Can your heart stand it? More Radley Metzger!
The title of Metzger’s “second film” (second by his own reckoning; other sources list it as his fourth, after Dark Odyssey, The Dirty Girls, Dictionary of Sex, and Carmen, Baby) is misleading. Sold as an exploitation film with lesbian sequences, The Alley Cats (1966) is in fact a typically artful, sexy, sometimes ponderous, ultimately satisfying softcore effort that manages to amuse and engage more than three decades after its release.
As always with Metzger, part of the lure is visual. The Alley Cats was shot in Munich in glorious black-and-white Ultrascope (a widescreen process) by regular collaborator Hans Jura, whose fine compositional sense and stately tracking shots nicely frame the romantic and erotic antics of the mostly European cast. The film makes good use of the widescreen format, its writhing couples tightly framed in endless horizontal tableaux. These couplings are punctuated by a fabulous period Europop score, complete with wailing surf guitar in some sequences.
Like most Metzger movies, The Alley Cats puts a naïve young woman at the center of an erotic ensemble, here a loosely aligned group of beautiful, seemingly wealthy Euroswingers. The naïf in this case is gorgeous Leslie (Anne Arthur), whose fiancé Logan (Charlie Hickman) philanders with Agnes (Karin Field) while expecting Leslie to be faithful. But Leslie has other ideas. More passive than many a Metzger heroine, she nonetheless has a desultory affair with an artist, Christian (Harald Baerow), who dumps her, and then with lesbian artist-hostess Irena (Sabrina Koch), before returning to Logan’s hunky arms. The usual trajectory for this kind of character is her progress from naïf to sexual sophisticate, but Leslie is simply confused at the end, unable to totally reconcile her lesbian and hetero impulses. This puts the film in a different space than works like The Dirty Girls or Therese and Isabel or Score, which find lesbianism an eminently satisfying lifestyle.
The Euroswingers who decorate the film’s background – and sometimes foreground, as in the party – are another common Metzger motif. They’re all beautiful and rich and liberated, and of course all too willing to “help” Leslie in her sexual education. None of them seem to have day jobs, except for the occasional prostitute like Agnes. Instead, they spend their time dabbling in vaguely artful activities such as painting, along with such hobbies as lovemaking and partying.
There’s plenty of sex here, in and out of the party, some of it no doubt daring for its time but probably frustrating to some audiences even then who may have bought the trailer’s screaming sell: “A daring adventure in the erotic world of motion picture stimulation!” Seen today, The Alley Cats is almost charming in its discretion. Oral sex is always tantalizingly off-camera as an obliging mouth slides down a belly and out of sight. The lesbian sequences are equally elliptical, except for a choker close-up of a kiss between Leslie and Irena. Metzger gets good mileage out of his restraint, particularly in a marvelous shot of the two women’s legs and feet kicking frenziedly against each other against a chorus of sighs and moans. There are also straight sex sequences, but Metzger can’t always resist the lure of experimentation; in one scene he distorts the image with what looks like Vaseline (or perhaps K-Y) on the camera lens, as two lovers, Logan and Agnes, thrash and scream. There’s also a sprinkling of sadomasochism, with hostess Irena trotting out the whip to use on a drooling masochist. (Her hatred of men, which she professes throughout the film, no doubt served her well here.)
The centerpiece of many Metzger films is the party, and the one in The Alley Cats does not disappoint. As usual, it’s shot in a fabulous space, a mansion with fountains and an endless array of rooms. (The s&m scene takes place in one of these rooms.) The partygoers dance, drink, gamble, strip, and screw, cheating on their mates either discreetly or in full view. In one memorable sequence, poor Leslie is seduced onto the dance floor by the sexually overwrought Uta Levka (a powerful presence who would later play the title role in Carmen, Baby). Her snakelike writhings and eye-rolling lust prove too powerful for Leslie. Such scenes are Metzger’s own vision of la dolce vita, and must have surprised and enthralled the raincoat brigade sitting in 1960s American grindhouses watching them.
On the debit side, the pacing is sometimes slow, and the acting is mostly standard issue, though Anne Arthur registers nicely as the confused bisexual Leslie and Charlie Hickman is amusing as the familiar Metzger male whose only desire in life is to get laid in the least complicated way possible. Best of all is Sabrina Koch as the Valkyrie-like Irena, a knockout Metzger power-bitch whose alleged love for Leslie is ultimately just another sweet diversion in the Metzger merry-go-round.