet, if you really want to sample what make Metzger tick as a filmmaker, then The Cat and the Canary is surely the last port of call. For starters it’s awful, but more pointedly it’s about as far away from his usual approach as it’s possible to get.
Metzger’s forte wasn’t in creaky adaptations of old stage plays, but rather in erotica. He’d started out with intentions as a ‘serious’ filmmaker, working as an editor for Janus Films and then putting together a low-budget crime drama by the name of Dark Odyssey in the late fifties. However, the realisation that films about Greek immigrants living in New York City had little commercial potential came soon enough and with it a change in tact. Post-Dark Odyssey Metzger was the maker of erotic movies, initially with titles like The Dirty Girls and The Alley Cats, and gradually with some ambition. Carmen, Baby was taken from Prosper Mérimée and filmed in Bavaria. Therese and Isabelle took in Paris, France whilst Camille 2000 relocated Alexandre Dumas fils to Rome. All the while, Metzger and his production company remained based in New York, yet it was easier to film (and co-fund) abroad. Such a set-up also allowed for a more permissive approach, not to mention certain arthouse tendencies. The Lickerish Quartet, for example, essentially repackaged Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem with a healthy dose of Alain Resnais and an opening quote from Luigi Pirandello.
As the sixties gave way to the seventies, so too that permissiveness began to shift. Metzger was able to introduce increasingly more adult material in his movies, plus he made the move into straightforward pornographic ventures. This was the era of Deep Throat and ‘porno chic’ and Metzger, under the alias of Henry Paris, contributed one of the undoubted classics in the form of The Opening of Misty Beethoven. There were five Paris films in all (plus a compilation picture entitled World of Henry Paris) which tended to be less extravagant than the earlier softcore efforts – shot mostly in New York and on Super 16 with much lower budgets – but were nevertheless clearly made by a filmmaker and not some chancer. They had proper screenplays, talented performers, wit and energy, and satisfied as much as narrative ventures as they did adult movies. And they were certainly better than The Cat and the Canary.
Over the in the States, Metzger has slowly been picking up DVDs and Blu-rays over the past decade or so. Even Dark Odyssey has earned itself a disc, as have the various Henry Paris works. In 2011 the Cult Epics label issued the trio of Camille 2000, The Lickerish Quartet and Score onto Blu-ray, all of which now have UK equivalents (with their special features intact) thanks to Arrow Video. And whilst we’re talking of Blu-rays, mention has to be made of Distribpix’s HD rendering of The Opening of Misty Beethoven from last year which is still available in limited numbers and international-friendly thanks to a wealth of subtitle option and that all-important region-free coding. It also has one of the most exhaustive collections of extras you’re ever likely to find on a disc of any description.
Of these new Blus, the earliest film dates back to 1969, by which point Metzger had been in the erotica market for five years. As the title suggests, Camille 2000 had modish aspirations and they’re writ large all over the screen. Its modern day update of The Lady of the Camellias is set among canary yellow jeeps, sequinned jackets, plastic furniture and a general set design that recalls Mario Garbuglia’s work on Barbarella. As Metzger explains during his commentary, the synthetic nature of it all was intended to mirror the empty boredom of his characters’ lives: the film focuses its attentions on the larks and parties of a twenty-something jet-set crowd. Amid the drugs and booze, the ‘nymphs’ and the lesbians, there is also a love story, though it often feels as though the entire picture is merely leading up to its sardonic final shot – the hollow laughter of its leading man. Metzger denies that there’s any political subtext in his focus on the well-heeled and the well-off (characters having money merely means avoiding questions of how they are able to afford the things they do, he points out), though I’m not entirely convinced. For all the beauty of its cinematography and the Rome locations, Camille 2000 is an undoubtedly sour portrait.
A similar bitterness pervades The Lickerish Quartet, though it’s ultimately a much more interesting picture. A family unit of mother, father and teenaged son (her child, but not his) settle down to watch a black and white stag film as part of a decadent evening’s entertainment. They live (or at least holiday) in a ridiculously opulent 15th century castle and so, presumably, with such things so readily at their disposal they need to get their kicks elsewhere. Post-screening they head to the local carnival where, much to their surprise, they discover that a female motorcyclist performing the ‘wall of death’ shares a remarkable resemblance to one of the participants in the picture they’ve just watched. Seeking further kicks, they invite her back to the castle for another screening except this time the film never once shows her face. Further showings reveal further changes and so The Lickerish Quartet becomes something of a slippery movie. Add to this concoction some Resnais-inspired editing patterns, switches from black and white to colour and some heavy symbolism, and you realise that Metzger has intentions above the usual erotic content.
Needless to say the erotica quotient is satisfied too, thanks in this case to a Theorem-alike structure in which the young woman (still donning her white biker leathers) proceeds to seduce each of the family members in turn thus upending their, admittedly none-too-happy, upper-middle-class existence. Some of the poppier tendencies of Camille 2000 still come through, most notably in the funky library complete with words such as ‘prick’ and ‘phallus’ and their definitions adorning the floor, but The Lickerish Quartet generally blends its seriousness with its sexual content to a far greater success than its predecessor. Pleasingly, Metzger maintains the playfulness and the ambiguities throughout, refusing to draw easy conclusions. He may not quite achieve the heights of Resnais or Pasolini, but at least he provides a great deal of fun in giving it a go.
With that said, the evidence of Score and The Opening of Misty Beethoven suggests that Metzger was most at home with more comic properties. The former was based on an off-Broadway play by Jerry Douglas about a married couple “bored with middle-class morality” who have an open attitude to their sex lives which they further enhance with a series of bets. The latest involves another couple, a little younger, and whether they can successfully seduce within a given time frame. Essentially, it’s a set-up that would lend itself to a pornographic feature quite well: the plot is little more than a succession of couplings (at one point even the telephone repairman gets more than he bargained for), but then the film is also fully aware of this. Impressively, Metzger is able to have it both ways. On the one hand Score is very funny and highly knowing (the tongue-in-cheek voice-over recalls those of Russ Meyer), on the other it’s well enough performed and scripted that it can occasionally delve into more serious areas. To describe it as a psychodrama would be going way too far, but in the grand scheme of sex comedies it’s certainly more intelligent and invested in its characters than this particular sub-genre would lead you to expect.
Score was the last of Metzger’s pictures to be made prior to the Henry Paris alias. (The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, our introduction to Paris, would also premiere in 1974 albeit right at the end of the year, on Boxing Day in fact.) In retrospect there’s a definite sense of waters being tested with the film being far more explicit that its predecessors. Although it’s been refused classification by the BBFC – meaning that the Arrow disc comes with the so-called ‘cool’ (i.e. softcore) version – Score originally ran with a hardcore sequence involving its two male leads. Whilst most would expect such a scene to be an ‘insert’ designed purely for titillation and with barely an impact on the narrative, in Metzger’s hands this simply isn’t the case. Indeed, such moments are given as much care and attention as the wonderfully picturesque Zagreb locations.
It’s this distinction which separates Metzger from his contemporaries, especially when you consider his adult films. Though The Opening of Misty Beethoven was made on a smaller budget than his earlier ventures and made use of cheaper 16mm and Super 16 film stocks alongside his usual 35mm, it nevertheless received the same treatment and respect. As with Camille 2000 or Carmen, Baby the narrative source was literary, in this case updating George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion into a globetrotting tale of a young prostitute who is taught to become the ‘world’s greatest lover’ and earn the crown of ‘Goldenrod Girl’. Of course, there’s something slightly ridiculous about the set-up, yet Metzger gives it that same tongue-in-cheek and incredibly light touch that works so well for Score. It’s all part of the charm.
Importantly, The Opening of Misty Beethoven makes sure to satisfy as both a pornographic venture and as a comedic tale. Furthermore, Metzger (who also wrote the screenplay) intertwines the two so that each becomes as vital as the other. There is little sense, for example, that the film is constantly switching from one audience to the other; few are likely to complain that the couplings are interrupting the storyline or vice versa. In part, this is down the casting of performers who could also act and bring a touch of charisma to the screen. Lead Constance Money even had intentions to crossover into the mainstream, earning a tiny role in Blake Edwards’ 10 but also scuppering such plans thanks to her background. (She auditioned for the part of Frances Farmer in 1982’s Frances – eventually played to Oscar-nominated acclaim by Jessica Lange – but was instantly turned down when her past became apparent.) Metzger, in a move practically unheard of in pornographic cinema, would do multiple takes so as to get exactly what he wanted and that shows in the end results. Money makes for an engaging presence and so too does male lead Jamie Gillis (in the Henry Higgins role, here renamed Dr. Seymour Love). The pair were involved off-screen during filming and that too comes through in the final picture – another rarity.
Despite the budgetary restrictions The Opening of Misty Beethoven is arguably the most successful of the quartet under consideration here. At times it looks wonderful – the exterior shots filmed on 35mm around Paris and Rome, in particular, are stunning – though at others the graininess of the 16mm and Super 16 shows through and, in comparison to the likes of Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet, cannot help but look a tad cheap despite Metzger’s invention. (The cinematographer, incidentally, was Paul Glickman operating under an alias; he would later shoot Henry Jaglom’s Tracks and work regularly for Larry Cohen.) The soundtrack, meanwhile, easily transcends its origins as library music to work as fully cohesive score. Such aspects demonstrate the care and attention put into the film and, certainly, it deserves its status as one of the stand-out works of the ‘porno chic’ era. Hopefully the treatment it has received at the hands of Distribpix should go some way to raising its profile above that of the period’s usual go-to title, Deep Throat (which, to be honest, has little going for it beyond its central high-concept idea).
Put simply, The Opening of Misty Beethoven’s Blu-ray rendering is near-perfect. Indeed, the very fact that Distribpix opted to go high definition for this release indicates just how far they have gone. They made use of the original camera negatives for the 35mm portions and a 35mm blow-up inter-negative for the standard and Super 16 segments which were subsequently cleaned-up frame-by-frame to remove dirt and fine scratches. Simply put, the film looks amazing – particularly, as said, the 35mm elements – with the whole restoration process detailed in an incredibly informative 26-minute featurette. Everything from the aspect ratio and the issues inherent in DNR are discussed to give a blow-by-blow account. (Speaking of DNR, it wasn’t used once during the process – though we do see a demonstration during the featurette of how bad things could have looked had it applied.) The soundtrack is also discussed, complete with before and after demonstrations.
The restoration featurette is just one of a multitude of extras. Alongside the full uncut presentation the disc also provides ‘cool’ (i.e. softcore) version and offers an optional audio commentary for both. Radley Metzger speaks over the uncut version whilst one of his performers, Gloria Leonard, does likewise on the other. The former (moderated by Distribpix’s Benson Hurst) is an informative affair, with the writer-director talking us through every aspect of his film’s production as well as discussing the general mood of the time and so forth. The disc also provides a subtitle track of trivia and it’s remarkable how much crosses over with Metzger’s commentary: that’s how informative he is. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Leonard who has seemingly misunderstood her remit and so, for the most part, simply describes to us what is occurring onscreen.
Elsewhere the disc also provides a 45-minute ‘making of’, a nine-minute tribute to Jamie Gillis, the actor’s final interview (a nicely wide-ranging affair totalling 19-minutes; his thoughts on Boogie Nights, in particular, are worth a listen), a candid interview with Constance Money (8 minutes), plus sundry radio spots, trailers, press clippings, production stills, outtakes and deleted scenes. There is also a 60-page booklet, though do be aware that it was produced at a time when The Opening of Misty Beethoven was going to be a DVD-only release and so doesn’t fit the packaging. A minor niggle and an easily forgivable one given the sheer wealth of material contained within and elsewhere. As I said at the start of this review, you’d be hard-pressed to find such an exhaustive release within any genre or form of filmmaking.
Under such circumstances, the three Arrow discs perhaps pale a little, but then so would most Blu-rays. (Each has been released as a dual-format edition containing both Blu and DVD editions.) Importantly their presentations are all excellent and show off their respective photography to superb effect. Original aspect ratios are adhered to, images are generally clean (Score has the occasional rough patch) and manipulation has been kept to a minimum. Soundtracks, all in English, are similarly crisp and clean and offer up no problems or ill-effects. Optional English subtitles are also available. (The Opening of Misty Beethoven comes with optional English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese subs.)
Metzger also commentates on each of the films, this time with Michael Bowen as moderator, once again to wonderfully informative effect. They’re full of titbits of information, whether it’s on the nature of filming in the former Yugoslavia or informing us that Score’s leading lady went on to become the Oscar-winning producer of the 1975 documentary short The End of the Game. He’s also gone through the archives to provide on-set footage, outtakes, deleted scenes and alternative takes for each of the pictures wherever possible. Score also comes with a nicely in-depth interview with one of its leads, Lynn Lowry, who had also appeared in George A. Romero’s The Crazies. All of these additions – not to mention the various trailers, booklets and restoration features – make for interesting viewing though perhaps not quite so exhaustive as those on The Opening of Misty Beethoven. With that, when viewed as a group, this quartet of Blus must surely make for a definitive introduction to their director’s forays in erotica and pornography (The Image from 1975 has also been released on region-free Blu by Synapse in the States, though I’m yet to sample that disc) especially for those who know the man primarily for The Cat and the Canary.
NOTE: The ratings box below offers up an overall score for the four discs as a group. Individual ratings are as follows…
The Lickerish Quartet
The Opening of Misty Beethoven