The Works of Radley Metzger: Part I

It's about subtleties, really.

The question I feel resides in the minds of friends and colleagues isn’t ‘Who is Radley Metzger?’ but ‘Why Radley Metzger?!?!?

Perhaps the first clarification is ‘Because his work isn’t porn,’ even though he did ultimately transgress into the adult world when it became clear his brand of erotica with light or medium moments weren’t going to compete in the erotic market when Deep Throat made porn mainstream in 1974.


That also requires some clarification, because porn being mainstream is in the eye of its connoisseur, too. Pornographic elements weren’t adopted by Hollywood nor spawned the kind of upscale blue movie with major stars; bits and pieces just dribbled into commercial advertising and popular entertainment.

Without getting into a mess of tangents, the simplest way to validate Metzger’s work is that for a while he managed to walk a fine line between erotica and cinema artistry, and while critics can easily ridicule him for pretentious visuals, characters speaking hot & bothered dialogue that may be just a few inches above hokey, being critical of his work and his little fetishes shouldn’t indict him as a maker of worthless smut.

Alfred Hitchcock liked ice cool blondes and symbolically raped them through murder weapons like knives & scissors. He liked to see women’s feet twirl and writhe in close-ups, and when his favourite blonde, Grace Kelly, left the movies (and him) for Prince Ranier of Monaco, Hitch spent the rest of his career trying to find another perfect blonde to cinematically die for him.

Howard Hawks tended to prefer films with macho women – usually one woman among a cast of assorted masculine or slap-happy men who talked malespeake and could swing a punch if needed. Intimate dramas of crying couples weren’t Hawks’ forte.

Dario Argento has had his one or both of his daughters killed and / or raped onscreen, and his best murder sequences involve beautiful women being sliced, torn, or hacked up.

Each of the aforementioned ‘auteurs,’ however, applied their quirks and visual eccentricities in specific genres, and created popular / commercial art. Argento, less, so, but in terms of a pivotal figure who turned a montage of murder into a kinetic music video, the Italian deserves credit for inspiring further directors to test the limits of sound, picture, and style, and turning a banal if not convoluted mystery thriller plotting into a long-form, audio-visual assault.

Metzger’s career didn’t start with erotica. He co-directed with William Kyriakis the immigrant drama Dark Odyssey which didn’t do much for either director’s career in 1961, but he found the sexploitation genre was doing quite well for itself, and European art films with boobies were capable of getting legit screen time in U.S. art house theatres.

His company, Audubon Films, handled his imports and original works - the latter group initially consisting of hybrids featuring sleazy women touching themselves or each in other with the kind of candor found in his European pick-ups like I, A Woman (1965).

After The Dirty Girls (1965) and The Alley Cats (1966), Metzger’s growth as a filmmaker began to shift from sexploitation to erotica – and that distinction does exist.

Erotica is meant to tease and titillate, but you’re not supposed to chuckle at levels of behavioral ridiculousness.

Joe Dallesandro slurping the armpit of his costar in Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973) was meant to be absurd and sleazy (the director says so on the DVD’s commentary track), whereas a provocative, contemporary version of the Carmen story – Carmen, Baby (1967) – is Metzger’s clear attempt to be sincere with literary material, and dramatize encounters and longing in ways people contemporaneously think instead of the antiquated falsities perpetuated by Hollywood because of the evil Production Code.

Had the Code not existed or been expunged in the fifties, Metzger could’ve started early, and American cinemagoers would’ve shared more European sensibilities, such as couples sleeping together in one bed very naked, and using words like “love life,” “sex,” “virgin,” and “pregnant.”

Whether Metzger wanted to make art films from the start isn’t known, but it was a smart move for a director wanting to cinematically indulge in frank sexual behaviour without worrying too much from the Code. For one thing, the Code was dying, and secondly, his films could be lumped together with his imported Euro art flicks. If I, A Woman could screen in cinemas, so could Carmen, Baby.

After 1967, Metzger made a series of erotic classics which weren’t fully devoted to gorgeous European stars half or wholly naked in fantasy scenarios filmed in Renaissance or modernist architecture. There was lighting, cinematography, set design, costumes, music, editing and performances which suddenly coalesced into a creative apex for the erotic genre, and until 1975 when he chose to direct hardcore porn until the pseudonym of Henry Paris, the erotic genre was being refined beyond the sexploitation and sleazy archetypes Metzger himself played with in films like The Dirty Girls.

Part of the reason actors were willing to appear in provocative films, and skilled technicians had no problem working on them went beyond being on set with live boobies. Unlike Americans (and English Canadians), the Italians and Germans were okay with nudity, and could have fun with it (and sure, make weird little hybrids).

These films – erotic dramas, erotic horror, erotic comedies, erotic bullshit documentaries – were in vogue, so the climate was right to see what worked, and how else to be creative after an original had been copied several times by lesser filmmakers – a pattern that ensured, for better or worse, the plethora of spaghetti westerns, cannibal films, giallo thrillers, and sex comedies in Italy.

Metzger’s move into the hardcore adult world also marked an end to that little period where soft elements could be combined with erotic dramas, which in the director’s canon often concerned a handful of characters in just a few sets.

Metzger was at heart a playwright, and that’s perhaps why his films have survived so well, whereas the wave of erotic dramas and thrillers from eighties auteurs such as Zalman King haven’t; Metzger didn’t have time to repeat himself, and the commercial market was still wary of frank erotica, so he didn’t have the danger of becoming derivative in the way King quickly became, merchandising and selling his brand of erotica after a handful of genuine genre classics (which I’ll analyze at a later time).

Unfortunately, by having little time and making the decision to enter porn, Metzger lost the chance to reassert himself in other genres, if not make personal films the way John Cassavetes took crap work to make personal projects. Worse, Metzger lost the production values he enjoyed making legit erotica: real actors, editors, cinematographers, fabulous locations, and composers.

Prior to settling for stock music, Metzger’s films were scored by the likes of Georges Auric (Therese and Isabelle), Piero Piccioni (Camille 2000), and Stelvio Cipriani (The Lickerish Quartet), and each respective score is among the composer’s best.

Metzger’s final films under his own name - The Cat and the Canary (1978) and The Princess and the Call Girl (1984) - are disappointing and ponderous, and lack the edge and inventiveness of his early work.

So in the first of an ongoing series, we’ll examine Metzger’s works starting with titles newly released in super-happy-magic-deluxe versions on Blu-ray and DVD.

First Run Features had the lion’s share of the Audubon catalogue, but their DVDs were sourced from old video transfers and most are out of print, including a handful of the pick-ups he distributed.

Unlike the major studios who’ve somewhat wasted the potential of Blu-ray by reissuing previously issued special editions yet again (Ahem: Fox. Ahem: Paramount) and nothing new, indie labels have realized the format finally allows collectors to own rare works in their best form in media that offers the best picture and the most storage capacity.

With regards to Metzger’s canon, Synapse is releasing The Image (1975), the director’s last ‘straight’ film June 14. The new HD transfer taken from the original 35mm camera negative is available on DVD and BR, and looks great. I’ve an early review up on the main site and the mobile [M] site.

Cult Epics has two Metzger classics on BR and DVD. I previously reviewed Score [M] (1974) last fall. Like that disc, the label’s newest title, The Lickerish Quartet [M] (1970), is also sourced from a sharp print, and comes with numerous archival extras, and the best Metzger commentary track so far. The private filmmaker, now in his eighties, is clearly warming up to discussing his work, and the BR review digs into the making of the film, its themes, marvelous editing, and the extras.

Coming soon from Cult Epics is Camille 2000 (1969), which hopefully signals an ongoing wave of both Metzger’s original work, and the pick-ups he distributed via Audubon Films, such as Nerosuboanco / aka Attraction / Artful Penetration of Barbara (1969), Tinto Brass’ hippy-trippy, bum-swinging exercise in montage and music.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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