There is no niche in the marketplace today for the kind of movies Radley Metzger used to make: glossy softcore erotic films that built up a head of steam. “There was a view in the business,” says the director of Carmen, Baby and other light classics shot in the '60s and early '70s, “that in order to be sexy you had to convince people that it was dirty and bad. We tried to take guilt away from the experience, rather than give them more.” Metzger served a tour of duty in hardcore in the late '70s, making films such as The Opening of Misty Beethoven under the nom du porn Henry Paris, but his best films – Camille 2000, Therese and Isabelle, The Lickerish Quartet – were made years earlier, and are masterpieces of suggestiveness.
Now a tall, handsome, white-haired gentleman in his 60s, Metzger was in town last week from New York to promote the release of six of his vintage window-foggers on video and a retrospective at the Nuart. His favorite of these excavated works is his “lost child,” Dark Odyssey (1957), a pioneering independent production about a Greek sailor in New York seeking vengeance for his sister's rape (“Scorsese with Greeks” is his tag line for the film), which, he says, “probably still holds the U.S. record for the lowest gross per screen.”
A Korean War vet, Metzger went to work at Janus Films in the '50s, cutting trailers for Bergman and Fellini imports. With a Janus colleague, Ava Leighton, he founded Audubon Films and began peddling European “art movies” on the forbidden-fruit circuit. Early successes included Sweet Ecstasy (1962), with Elke Sommer, and Mac Ahlberg's epoch-making I, A Woman (1966). Metzger was not above re-cutting the pictures he imported, or shooting new footage to spice them up. In Audubon's hands, a French film maudit called J'irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes, from a nihilist novel by Boris Vian, became the drive-in classic I Spit on Your Grave.
Metzger once drew a distinction between violent movies and movies that featured acts of violence. “There's a viscous solution of violence that runs through The Maltese Falcon,” he said in a 1974 interview, and much the same could be said about how sexuality functions in his films. The ravenous glances, the conversations oozing innuendo, the acts photographed through scrims, screens and tinted glass – the textures of this imagery can light fuses in the subconscious. In his films, Metzger often seems to be imitating classy Euro-smut. Most of his late-'60s and early-'70s pictures feature gorgeous European settings and tony literary sources such as Violette Leduc (Therese and Isabelle), Prosper Merimee (Carmen, Baby) and even Luigi Pirandello, whose Six Characters in Search of an Author supplied the template for The Lickerish Quartet. A thrifty fondness for European pay scales helped set the opulent Metzger style: “The guy who was my D.P. on Camille 2000 had just come off Vittorio De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I could never have afforded to hire someone like that over here.
“There was no 'adult industry' at that time,” recalls Metzger. “We were just making movies and looking at the marketplace. These things are cyclical. What we have now is a return to the style of the 'stag films' of the '40s, where they spent the day in a motel room and came back with a movie. You have that again with the stuff shot on video.”
Metzger himself hasn't made a feature film since The Princess and the Playboy, in 1983; he still hopes to get back in the game, and is currently trying to set up The Ninth Guest, an old-dark-house thriller. The stigma attached to both the X and NC-17 ratings, he believes, has ghettoized adult entertainment to the point that there no longer exists a middle ground between the tame mainstream and hardcore triple-X. “I don't want to blame the media,” says Metzger, “but when you can't advertise your films on TV or in the newspapers, you are automatically limited to a marginal audience – a hardcore audience in every sense.”