At great personal embarrassment this reviewer must admit to having lived to what some might call early middle age without having seen - or more to the point, been knocked over by - a Radley Metzger film. Having had my Metzger cherry popped, the forthcoming torrent of gushing praise might be taken with a grain of salt. The feeling may pass. I hope it doesn't.
The only way to describe Alley Cats is by way of comparison. Like his contemporary Russ Meyer, Metzger has a terrific eye for framing widescreen compositions, and similarly avoids fancy camera moves in favor of an almost excessively "cutty" look, replete with jarring close-ups to inanimate objects which occur at the most unexpected times. (A benign beer nozzle drips with spent desire. A statue of two lovers implies the festivities to come. The eyes of a bearskin rug are covered by a handkerchief to shield it from impropriety.)
Naturally, both filmmakers are sex fiends of the highest order, but that is where the comparison ends. Where Meyer is obsessed with mammaries and lowbrow comedy, Metzger is clearly a self-styled European dramatist who deals in loftier subjects like sexual identity and moral corruption. Not to mention lesbians, lesbians, lesbians...which are to Metzger what the breast is to Meyer: an object of reverence and fear.
Alley Cats, an early sixties B&W piece, takes the character of Leslie (telling name, yes?) whose philandering husband openly flaunts his affairs, and leaves her adrift in an ocean of London hipsters where she watches with detachment as her friends soak up too much alcohol, play strip poker, and swing like there's no tomorrow...or at least no AIDS. An affair with a renegade painter ends in disaster, and practically forces Leslie to suicide before she's rescued by (durm roll!) a lesbian who shows her the tender side of Sapphic love. But Leslie, ever condemned by her beauty, becomes just another object of desire to her female lover.
Being a film of its time, Leslie runs back to the arms of her husband, crying "I don't know who I am anymore." His terse reply, "You're my girl," is satisfactory enough to warrant a fresh start on their relationship.
Now if the above sounds simplistic and relatively sexless by today's standards, you'd be correct. Yet more raw sensuality courses through Alley Cats' veins than a hundred contemporary fuck films, and it would be a mistake to simply shrug it off. Even though the visuals are hardly explicit (one sex scene is shot purposefully out-of-focus) the overall impact cannot help but make an indelible impression of the time and the desires of a generation. One particular image sums it up: The painter, finding Leslie in a deep sleep after their tryst, uses her lipstick to write on Leslie's naked back: "Great!" and then quietly slips away forever. Powerful.
With a hip jazz soundtract and a few trailers for other Metzger films, Alley Cats is a must-have for the connoisseur of adult cinema.