Friday, January 27, 2012
For a brief period in 1969, a Long Island housewife named Penelope Ashe was one of the most popular novelists in America. Her face was everywhere and her first book, Naked Came the Stranger, was a smash and eventually landed on The New York Times bestseller list. While there was nothing strange about a first-time writer having a hit out of the gate, the thing that made Mrs. Penelope Ashe unique was that she was as fictional as the book her name had graced. Penelope Ashe and Naked Came the Stranger were an elaborate, and quite brilliant, literary hoax put-on by a frustrated Newsday columnist named Mike McGrady, and a number of his colleagues, who set out to prove that by 1969 it was trash that was selling and not great literature. To make an odd story even odder, when the truth was revealed about Penelope Ashe, Naked Came the Stranger became an even bigger phenomenon spawning copycat books and even sequels of sorts by McGrady himself, all of which is detailed extraordinarily well by Benson Hurst in his great liner-notes to the just released special edition of the 1975 film based on the literary prank.
While the novel of Naked Came the Stranger was deliberate trash, the cinematic version written and directed by Radley Metzger (under his Henry Paris guise) was great-art and Distribpix's tremendous new special-edition of the film finally grants its proper-placing as one of the defining films of the mid-seventies. Erotic, funny, and very smart, Radley Metzger's Naked Came the Stranger is among his greatest and most provocative works and one of the best adult-films ever made.
Radley Metzger mentions on the terrific audio-commentary for Naked Came the Stranger that by 1975 he felt, in a way, that he could do no wrong and that thought is more than accurate as he had been creatively on fire throughout the early and mid-seventies. Within just five-years Metzger had unleashed a series of erotic masterworks including The Lickerish Quartet (1970), Little Mother (1973), Score (1974), The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974) The Image (1975) and Naked Came the Stranger. This unbelievable winning-streak would crescendo in 1976 with the dazzling The Opening of Misty Beethoven, a work rightly considered as the best adult-film ever made (and the next definitive edition Distribpix are working on).
While many are content writing a film like Naked Came the Stranger out of film history books, the film is a truly exceptional and special work. Lawrence Cohen writes in his wonderfully crafted analysis of the film, featured in the Distribpix liner notes, that, "if one simply dismisses Naked Came the Stranger as just another hard-core offering from the mid-seventies that is not worthy of critical attention, one utterly fails to do justice to the film's undeniable sophistication and polish." Cohen (who summons up the ghosts of Diogenes, Fitzgerald and Valentino in his notes) later writes, that Naked Came the Stranger is, "vintage Metzger" and I think it is just as good, if not better, than his first superlative effort as Henry Paris, The Private Afternoons as Pamela Mann.
While The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann seemed obsessed with the idea of vision, then it is sound (and during one sequence the lack of) that is at the forefront of Naked Came the Stranger. From the talk radio-show that stars Darby Lloyd Rains and Levi Richards host in the film, to the incredibly humorous and sexy sequence featuring Darby listening at the door as Levi has a romantic encounter with Mary Stuart, to the astonishing silent-film section, Naked Came the Stranger is a film pushed by the importance of sound in cinema and the way that characters listen (but often don't hear) one another. Like all of Metzger's great works, it is a film fuelled by his enduring love for cinema and the fact that it embraces old Hollywood in the midst of a cultural revolution that all but ended the classic-period makes it a quite profound and moving work. With Naked Came the Stranger, Metzger is indeed paying a sweet-farewell to the old while totally embracing the new.
Like all of his other Henry Paris productions, Metzger was blessed with an extraordinary cast for Naked Came the Stranger. As the frustrated housewife Gilly, who attempts to get her philandering hunsband's attention by having her own string of affairs, Darby Lloyd Rains is an absolute revelation and her work here is quite astonishing, as she mixes humor, grace and sexiness to absolutely devastating effect. Hurst's notes on Rains fascinating, and often frustrating, career are particularly poignant and he writes that today, "Darby lives quietly" and "remembers Radley well." Extremely handsome Levi Richards is on hand as Gilly's husband Billy and the charming Mary Stuart makes a big-splash as Billy's assistant and mistress Phyllis. Keep a look out for a hilarious cameo by iconic Marc Stevens during a party-sequence as well.
Hurst, Cohen and Ian Culmell do such an exhaustive job discussing the film in Distribpix's notes that it feels a bit awkward to go over much of it here. A few facts are worth repeating though. Metzger shot the film, just before Christmas in 1974, less than six months after The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann had its premiere. Once again Metzger would use New York as an additional character for the film and the many shots of the city remain some of the most arresting and captivating ever captured on film. Upon release Naked Came the Stranger would be a hit with both mainstream and adult critics as well as audiences, who flocked to the film. A particularly telling portion of the disc's 'ephemera gallery' is a vintage article stating that Naked Came the Stranger was the highest grossing film in New York for a stretch in 1975, ahead of such films as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Day of the Locust and The French Connection 2! It's a jarring reminder as to just how disturbingly conservative film goers and theater-owners have become since the artistic golden-age of the seventies.
While Naked Came the Stranger is a wonderful film throughout its running-time it is at its most extraordinary and daring when Metzger brilliantly recreate a classic black and white silent-film at the Hotel St. George. The scene is visually jaw-dropping, beautifully-shot and stands as one of the great tour-de-force moments of Metzger's career. Watching it, in the lovely new transfer from Distribpix, I teared up several times due to the fact that you would hard-pressed to find such ingenuity, passion and skill in too many American films after the seventies.
Like their exemplary releases of Metzger's The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann and Maraschino Cherry, Naked Came the Strange has been beautifully restored from the original negative and comes armed with a slew of valuable extra-features. These include the aformentioned booklet and audio-commentary as well as deleted and alternate scenes, a look at the film's locations (then and now), trailers, radio-spots and a film-facts subtitle track. It's another beautiful and lovingly put-together package from Distribpix that again solidifies their place as some of the best film-archivists on the planet. They are currently working on The Opening of Misty Beethoven and many of us already have our glasses raised with the words, "Here's to the big-one" at our lips.