Provacative. Elegant. Erotic. Shocking. These words only begin to describe the films of Radley Metzger. According to a now familiar anecdote, this native New Yorker's love for film flourished due to the countless days he spent in movie houses to savor the air conditioning which relieved his childhood hay fever; as a result, he was exposed to all of the significant world directors and found this influence paying off after his military service when he began doing TV commercials and cutting trailers for Janus Films. As a result, he found himself studying the films of Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, and Michelangelo Antonioni, to name just a few. Metzger progressed to actual film editing and started his own distribution company, Audubon Films, with his partner, Ava Leighton. His maiden cinematic voyages as director under the Audubon banner like The Dirty Girls and The Alley Cats quickly established what has become known as the Metzger style. With 1967's Carmen, Baby, Metzger scored a direct hit, delivering a widescreen, colorful canvas of erotic tragedy in which editing and acting managed to generate heat on the screen while revealing only the slightest amount of flesh. An adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, this was really the first of several glossy literary spins which continued with 1968's lesbian coming of age classic, Therese and Isabelle. Over the next two years Metzger then delivered perhaps the two finest erotic art films ever made: Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet. Visually dazzling, perfectly edited, magnificently performed, and vividly scored, these films managed to cross over to mainstream critical acceptance and still look as ravishing and fresh now as when they were first released. Metzger surprised audiences with Little Mother, a stylized retelling of the true story of Argentinian Eva Person, and Score, the story of two couples experimenting with bisexuality in an idyllic European village. With Score and his next film, The Punishment of Anne (The Image), Metzger flirted with brief sequences of hardcore, the upcoming trend in 1970s erotic cinema after the wild success of Deep Throat. However, when he made a five-film sojourn into full-fledged explicit sex under the name of Henry Paris, Metzger continued to deliver beautifully crafted and often witty little gems which stood out as the best of their genre. The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann continuously pokes fun at every porn cliche in the book, while The Opening of Misty Beethoven, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, features perhaps the finest script, acting, and setpieces of any adult film. In 1978, Metzger tackled a commercial mainstream thriller, a remake of the silent horror classic, The Cat and the Canary. Shot in the same house used for The Omen, Metzger's film managed to pack reams of palpable Gothic atmosphere into its compact running time and proved his filmmaking skill could be applied to any genre and style. While Metzger's cinematic touch was last in evidence with The Princess and the Call Girl, a bubbly twist on Mark Twain made for cable's Playboy Channel, he has remained busy ever since and has currently overseen the recent releases of his films on home video. When discussing The Lickerish Quartet, Metzger expressed his fondness for the film's German title, which translates as "dream play:" "Dream plays shouldn't age. Dreams don't age; they hang in a little box of immortality." Indeed, this description could apply to all of his work, which remains as beguiling and timeless as ever, immortal in the thoughts of moviegoers everywhere who continue to enjoy and study his work.
MONDO DIGITAL: Your first film, Dark Odyssey, has received a positive critical response since its debut on DVD, even though it doesn't bear any surface similarities to your later work. How do you feel about the film looking back on it now?
RADLEY METZGER:The critical response has been particularly welcome for Dark Odyssey because I always felt it was treated like a kind of Cinderella stepchild at the time. The New York Times was good, for a couple of first time directors, when it opened in New York in 1958, but most people dismissed it because it didn't have any credentials, which you needed at the time. I can't really comment on the film itself because I haven't seen it since we completed it 42 years ago. Several recent critics have compared it to Cassevetes - which is funny - because Shadows was made the same year and no one mentioned it at the time. I just read a review which said that Dark Odyssey was a Scorsee film with Greeks instead of Italians.
You've named several cinematic influences throughout the years - John Farrow, Michael Powell, Orson Welles. In what ways do you find them important?
They were important for me because, when I came of age, American films were fairly uniform and these were directors who brought a unique energy to storytelling. As examples: John Farrow had one of the most fluid cameras of the period. I think he was the American Max Ophuls; The Big Clock is an excellent example. Michael Powell: Colonel Blimp and The 49th Parallel made a big impression on me. A funny incident-- some years ago, Variety mentioned me in a review of Peeping Tom - comparing styles, etc. I must have been guilty of what Hitchcock called "unconscious plagiarism." I thought it interesting because Peeping Tom was the one Powell film I've never seen. Orson Welles: Any Welles film is a course in filmmaking. His rhythms were incredible. He brought the energy of radio to film. Journey into Fear was one of my favorites.
Most of your films make excellent use of music. How do you decide what kind of music to use, and what was your working relationship like with Piero Piccioni, Georges Auric, and Stelvio Cipriani? Do you still control the rights to the music?
My relationship with the composers was fairly standard. We'd discuss the intent of the author and the overall texture of the sound. Oddly enough, Stelvio Cipriani was my only first choice. I had heard his score for The Frightened Woman and was impressed and hired him for The Lickerish Quartet. On Therese and Isabelle, we had hired Georges Delerue. He was wonderful. He lent us his tapes from Jules and Jim to use in our scratch mix. But unfortunately, he couldn't continue. I think there was illness in the family, but I was really blessed in getting Georges Auric. He was the first name in French film music. At the time, he was the head of the Paris Opera - he'd done all the Cocteau films - but he worked on the movie as if it were his first audition. I think the effectiveness of Therese was in no small way due to his score. He wrote to the voices - which, with all the narration, was critical. A similar thing happened on Camille 2000. I had engaged Armondo Trovajoli, who had done a fabulous score for The Libertine, but he couldn't continue at the last minute. Again, I was blessed in getting Piccioni. Audubon Films has the rights to the music.
Many of your films are adapted from novels or various other literary sources - La Dame aux Camellias, Carmen, Pygmalion, Therese and Isabelle, Naked Came the Stranger. How much do you feel the written word has had an impact on your films, and do you enjoy the kind of classical structure afforded by adapting novels?
You could add Misty and The Cat and the Canary to that list. The reason I turned to so many adaptations was because I didn't know a lot about structure - narrative structure. I came from the editing room, and I wasn't very secure in creating story structure. I didn't do free form films - which were popular at the time - so I felt very secure having heavyweights like Prospere Merimee and Alexander Dumas on my side.
A number of Audubon titles which you didn't direct also bear your unmistakable personal "stamp," particularly The Frightened Woman and The Libertine. Are there any films in which you had some input, editorial or otherwise (i.e., I Spit on Your Grave," I, a Woman, etc.) with which you're particularly satisfied?
I Spit on Your Grave was very satisfying - the original French film, not the horror movie that took the title. I hadn't yet made a film after Dark Odyssey so a lot of frustrated energy went into Spit. It was a movie nobody wanted because it had a racial theme; it was made in France and took place in America, and contained a lot of mistakes. I did a lot of re-editing, and the film was the first commercial success for Audubon Films. It was very basic work - Editing 101 - but it impressed a lot people who didn't have a technical background. I, a Woman was a little slow for American tastes, so we gave it a different pace. I always enjoyed editing - from whence I came.
A number of terms have become synonymous with your filmmaking style - "elegant," "aristocratic," "continental," "precise." How would you describe it?
In the area of eroticism, I think it's easier to involve the audience if you deal with rich people. When you try to create total environments, you don't want to deal with the question of how your characters make a living. So I had to keep everything very upscale. It's a kind of seduction. I think audiences can be more accepting of a film if the atmosphere is different from their own. Hence the "elegant". In order to have more money for the production, I shot in Europe. Hence "continental."
How much impact do you think moving from editor to director had on your methods?
Beginning as an editor was crucial. I think it's the only way to begin a film career. It happened by chance because it was the only work available at the time. After being a schlepper on a film, I moved into the cutting room with it and was able to get into the union. Learning editing is like a writer learning grammar. It gives you enormous confidence. And it helps at the end of a day's shooting when you ask the eternal question, "Is this stuff going to make any sense?"
Your one mainstream thriller, The Cat and the Canary, is also one of the few titles you didn't distribute yourself. How much control did you ahve over the production,s ucha s casting, crew, and promotion, and what kind of experience did you have shooting a British production as opposed to the usual French or Italian?
The Cat and the Canary wasn't special in the input area. I had know the producer, Richard Gordon, for many years, and we had no problems. The crews were very different, however. I found English filmmaking much more formal and much more structured than on the continent. It didn't lend itself to any deviation from the schedule. I met someone recently who teaches The Cat and the Canary as an example of how to get the most from a limited budget.
When you briefly moved to hardcore, your five Henry Paris titles were shot as both soft and hardcore versions. Do you have a preference for one over the other? Are there any plans to ever make The World of Henry Paris available on video?
I think I prefer the hard-core although the soft versions have comedic scenes that I liked but would have made the hard-core versions too long. The Best of Henry Paris should be released on video by the end off the year.
The video release of The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann is severely cut, most notably the absence of the entire garage sequence. Was this scene considered objectionable, and will the soft version ever be released?
All the Henry Paris films have been severely cut. The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann was no exception. The scene you refer to was even cut in Sweden because it contains non-consensual sex - although it's all make-believe in the film. The original, full versions of all the Henry Paris films should be out this year. It's the first time in 25 years.
Two films you shot under your own name were released in both soft and semi-hardcore versions, Score and The Punishment of Anne [The Image]. How did you decide how to market and release these titles originally? Was the intention for Score to cross over into a semi-mainstream audience, as it now has after its release in theaters and on video?
There was hardcore in Score - between the boys - but considering the bisexual nature of the story, we thought it would limit the theaters that would play it. We were trying to reach a mainstream audience.
The Punishment of Anne is your only adaptation of a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet (though under a pseudonym), but the rest of your films don't seem very concerned with S&M. Do you see any similarities between your work, and what led you to choose that particular novel?
I think the fabric and atmosphere of the story was the same as my previous films. S&M was suggested in a few of the early films and I thought it a logical area to explore after Score.
Little Mother is more based in hard "reality" than your other work because of its semi-biographical basis. How did you approach working on a political subject, and how much of it did you have to alter to obtain an "R" rating?
Little Mother was exciting because it allowed me to do what I really enjoyed: creating a total environment - in this case, an entire country. It was pretty much produced as an "R".
Your range of actors ranges all the way from European arthouse names like Anne Vernon and Nino Castelnuovo (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) to adult film performers, yet you manage to elicit excellent performances in every case. What's your approach to directing actors, and how do you select the women for your films? It's been noted in fact that many of your actresses look more sexy fully dressed than most other actresses do unclothed; is there a method to finding actresses with this quality?
I think I used a deductive method - rather than an additive one. That is, I would always ask to see the worst film an actor had previously made. That way, I'd know what to emphasize - and more important, what to avoid. And I would over-shoot, so I had the luxury of not having to use every frame that I shot. A little like making soup stock. As far as finding suitable actresses, the secret word is patience. If you have a start date without a firm cast, you can have a problem.
The intellectual references in your films often give them a completely unique feeling, such as opening The Lickerish Quartet with a Pirandello quote. How did you trigger audiences to start paying attention to the meaning of the entire film instead "the good scenes?"
Erotic movies are like musicals. They're judged on what happens between the numbers, not just during. So every scene has to be approached the same. We never worked harder on the sex than anything else. If the audience is not involved in the basic premise of the film, they probably won't think it's very sexy. This doesn't hold true if you're first with something, like The Jazz Singer or The Robe or Deep Throat. But I don't think I was ever first with anything.
Your recent interest in homeopathic medicine is quite in keeping with your own upbeat, health-oriented views on life, including your depiction of sex as a mutually beneficial, positive force. How do you feel about the arrival of the AIDS era, which tempered the more carefree attitudes in the '70s and early '80s? If you did another erotic film, do you think the change in sexual standards would have any effect on how you presented love scenes?
AIDS would not concern me if I did another erotic film because I would set it in a pre-AIDS period. I didn't do pure realism. I never dealt with unintended pregnancy, or herpes or impotence. There's more than enough film literature on those subjects. I presented an idealized enactment of sex - as a unifying force between people.