Porn Again


Bob Gill, The Double Exposure of Holly, 1976, 35 mm, color, sound, 77 minutes. Detail of film poster.

THERE’S A FAMOUS SCENE in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) in which Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe, caught during a sudden rainstorm in a bookstore stake out, flirts shamelessly with a clerk played by Dorothy Malone. “It just happens I got a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket. I’d a lot rather get wet in here,” he says. “Well, looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon,” she replies. We all know what’s going to happen next, though the scene fades out discreetly. The films in Anthology Film Archives’s “Porn Noir” series fill in the blanks: What if we just got to watch them fuck in the stockroom instead?

Recent weeks have seen the launch of London-based Porn Studies, a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to pornography, and respectful reviews of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, so hardcore in the cinematheque is nothing to bat an eyelash at. After AFA’s long weekend of “Porn Noir,” Williamsburg’s Spectacle Theater will be presenting three “Gay Porn Classics from Hand in Hand Studios” in April. “Porn Noir” is the second installment of AFA’s “In the Flesh” program, a recurring quarterly series programmed by Casey Scott, a historian of the “classic adult” film. Per the program notes, the films showing this time around are homages to the Hollywood noir in which “[t]he sexual tension created between noir anti-heroes and seductive femmes fatales could now be embellished and visualized.” Because this is Artforum and not Screw, I will try to approach the bill of fare on the basis of aesthetic and historical interest, rather than rating them with Al Goldstein’s “Peter Meter.”

The four films that comprise “Porn Noir” will all be projected on 35 mm—and date from a pre-video era when hardcore was shot on 35 and 16 mm. From a practical standpoint, the more cumbersome equipment forbade the various intrusive perspectives on close-up penetration that make up the average contemporary PornHub clip. In lieu of this, we have storylines, performances, and actors staying in character while in flagrante delicto. This is not the only essential aesthetic difference here: These films hail from a time before infallible chemical erections, are full of pubic undergrowth that you could conceal a toaster oven in, and bodies that today wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of Porn Star Karaoke in Burbank.

The first installment of “In the Flesh” was a grab-bag of features from the first decade of hardcore, while “Porn Noir” takes a rather more selective focus. The title of the series is problematic—there are few terms more abused than film noir, which refers to a postwar moment in Hollywood filmmaking so specific that it cannot be detached from context. Better to call these films hard-boiled hardcore.

No less than the classic pizza delivery guy/ plumber/ pool boy, the detective’s job is a perfect fit for porn, since his work can bring him into contact with all manner of available young women. The private dick has been a hardcore staple at least since John Holmes’s Johnny Wadd cycle—parodied by Dirk Diggler’s “Brock Landers” in Boogie Nights (1997)—though the “Porn Noir” selections are more artistically ambitious fare. The film with the clearest linkage to the hard-boiled legacy is 1976’s Expose Me, Lovely, its title somewhere between Mickey Spillane and Chandler. Director Armand Weston, whose 1978 Take Off played at the last “In the Flesh,” uses a number of POV shots à la Lady in the Lake (1947) and voice-over monologue, so as to put the viewer in the shoes of Harry “Frosty” Knight, a cigarillo-smoking NY private investigator played by hirsute blonde Ras Kean.

Roger Watkins, Corruption, 1983, 35 mm, color, sound, 75 minutes. Left: Felicia (Kelly Nichols). Right: Alan (George Payne).

Where Expose Me’s Knight talks in vintage Marlowe-isms, the other films in “Porn Noir” are plugged into the pop culture of the era they were produced in. Victor Milt’s 1976 Sex Wish was retitled to capitalize on the success of Death Wish—the 1972 Brian Garfield novel adapted into a hit film two years later by Michael Winner. Walrus-mustachioed Deep Throat lead Harry Reems returns home one day to find his fiancée murdered. Vowing revenge, he only pit stops for a threesome and sex with a sympathetic neighbor in his tireless quest to find her killer. (The dictates of the script demand that Reems perform while drunk in love, as well as dead drunk and inconsolable.) The perp, seen in action, is an infantile schizo played by Zebedy Colt, a queer cabaret fixture whose grating baby-talk monologues seem intended to dissuade all but the heartiest and most committed of pocket pool players from getting their rocks off.

Sex Wish owes more to the then-popular vigilante justice cycle than to noir—it’s one of three films in the program that were released in ’76, the year of Taxi Driver, whose protagonist Travis Bickle was a committed patron of Times Square’s porno pits. (Meanwhile, the soundtrack klaxon that announces one of Colt’s assaults recalls that used in 1981’s “Take Back the Night” vigilante classic Ms. 45 by Abel Ferrara, whose own career was launched in hardcore.) The last of the ‘76ers is Bob Gill’s The Double Exposure of Holly, which combines post-Watergate surveillance paranoia and sullen voyeurism. There is enthusiastic work from a young Annie Sprinkle here, but the most interesting performer keeps his clothes on. That would be Ronan O’Casey, also credited with the screenplay, playing the jilted lawyer who lays the hidden-camera trap at the center of the film. Slumming O’Casey, who gives coruscating line readings while patiently explaining the tangled exposition, had a long “straight” filmography—including a role in Nicholas Ray’s 1957 Bitter Victory!

The last film screening in Porn Noir, and chronologically the last produced, is Corruption (1983). It’s an ominous down-the-rabbit-hole free-fall by Roger Watkins, described as “the tortured artist of the adult film genre,” who operated under the nom-de-porn Richard Mahler. The film opens with a dispassionate boardroom discussion between all-business automatons that plays like something out of Fassbinder’s World on a Wire—and the on-screen coupling is as detached and mechanistic as that in Fassbinder’s films. It says something that a vignette involving necrophilia isn’t necessarily the coldest here; special credit is due Tish Ambrose, who gives a particularly disdainful performance. The industry had moved to LA by ’83, but a lot of the New York talent had come with it, including star Jamie Gillis, a downmarket Elliott Gould, and frizzy-haired goblin Bobby Astyr, one of the adult industry’s finest character actors. (Gillis appears in Double Exposure; Astyr in that and Expose Me.) It’s hard to parse the meaning of Watkins’s symbolism-laded nonstop erotic cabaret, but perhaps Corruption’s cinematographer Larry Revene and star Kelly Nichols, who will be present at the Sunday night screening, can help to explain.

We have now traveled from ’70s porn chic to ’80s New Wave smut. The year after Corruption, Brian De Palma’s R-rated Body Double was released. Body Double ostensibly belongs to that quaint genre, the erotic thriller, which was made obsolescent by Internet porn, just as surely as video porn killed off the analog fare showing at “In the Flesh.” (Body Double, by the way, plays IFC Center midnights on April 4th and 5th as part of their “Erotic Thrillers of the ’80s & ’90s” program.) The film has hack actor Jake Scully going undercover in the porn industry to solve a murder—and here De Palma takes great pleasure in drawing out the parallels between official Hollywood and its looking-glass image, the pornographic underground. This is where “Porn Noir” is instructive: It’s the Bizarro World version of straight genre filmmaking, a peek under the raincoat of the hard-boiled detective.

Nick Pinkerton

“Porn Noir” runs March 28–30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.