Radley Metzger’s first film and his veiled biopic of saintly slut Evita now on DVD.
Radley Metzger’s fame rests largely on having brought sophistication to softcore porn in films like Camille 2000 (1969), The Lickerish Quartet (1970), and Score (1975). Those who have delved deeper into his career know that he’s also responsible for a string of well-regarded hardcore movies like The Opening of Misty Beethoven and The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, under the pseudonym of Henry Paris. Less known but equally intriguing are two more serious works that bookend the most productive period of his career from the late ‘60s to the early ’70s. These are his first film, Dark Odyssey (1957), and Little Mother (1973), a loose adaptation of the life of Eva Peron. Their DVD release in generally excellent transfers from Image Entertainment sheds new light on the maverick Metzger.
On Dark Odyssey, Metzger is listed as co-writer and co-director with William Kyriakis, with whom he had worked as assistant director in 1953 on the obscure feature Guerrilla Girl. In Filmmag.com (go to the non-ink link for full interview), Metzger recalls Dark Odyssey as “a labor of love and an obsession” that “if we doubled the budget … it would have been a shoestring production.” The film took nine months to shoot on the fly, corralling family and friends as actors and crew, and “the camera sounded like a meat grinder.” These comments explain some of this late neorealist work’s limitations, such as the sometimes uneven acting, but don’t prepare us for the visual beauty and emotional power of this literal Greek tragedy shot on location in New York City.
Yianni Martakis (Athan Karras) is a Greek sailor – a “villager” as his shipmates derogatorily call him – who jumps ship in the Big Apple to settle a score against a Greek businessman who raped his sister, causing her suicide. Yianni, a study in repression and Old World values, doesn’t confide his murderous plans to anyone, but runs into a Greek-American woman, Nike Vassos (Jeanne Jerrems), who has a more than passing interest in him. While waiting to hit his target, he’s immersed in a culture at once foreign and familiar: New York’s Greek-American expatriate community. Nike’s pursuit of him both shocks and intrigues Yianni: “In my village they would call you a wicked woman,” he says, trying to reconcile his lust for revenge with the new possibilities of love and a different way of dealing with problems in a new world.
Several subplots give the film an excuse to lead the viewer through a tour of New York City in the late 1950s. The gorgeous black-and-white photography brings to life the city streets, Central Park, the skyline, the waterfront, and other locations that entrance Yianni and threaten to upset his plan. In one of the film’s best scenes, Yianni and Nike have a long talk on a rooftop; against a dramatic ocean backdrop they talk with poignancy and power about their dreams. Equally fine is an impromptu boat ride that subtly exposes the strengths and weaknesses in their relationship. Metzger’s complaints about budget constraints seem unnecessarily humble given his superb use of crane shots and dollies in such sequences and, indeed, throughout.
In the classic style of low-budget filmmaking, Dark Odyssey’s actors are culled from every source, and so represent a range of acting styles, from a conscious method approach (the two leads, both of whom had Broadway careers) to the simple, unmannered style of untutored actors (Nike’s parents). Karras registers strongly as Yianni; his agitation with a culture he can’t quite grasp is beautifully imparted, and creates serious tension throughout. Jerrems is also fine as his would-be soulmate. Less inspired is David Hooks’s overblown sketch of Yianni’s shipmate George; he commits the cardinal sin of overacting in a film notable for its welcome lack of such.
The film was well reviewed by The New York Times on first release, but failed to ignite at the box office. A retitling to Passionate Sunday and a lurid trailer (“Out of the brutality and hatred of men comes a shattering film of obsession and violence!”) didn’t help. The trailer is included in the DVD, along with chapter breakdowns. The transfer is pristine, with a gorgeous grayscale.
If Dark Odyssey bears the mark of two directors – the insider feel of the Greek cabaret and house party scenes can surely be attributed to codirector Kyriakis – Little Mother is obviously Metzger all the way. First of all, it has the look of such films as The Lickerish Quartet or Carmen Baby (196?), and no wonder, since it was shot by their photographer, Hans Jura. Like most of Metzger’s best films, Little Mother has striking visual variety, particularly in the director’s trademark elegant dolly and crane shots and his infatuation with reflective surfaces. Like Score, it was filmed in Yugoslavia, always a welcoming locale at that time for low-budget auteurs looking to save a buck (Roger Corman’s 1962 The Secret Invasion was also shot there.) And like Dark Odyssey, it suffered several retitlings in an attempt to make it more commercial, including Blood Queen and Immoral Mistress. Supremely, it’s linked to Metzger’s other work by a fascinating central female character – Marina Pinares, an Eva Peron double brilliantly played by Christiane Kruger.
Metzger based the film on a Peron biography called Woman with a Whip – a too-suitable nickname for the ambitious Marina, whose public face of virtue, populism, and caring masks a sluttish and murderous personality. The director is typically convoluted in exploring this life – past and present gracefully interweave in flashbacks and flash-forwards that show the extremes of her personality and her unlimited ambition. The film opens at a decisive moment – a Christmas rally in the public square for President and Mrs. Minares, at which a body, unidentified, falls over a balcony. From there Metzger skips through his heroine’s life, from her early days as a tart-about-town, to a career as a TV weather girl, to her slow climb on the exhausted bodies of a series of lovers of increasing rank and importance, to her ruthless repression of political dissidents and her shameless lobbying of a corrupt cardinal for sainthood before she dies.
One of her many victims is her early best friend, Annette (Elga Sorbas), who somewhat resembles her. Together, they crash haute parties and trade off boyfriends. But Annette represents the fate that Marina might have had – she’s dying of syphilis and tuberculosis. More worrying for Marina, Annette is one of the few people who know about her past and can capsize her plan for canonization. Another victim is revolutionary Riano (Mark Damon), who goes from Marina’s lover to her enemy and ends up being tortured. They have a love scene that’s one of Little Mother’s most inventive, with Marina nude behind a mottled-glass shower door and Riano on the other side, “touching” her through this complex surface.
As in Dark Odyssey, this film has a look that belies its budget. Metzger assembles quite large crowds for some of the scenes of public worship of this evil “little mother.” And as always, the trappings have an elegance and power not evident in other such films. A scene in a museum is typical. It’s a stylish space but dark, empty except for a series of twisted, grotesque statues that provide dramatic background for a conversation between Annette and Marina, at which Marina subtly writes her friend’s death sentence. Brian Phelan’s strong script helps here and throughout.
The acting is solid, with even Damon, who was wooden in his previous notable performance in Corman’s House of Usher (1960), credible as a scruffy revolutionary. Elga Sorbas’s Annette has a powerful pathos, especially in the unsettling scene where she stoically prepares to have sex with a man she doesn’t know intends to kill her. Best of all is the icily beautiful Christiane Kruger, the daughter of well-known German actor Hardy Kruger, as Marina Pinares. She’s superb as the conflicted but always commanding Marina. In fact, this may be the definitive portrait of the self-possessed, sexually driven, deeply duplicitous, ultimately doomed Metzger woman.
The DVD has no trailer for this one, but does have chapter breakdowns. It was made from an “overseas” print, as a title card says, and presented in its original 1.85 theatrical ratio. With the exception of occasional artifacts, it’s a fine transfer.