In 1969, a torrid book called Naked Came the Stranger hit the bestseller charts and joined the ranks of tawdry potboilers from the likes of Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon. However, the difference here is that the entire book turned out to be a gag; the author, "Penelope Ashe," was a pseudonym concoted by a group of writers for Newsday who each took a turn writing one chapter. Flash forward six years, when veteran softcore director Radley Metzger was looking for a second project to follow up the original story, The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, which proved to be his first completely hardcore venture under the name "Henry Paris." Returning to the literary roots of his European erotica films, Metzger latched onto the novelized hoax and tweaked it into another of his urbane, visually stylish studies in the human libido. Fortunately it also turned out to be one of his funniest films, a bubbly and fast-paced trifle that plays like Ernst Lubitsch after a hit of Ecstasy.
Radio hosts and film fanatics Gillian (Rains) and William Blake (Richards) enjoy a happy (albeit quirky) marriage, except for one catch-- he's having an affair with Phyllis (Stuart), their toothy assistant. Gillian even eavesdrops on one of their afternoon love sessions (one of the film's comic highlights), and afterwards at a bizarre costume party during which she meets several old acquaintances, the noble wife decides to do a little sexual sampling herself including romps with a few old school friends.
Each of Gillian's affairs appropriately divides the film like a book chapter, the most memorable being her encounter with Score's Gerald Grant which cleverly plays out like a silent film. Henry Paris regular Alan Marlow also turns up for a daring, real life sequence in which he's pleasured by Rains on a double decker bus as they take a sunny tour of New York. The story moves quickly, and while the sex scenes are probably the mildest of the Paris canon, they still generate some palpable heat. Rains in particular gets to finally break loose in a leading role and proves herself to be a delightful comedienne, often looking quizically at the camera for maximum effect.
VCA's previous Henry Paris titles on DVD were at least as complete as their VHS conterparts (and in one case even longer), but unfortunately their Naked Came the Stranger runs almost eleven minutes shorter than the tape at a scant 72 minutes. The removal of this footage makes no sense; apart from a comical, fully clothed S&M gag in an office, the cuts appear to be random (including an entire sex scene between Phyllis and William that explains the whole "love bunny" thing). Too bad, really, as the image quality is a better transfer from the same source tape with more robust color. Extras include a video intro and commentary from Jim Holliday, who puts the film in its historical context and offers some anecdotes involving '70s porn; he's joined by an adult film actress (whose name is mumbled too low to be audible) who doesn't contribute much aside from admiring the fact that she's never had sex with anyone in the cast. Other extras are devoted mainly to the VHS cover art and a gallery of alternate shots, though the connection between these photo sessions and the movie itself is tenuous at best.
Luckily the film then passed over along with the other Henry Paris titles to Distribpix, who outfitted this sparkling gem with all the bells and whistles it deserves. The restored HD transfer is a huge improvement across the board with much more vivid colors and far richer black levels, and the 1.85:1 framing looks attractive throughout. It's also uncut, making this the first time it's been complete since the early VHS days. Interestingly, the original mono track is here along with an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 version. No reverb hack job, this mix was made possible thanks to the separate mag tracks of the dialogue, music, and effects, and it's a surprisingly spacious yet tasteful aural alternative well worth sampling.
Again Metzger appears for a full-length audio commentary, designed essentially as a sequel to the one he provided for The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (with the same pseudonymous moderator). He talks about working with producer Richard Gordon (whose production Secrets of Sex appears in the opening sex), the increasingly elaborate nature of this production given the larger cast and varied settings, the ins and outs of adult theater chains like the Pussycat, shooting sex on a public bus, working with Darby a second time, the state of Jamie Gillis' apartment after his death, and the controversial nature of the source novel. Also as with the Pamela Mann release, the DVD includes an astonishing subtitled fact track loaded with trivia about every conceivable aspect of the film. Virtually every snippet of music is identified (including the usual terrific KPM library tracks) along with composer info, plus plenty of nuggets about the cast, crew, novel, and locations, as well as hilarious tangents along the way. For example, you'll find out the weird connection between Levi Richards and Troma Films and tidbits like "In India, hopscotch is called Stapu, in Poland it's Klasy, and in NYC they call it Potsy."
A six-minute reel of deleted scenes compiles some extra snippets used to pad out the soft version of the film, whose elements couldn't be found. Sourced from a VHS copy, they're mostly extensions of park romps and dialogue scenes, though the first one with Rains doing a Death Wish joke is pretty priceless. A seven-minute locations featurette shows the NYC and Long Island locales then and now mostly via split screen, while a "Soft vs. Hard" segment spends 14 minutes showing a comparison between the alternate takes and angles used for both versions. The set rounds out with a restoration featurette about the HD transfers, three trailers (the soft one for this film and the hard ones for Marschino Cherry and Pamela Mann), three minutes of radio spots for this film and Maraschino Cherry, a G-rated slideshow of production stills, and a gallery of ephemera including posters, newspaper reviews, and magazine articles. The hefty and impressive illustrated liner notes booklet covers the book hoax in depth along with a breakdown of the production and crew, a detailed rundown of the music chosen for the soundtrack, and an analysis of the film including its kinship with Diogenes and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first pressing also includes a fetching color postcard featuring a still of Darby in her Fred Astaire outfit.
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Released during the heyday of porno chic, Pamela Mann was released in both hard and softcore versions. The former remains the most frequently seen and was released on VHS and DVD first by VCA, though all of their versions lost a significant, eight minute sequence in which Pamela acts out a kidnap/rape fantasy in a garage with Rains and her chauffeur, Jamie Gillis, with the latter holding her down at gunpoint. Though really consensual, this scene was apparently too much in the wake of NOW porn demonstrations and still carries a definite charge. Fragments of the sequence still turned up again during the long montage at the end of the film in the cut version, rendered the finale completely senseless. As with its other Henry Paris titles, VCA recycled its one-inch video master for their DVD, taken from a battered print with a dated, lackluster appearance with numerous flaws and inconsistencies in the appearance of what was meant to be a smooth, glittery film with lush colors. The strange white borders at the top and bottom periphery which plague all VCA transfers of Misty Beethoven are also present here, too, depending on your TV's overscan setting. As usual VCA listed plenty of extra goodies on the back, though only a few pertain to the film itself. Best of the bunch is a feature length commentary with Edwards and the very active Veronica Hart. They make for lively company, though Edwards frequently mentions his lagging memory and insists over and over that he's retired from the business. Nevertheless they do get in a few fun facts, such as a casual mention that Spelvin recently worked as Hart's babysitter! Other bonuses include reproductions of the original B&W pressbook ad slicks, the VCA tape box art (which is nearly identical), and a gallery of stills (not frame grabs, thankfully), as well as a three minute video appraisal by Jim Holliday. The other extras are more extraneous, such as a "production stills" gallery from some other unnamed project and promos for other VCA titles. Oddly, the full garage scene was included in full (albeit looking very rough) in the compilation documentary The World of Henry Paris, which was briefly available on VHS and appeared occasionally on adult cable channels.
A better-looking flat letterboxed version appeared much later on DVD in Europe from Alpha France (under the odd title of Furie Porno), paired up with a gorgeous transfer of Richard Robinson’s Marriage and Other Four Letter Words. Both are in French only, however, and while this Pamela Mann contains the garage assault in full, it omits huge chunks of comedic dialogue that presumably wouldn’t carry over for a French audience; thus, it’s still highly incomplete, just in a different way.
Fortunately the Henry Paris library eventually fell into the more capable hands at Distribpix, who resuscitated this film with a new hi-def transfer of both the explicit and soft versions. Image quality is drastically improved across the board; the framing is now correct (no more ugly white flaring around the borders), colors are back to their original intensity and values, and detail is much more heightened and impressive. (And unlike their release of Maraschino Cherry, there’s thankfully no logo watermarking anywhere.) The sound quality also kills the VCA version, which was tinny and muffled in comparison. Best of all, this marks the first time the film has been available completely uncut on DVD anywhere in the world, with the garage scene and all of the dialogue completely intact. This alone would be enough to justify the release, but the two-disc set contains a staggering amount of well-researched extras that raise the bar miles higher for ‘70s adult classics.
Metzger’s recent relaxation about doing audio commentaries on releases like Camille 2000 and Score carries over here with a enjoyable and very thorough chat with adult film historian “Benson Hurst” with topics ranging from the director’s segue into hardcore territory due to commercial demands to his switch to shooting on the streets of Manhattan after jetting around Europe in his previous films. (Appropriately, both methods would collide with delirious results two films later with his masterpiece in the genre and still the best adult film of all time, The Opening of Misty Beethoven.) He also reveals a great deal about almost every actor in the film including how they were hired, their colorful and very different backgrounds, and their easy working methods, which wouldn’t exactly carry over as smoothly to future Paris films. Perhaps even more impressive from a scholarly perspective is an optional music subtitle track, similar to the trivia tracks on Shameless’ horror DVD releases, which dissects the film’s music soundtrack in staggering detail. Metzger had used library music (also referred to as stock or royalty-free music) in Score and The Image as well, and his use of preexisting music in all of his Henry Paris titles is exceptional. Using yellow subtitles, this track discusses each selection of music in the film (with only one still unidentified, that sweeping piece used during the final scene) and rattles off huge amounts of trivia about each composer, the track’s significance and library album location, and much, much more.
Two extensive video interview are included with both Edwards and Spelvin, with the former getting 40 minutes to cover a lot of the ground from his earlier VCA commentaries along with a few new comments about working with some of the biggest names both in front of and behind the camera during the porno chic heyday. He’s always a fun storyteller, and it’s great to have him back on a DVD again. Spelvin fans will definitely enjoy her new video chat (allocated to the second disc), which begins with her early stage and screen career (including Hello, Dolly!), her first film role doing new scenes for the Metzger-released The Twilight Girls, and a tour of highlights through her adult career and her life afterwards (which is also covered in her excellent autobiography). Disc two also includes the aforementioned HD transfer of the film’s hilarious “soft” version, which opens with Bourbon talking about this special “bicentennial” edition of the film and features her superimposed over the more graphic footage talking at ridiculous length about America’s fondness for the word “big” and the importance of marriage, sometimes while wearing absurd costumes like a football uniform. The whole approach manages to make the film far more avant garde and absurdist than before, with the talking box technique inadvertently coming off like a precursor to Peter Greenaway’s Paintbox experiments years later. Other extras include the original (very long) theatrical trailer, a 2011 reissue video trailer, galleries of promo stills / production shots and promotional material, a seven-minute video featurette about the film’s locations (some of which are still recognizable), a “Metzger’s Manhattan” piece about how locations were chosen and filmed in his Paris titles, and a fascinating “Cutting Floor” piece containing some amusing outtakes from Bourbon and Stevens’ park encounter and lengthy snippets of a deleted sequence with Bourbon role playing as a 42nd Street hooker and getting involved in a hotel room tryst with Leo and Linda Lovemore (who are otherwise only fleetingly visible in the final film). The hefty insert material includes a nice Bourbon postcard, a small flier for the upcoming Music of Henry Paris deluxe CD release (finally!), and extensive liner notes by Benson Hurst, Ian Culmell, and Lawrence Cohen about the production, soundtrack creation, and cinematic significance of the film; each are very informative and make for highly recommended reading. A tantalizing insert also promotes a CD release of music from the five Henry Paris films, which has been a long time coming. The only possible negative thing one could say about the release is that it isn’t on Blu-Ray, but hopefully by the time Distribpix gets to the biggest Paris titles coming up, that strategy will change. Easily one of the most essential cult film releases of the year, this superb release sets a new gold standard for films whose place in the exploitation history books is only now beginning to be fully recognized.
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