The Touch of Her Flesh/The Touch of Her Life/Way Out Love (1967) -**½
It certainly has been a while since we’ve seen Michael and Roberta Findlay around here. The last time I brought up those two illustrious names, it was in the context of one of their later, pure horror efforts. Horror was not the genre in which they had established their schlock movie credentials, however. No, the Findlays put themselves on the map with a strange mixture of sex and violence that once went by the name of the roughie.
A little history first: Once upon a time, the only way to see naked women on a movie screen (apart, that is, from the home-brew stag reels that were a staple of evening entertainment in the locked, guys-only backrooms of Elks Lodges and other such places) was in the context of a supposed documentary. No way was the Hays Office going to let a filmmaker get away with having his actresses parading around topless in a regular drama, but if said filmmaker were to show up with an expose on life in a nudist colony... well, that was different. That was educational. Thus it was that, as early as 1932 (when the Production Code existed, but was just barely enforced), camera crews started showing up at nudist retreats to make movies that were virtually unwatchable, but which made money hand over fist due to the novelty of mass nudity. The stiffer enforcement of the Code that began in 1934 killed off the nudist movie for a while, but it would resurface in the 1950’s, after the multitudes of young men returning from World War II brought with them a bit of Europe’s laxer attitude toward sex, giving would-be sexploitationeers hope that they could take a few chances without winding up in more trouble than the publicity would be worth. By that time, audiences had decided that “nudist camp movie,” or even just “nudist movie,” took too long to say, and “nudie” entered the American film lexicon. But the nudie’s time in the spotlight was short. It didn’t take long for people to notice how unendurably dull the average original-recipe nudie was, and soon— by about the turn of the 60’s, as a matter of fact— the folks making the things tried adding a new element to shake things up again: a plot. Or something pretending to be a plot, at any rate. Most of the time, these so-called plots were of the light farce variety, descended from the comedy acts that once took the stage in between stripteases in the old vaudeville burlesque shows, and because of their harmless sappiness, the movies that featured them became known as “nudie-cuties.” By all accounts, they were almost as bad as the nudist camp documentaries they replaced, and they didn’t last too long, either. The market for smut is inexhaustible, however, and the ingenuity of its purveyors is almost as boundless, so as the 60’s wore on, a new strain of sexploitation movie arose, combining sex not with cheap (and usually merely notional) laughs, but with gritty, ugly violence. These were the roughies, and their descendants are still with us today in the form of those shitty erotic thrillers you can catch in the wee hours of any given morning on Showtime and Cinemax.
As for the Findlays, they were just about the biggest names in the roughie business, and The Touch of Her Flesh and its two sequels remain their most notorious films from the 1960’s. As he generally did in this early stage of his career, writer/director Michael himself stars (albeit under the pseudonym Robert West) as a man named Richard Jennings. Jennings is some kind of self-made expert on weapons, and he is in high demand as a speaker at hunters’ and target-shooters’ conventions; when we meet him, he’s getting ready to catch a bus to Boston for just such an engagement. His wife, Claudia (Suzanne Marre, with her voice apparently overdubbed by cinematographer and co-writer Roberta), may say that she’ll miss Richard, but don’t you believe it. No sooner is her husband safely out the door than she has over another man (Ron Skideri) to satisfy her in a way that Richard apparently cannot. But as it happens, Richard has walked out without the notes for his speech, and he notices this while waiting for the bus. Jennings heads back to his apartment in time to catch Claudia and her boyfriend in the act, and as the ultimate insult, the two of them are too caught up in their mutual pleasure even to notice Richard stepping into the room. Jennings snaps, and runs off down the street. He gets run down by a car when he charges out into traffic without looking where he’s going.
When Richard comes to, he's in a hospital bed, and a doctor is telling him that his legs are temporarily paralyzed and that he’s permanently blind in his right eye. Neither one of those things seems to hit Richard as hard as the memory of what he saw back at his place, though, and after he is released from the hospital, he pretty much drops off the face of the Earth as far as Claudia is concerned. Living on his own, Richard has plenty of time to brood, and he eventually reaches the conclusion that Claudia is merely representative of women— or at least sexually active women— as a class, and that the only sensible thing to do at this point is to take his revenge, not just on his wife, but on sexually active women as a class. Looks like Claudia is right when she worries aloud to her artist’s model/lesbian lover, Janet (the sumameless Angelique), about the possibility that Richard might one day come looking for her.
His first victim is a cute black go-go dancer (Marie Lamont, I think; from this point on, I’m really just guessing as to who plays whom), to whom he sends a rose, the thorns of which he has treated with some slow-acting poison. (The soliloquy Richard gives while developing this plan is not to be believed.) It is with great satisfaction that Jennings watches from the back of the club as his g-string-clad victim unknowingly dances away the final moments of her life. Then he visits a burlesque show, and murders the stripper (Vivian Del Rio, maybe?) with a blowgun selected from his old closet arsenal. (One assumes he must have stopped by the apartment to collect his stuff from Claudia at some point.) Finally, he sets his sights on an out-and-out whore— and not just any whore, either. This hooker (Sally Farb?) is a friend of Janet’s, and before he kills her, Richard forces her to tell him where Janet and Claudia are hiding out. (Wait— they’re hiding out? Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to tell us about that a little earlier in the film?) Their safe-house turns out to be a big-ass carpentry shop out in the woods somewhere (uhhh...), which conveniently offers Richard the chance to decapitate one of his intended victims with a table saw. Slightly less convenient for Jennings is the fact that the other woman then shoots him in the gut with his own crossbow.
You know what’s kinda weird? Watching smut in black and white. Of course, everything else about The Touch of Her Flesh is pretty goddamned weird, too. Most of the movie’s brief running time is given over to a succession of unconnected sex scenes and stripteases, many of them really a bit too long for their own good. In between, we have a whole lot of Richard Jennings sitting around his new flophouse apartment, stewing over the subject of feminine evil and speechifying semi-coherently in voiceover. Meanwhile, the take-off-your-clothes-and-die sensibility here outdoes that of any slasher movie (except maybe Fantom Kiler), in that on those rare occasions when his victims happen not to be nude (well, panty-clad— this was only 1967, you know) when he gets to them, Jennings makes a point of stripping them himself! Things are only made more surreal by the stock classical-music score and the almost total absence of a conventional dialogue track; The Touch of Her Flesh takes on the feel of a silent movie gone horribly wrong. And as the final discordant note, we have Roberta Findlay’s cinematography. She’s really, really good, with an eye for frame composition and a mastery of light and shadow that is rare even in mainstream movies. The whole time, I found myself wondering how in the hell she ended up dedicating her career to kinky sex flicks when she ought to have had big-time filmmakers hounding her at every turn to run the camera on their productions in Hollywood! The disparate elements come together in a way that is less ballet than 40-car pileup, and the action is really too repetitive to be as entertaining as it should, but The Touch of Her Flesh is still too warped a movie to pass up.