There are eighty thousand topics under the sun that can inspire great filmmaking. Out of that ocean of inspiration, the world of literary hoaxes, is not the first thing that comes to mind. But a handful films have come out of this weird wellspring, including Radley Metzger’s Naked Came the Stranger. (Directed under the cinematic equivalent to a purple-prose pseudonym, Henry Paris.) Originally crafted as a sarcastic response to the lurid and highly popular works of bestselling writers like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, the book, “Naked Came the Stranger,” featured twenty four writers coming together to create one tawdry tale of marital infidelity in late 60’s America.
Now, leave it to a maestro like Radley Metzger to take this lovely bit of salacious NY Times chart topping pulp and turn it into a funny, sexy and whimsical film. A din of television noise begins the proceedings, all set in a bedroom riot of early 70s florals and crayola colors. A well executed shot reveals a slow sweep of the room, as an announcer intones “Immortal film classics to fall asleep by!” Speaking of which, an old fashioned alarm clock, with its face displaying a photo of legendary cinematic goddess, Marlene Dietrich, goes off, waking up Gilly (pronounced J-i-l-l-y and played by the woefully unsung Darby Lloyd Rains). Slipping off her sleep mask, she tries to rouse her hubby, Billy (Levi Richards) up with some well intentioned hanky panky before being stopped in her tracks as he calls out the name “Phyllis” in his sleep. Yes, something is afoul in marital Denmark, which is all too apparent to Gilly, from her husband’s bad bluffing about his dream to the comically flirty looks Phyllis (Mary Stuart) keeps shooting his way while the couple prepare for another installment of their radio morning show.
Phyllis and Billy, our two illicit lovebirds, carry on their affair with all the subtlety of a meat hammer, with Gilly finding solid evidence after she follows him down to his mistress’s (nice) NYC apartment. Hanging out on the stairwell, she listens in on their dirty talk, which is undoubtedly the worst kind of its stripe. I’m not talking Barry White, Big Daddy Kane or even Black Oak Arkansas, here, I’m talking the dreaded cutesy baby talk. They literally refer to each other as “love bunny,” much to Gilly’s horror, though it doesn’t stop her from having some manual fun.
This incident ends up being a catalyst for Gilly, feeling that to better understand her husband, she must depart on a series of her own little affairs. No love bunny nonsense here, just a grown woman exploring herself through the willing partners in her life, ranging from a high-strung “ineffectual creep” who is momentarily transformed by Gilly’s transgressive gift to a beautifully shot “silent film” encounter with one suave friend. (How suave? The man invites her to “capture a moment of lost elegance.” Bryan Ferry just swooned.) But the real question remains-will our heroine be able to better understand her husband or realize the grass is greener and move on? (Seriously, “love bunny”??? Grounds for divorce RIGHT THERE.)
Naked Came the Stranger is a perfectly polished and funny film. It’s definitely one of the more whimsical efforts of Radley Metzger, with the tone being very light and cheeky. Taking a book that was critically maligned and making a legitimately good movie out of it is a borderline alchemical move, but one that, in the hands of a master like Metzger, feels like a piece of cake.
The cast is terrific, with Rains taking the lead as the plucky and adventurous Gilly. She brings a likability and a strong sense of confident femininity to her role. This is a great contrast to the girlishness of Stuart’s Phyllis. Rains is alternately very funny, beautiful and sexy. The image of her in top hat and tails, Ala Marlene, is a striking one. Darby Lloyd Rains has the kind of powerful gravitas to pull it off without seeming like she is aping Dietrich. Stuart is also good as the cute but love happy annoyance mistress, making this a 180 from her role in Gerard Damiano’s masterful Memories Within Miss Aggie. All of the male actors are good too, but this is really the ladies’ show. (Though, Marc Stevens’ cameo during the costume party sequence is a huge highlight.)
With being a Metzger film, everything looks good. Paul Glickman, who was also responsible for the cinematography for Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, did an equally wonderful job here, with even the urban jungle of NYC looking a bit dewy and pretty. There is also an assortment of fun touches throughout, including a reference to Metzger’s serious Camille 2000, with the film playing on the television, prompting Billy to remark, “Why don’t they show the Garbo version?” There is also a brief mirror shot, as you see the reflection of Gilly gently remove a wig off of Phyllis. Mirrors and reflection itself tend to be a trait of Metzger’s work, whether it is his softcore work with Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet or his latter works, like Pamela Mann. This all gives further proof that you can have depth with beauty.
Distribpix has once again done right by both Radley Metzger’s work and the viewer by presenting this film in a gorgeous restoration of the original 35mm print. Artists like Metzger deserve to have their work preserved with the level of detail and love that companies like Distribpix provide. In addition to the restoration, there is also a bounty of extras, including a Director’s commentary from Metzger himself, a split-screen featurette comparing the “hot” and “cool” versions of the film, a “film facts” subtitle track, deleted scenes, trailers, ephemera gallery and much, much more. There’s also a photo card and a 40 page booklet, detailing the origins of the book, the movie and even the soundtrack. It does not get much spiffier than this.
Naked Came the Stranger is a fun and sweet-natured film featuring good visuals and a pitch-perfect performance from Darby Lloyd Rains. It would make a fun, couples-stepping-out double bill with the previous year’s Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann.