Despite the best efforts of prudes, decency leagues, and opponents of basic human pleasure, film in the 1960s was becoming liberated from the constraints that had been placed upon it. The willingness of the films of the 1920s to revel in depictions of drinking, sex, and other entertaining vices had been chased off American screens in the 1930s, and sexy films (or “sexy” films given the subject matter of some of them — a lot of “cankerous genitals” movies back then) were left to up-and-coming exploitation filmmakers such as Dwain Esper, Kroger Babb, and Louis Sonney. Those three, along with a band of hucksters and hustlers known collectively as the Forty Thieves, created a shadow film industry that employed the ballyhoo and operating procedure of sleazier carnival sideshows — where indeed many of the leading purveyors of exploitation film learned their craft.

They shot cheap movies with inexperienced casts, usually with minimal plots revolving around sex, drugs, and venereal disease. They bought the rights to anthropological and medical films that featured nudity “for educational reasons” and edited them into their own features. They showed the films in theaters they themselves owned or would go on the road to exhibit them in theaters in need of programming, however shoddy and sleazy it may be. Fly-by-night operations they may have been, often flaunting local obscenity laws, but that doesn’t mean these were small, back-alley affairs. They often packed the house, sometimes for nights, even weeks on end, until they had exhausted the blood to be squeezed from the stone or until local protesters, churches, and cops came for them. Then they would pack up their prints and high-tail it out of town. Back in their home base, they’d give their movie a different title, whip up some new promotional art, maybe edit together a couple of different movies, and start the whole thing over again. And again, people would turn out in droves, even if they knew they were getting at least a little snookered. It turned out, despite what moral watchdogs hoped, a lot of people were willing to sit through a bad movie if it delivered violence or a bare breast.

During the 1950s, the US developed a seemingly unquenchable thirst for educational films about nudist colonies, and one of the all-time great impresarios, David F. Friedman, led the charge. By the 1960s, after a slew of landmark cases regarding the definition of “obscenity”, filmmakers started churning out “nudie cuties” and burlesques — inexpensive films structured around a series of striptease performances or plot that were often nothing more than “an invisible man peeps on naked ladies.” You could shoot cheap framing devices, a slew of striptease acts over the course of a single afternoon, and then remix them to produce an almost unlimited number of “new” films. 

Erika Blanc

By the middle of the decade social forces as disparate as the free love movement, swinging London, women’s lib, underground hardcore pornographers, and a youth movement looking to cast off the hang-ups of their parents formed an uneasy alliance in the assault on old sexual mores. Enterprising Americans such as Radley Metzger searched Europe for provocative films, importing them into the United States to play in the country’s new “arthouse” cinemas. The mythical “raincoat crowd” that personified the grindhouse era wasn’t quite the same population turning out to see banned films by “pornographers” like Ingmar Bergman, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Vilgot Sjöman, and Metzger himself, who transitioned in the latter half of the 1960s from importing richly appointed erotic films into directing his own, including hallmarks of the genre like Carmen Baby, Therese and Isabelle, and the dizzying pop-art wonder Camille 2000

Unless, that is, those sophisticated European films found their way into the hands of one of the Forty Thieves, such as Kroger Babb, who would commission a sexy poster, dream up a saucy title, edit together a trailer showcases whatever scant flashes of female flesh or violence may be present, and then unleash, for example, Ingmar Bergman’s melancholy Summer with Monika on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit as Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl.

In France, Roger Vadim graduated from the scandalous Brigitte Bardot film And God Created Woman to the camp sexiness of Barbarella, which opened with a “zero gravity” striptease by his latest love, Jane Fonda. 1969’s Women in Love, directed by Ken Russell, dared to show full frontal male nudity in the beefy form of Oliver Reed wrestling with Alan Bates. Films such as these paved the way for Emmanuelle‘s transition from book to screen, at least in part by paving the way for the more sexually explicit mainstream film that Emmanuelle‘s producers cited as their inspiration (or permission slip): Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris

Before the end of the decade, the world had what it thought was going to be the first adaptation of Emmanuelle. But Io, Emmanuelle, directed by Cesare Canevari, wasn’t exactly what fans of the book were looking for.

A Hyena in the Safe

Love of the heart, of this you have dreamed

That Cesare Canevari remains largely unknown even among fans of obscure movies isn’t a huge crime against the history of the industry, but it is nevertheless something that should be rectified. He did good work. He was not a prolific director; he only directed nine films, compared to, for example, Lucio Fulic’s 60 directing credits and Jess Franco’s 206 listed credits, but most of Canevari’s films are historically significant for anyone who considers themselves aficionados of European cult cinema. In 1970, he directed ¡Mátalo!, a bizarre, psychedelic spaghetti western. La principessa nuda (The Nude Princess, 1976) introduced audiences to Ajita Wilson, a stunning transgender performer from the New York underground who forged a fruitful career for herself in Eurocult films. Canevari’s L’ultima orgia del III Reich (The Gestapo’s Last Orgy, 1977)  is considered something of a “high water mark” for the Nazisploitation subgenre. His 1968 film Una iena in cassaforte (A Hyena in the Safe) is an entertaining mix of heist film, giallo, and krimi — not that there hasn’t always been a lot of crossover between those genres. 

Six thieves with six keys meet eleven months after stealing a safe full of diamonds to open it, even though one has to assume there’s a hyena waiting in there. It seemed like the perfect plan, as far as hopelessly convoluted heist movie plans go, but things immediately go awry. One of the thieves is unable to make it, sending instead his mysterious and beautiful girlfriend (Karina Kar). Another lost his key in a poker game, and its new owner (Ben Salvador, later in Io, Emmanuelle) arrives instead of the expected thief. Handsome hotshot Albert (Alex Morrison) shows up with a new girlfriend, Jeanine (Cristina Gaioni), even though one assumes “open the stolen safe” parties do not welcome plus-ones. The biggest monkey wrench in the works is that the mastermind of the heist is dead, or so says Anna (Maria Luisa Geisberger), who claims he passed his key to her. 

Suspicions flare, especially around Albert’s girlfriend. They decide collectively to put suspicions aside, though, and open the safe — which is a fine plan until Albert discovers he no longer has his key. The others suspect him of holding the diamonds hostage in hopes of getting a larger share. Albert’s shiftiness becomes more acute when they discover he is a drug addict. But then he turns up dead, having fallen, jumped, or been pushed out of a tower window. The situation is about much more than just the missing key, and the remaining thieves begin to form and dissolve alliances as they struggle with increasing desperation to unravel the mystery of the key’s location, who might be a murderer, and what to do with yet another mysterious new person who shows up, hovering the villa in a helicopter and ranting about being “the boss” and wanting half the diamonds. Meanwhile, a meek diamond fence arrives and serenely witnesses the descent into chaos. 

A Hyena in the Safe

Although Canevari’s later output was rough and sleazy, A Hyena in the Safe is a light-hearted, even old-fashioned, breezy delight. Working with his go-to cinematographer Claudio Catozzo, Canevari achieves a delirious pop-art sensibility full of offbeat camera angles and oddly-framed shots. Why just film a man walking through a doorway, Catozzo reckons, when you can film the whole thing framed by the white go-go boots of a reclining woman? The fashion is pure ’60s glory, and along with the playful — yet occasionally violent — atmosphere, it places A Hyena in the Safe alongside outre heist films like Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik! and sorta-giallo 5 bambole per la luna d’agosto (Five Dolls for an August Moon, 1970). Despite the murders and the slapping around (mostly of poor Jeanine, by just about everyone at some point), there’s not much in the way of meanness or angst in the film, at least not much more than in the average fumetti-inspired film of the time. Most of what’s on display is simply groovy fun and a bit of gleefully macabre mischief.

For his next film, Canevari directed Io, Emmanuelle. It’s often listed as the first adaptation of Arsan/Rollet-Andriane’s Emmanuelle, though it’s incorrect to do so. If it has any connection to the novel, it’s as a reaction to or deconstruction of, rather than adaptation. There is no mention of Emmanuelle Arsan or the book in the film’s credits. The screenplay is credited to Canevari and musician Graziella Di Prospero, based on a story by Di Prospero called Disintegrazione 68. It has none of the book’s sex-positive joie de vivre. True, both Emmanuelle and Io, Emmanuelle involve a woman drifting through a series of sexual encounters, but whereas one is a celebration of free love among the jet set, the other is a grim meditation on emptiness, ennui, and loss.

Io, Emmanuelle is a melancholy meditation on a woman’s desperate attempt to find meaning in life through a series of unfulfilling sexual relationships as she wanders, glassy-eyed, through a soulless world. It has more in common with Michelangelo Antonioni’s bleak Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964) than it does Emmanuelle. Working again with Claudio Catozzo, the film boasts the same pop-art sensibility as A Hyena in the Safe, full once again of offbeat camera angles and oddly-framed shots. But this time, rather than delighting, they disturb. Instead of being playful, Catozzo’s oddball angles and zooms are unsettling. He lets the camera settle on seemingly inconsequential pieces of set decoration or body parts, especially star Erika Blanc’s knees and stomach, dissecting her into pieces devoid of a human whole.

Erika Blanc

Blanc’s Emmanuelle wanders through Rome in a quest for some modicum of fulfillment, meeting with different men in search of a sliver of fleeting happiness, but finding none. She suffers from nervous stomach issues. She is prone to acts of violence as a reaction to emotional alienation. She spends most of the movie contemplating suicide, motivated by equal parts existential despair and simple boredom. In the background of it all, worker unrest, student protests, and the Vietnam War create a stark portrait of a world as damaged and directionless as Emmanuelle herself. Rather than the liberation sexuality brings in the novel, here it is simply a symptom of desperation, the manifestation of a need for some act, no matter how degrading, that will make Emmanuelle feel…if not happy, then at least conscious.

Io, Emmanuelle is not without its eroticism — neither were many of the films of Antonioni, after all — but Blanc’s smoldering look and artful nudity is purposefully undercut by the somber atmosphere and a fixation on emotional despondency. Where the Emmanuelle of the novel revels in her sexuality, for Blanc’s it is a lifeline, a last-ditch effort to assuage or forget the pain of abandonment and shallowness. Where the book’s Emmanuelle receives as much as she gives from the men and women with whom she has sex, Blanc’s Emmanuelle remains dead-eyed and unengaged as men (and one woman) fumble about their business. Her partners are not presented as predators or exploiters, mind you; it is simply that none of them offers the emotional connection Emmanuelle craves. None of them notice how forlorn she is, or that she suffers from a periodically debilitating stomach pain; or if they do notice, they don’t care. 

It is a fascinating movie; beautifully shot, stylishly attired, and artfully mounted; but it is most definitely not what people think of when they think of an Emmanuelle movie. The first proper Emmanuelle adaptation wouldn’t be made for a few more years, It would have to wait until a shift in French censorship allowed filmmakers to test the waters of more overt sexuality. It had to wait for Last Tango in Paris

That film achieved, on a more mainstream level, what Radley Metzger had been attempting for years. It moved sexuality out of the realm of the stag reel and the cheap nudie movie and into the domain of respectable, even award-winning cinema. Granted, more than a few parts of society reacted with appalled horror that such a degenerate work should be granted any degree of public consideration. Sex and nudity, after all, was something best kept in the bedroom. But howl as they might, there was no putting the genie back in its clothing. No sooner had Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider finally kicked open that locked bedroom door than producer Yves Rousset-Rouard found himself in possession of the rights to adapt Emmanuelle at a time when the world seemed, at last, ready to enjoy sexually explicit films without committing acts of self-flagellation in the morning. The only big question remaining to be answered: who do you cast in such an iconic role?