Although multi-country co-productions were very common in the 1960s, British-French co-productions were particularly thin on the ground, as if the cultural identities were so far apart there was nowhere they could ever meet. This was only the third such co-production in three years. British Lion, a long-established operation, had recently been overhauled with a new boss in John Boulting, a renowned filmmaker of Boulting Brothers (The Family Way, 1966) fame.
The film was based on a prestigious prize-winning French novel by Andre Pieyre de Manidargues. The budget was set at a modest $1.5 million with location shoots in Geneva, Heidelberg and Strasbourg with interiors shot at Shepperton. Director Jack Cardiff (Dark of the Sun, 1967) had originally hired a German actress, a Playboy centerfold, for the leading role of the young girl who marries a timid young man while obsessed with a less conventional ex-lover. But the actress suffered a drug overdose and dropped out. Ironically, Marianne Faithful, her replacement, was also a drug addict and famed as a singer and as girlfriend of Mick Jagger.
Although her acting experience was limited to television film Anna (1967) and a small part in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname (1967), Cardiff was captivated by her sensuality which was ideal for her character. Bear in mind that Cardiff knew what a camera captured. He had made his name as a cinematographer and worked with great beauties like Ava Gardner (The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Sophia Loren (Legend of the Lost, 1957) and Marilyn Monroe (The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957) so if he thought Faithfull fitted that category then there was no reason to doubt his assessment. He commented: “Never since I saw Marilyn Monroe through the camera lens have I seen such irresistible beauty. To focus on her is to focus the camera on your innermost heart.”
Cardiff took advantage of a new trend to film movies in both English and French to open up distribution channels. Claude Chabrol’s The Road to Corinth (1967) was shot in this manner as was Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) with Charles Bronson and Alain Delon.
Faithfull could not ride a motorbike so a stunt double was utilised for long shots. But instead of resorting to back projection, for medium shots and close-ups the actress was towed on a trailer behind a camera car. Not having to worry about the controls also meant that Faithfull could look dreamlike while driving and with Cardiff not having to think about the actress he could turn the camera in a 360-degree pan while she rode along.
Since Faithfull was going to be seen on a motorbike for long sections of the movie, Cardiff came up with a method of creating variety. One of the techniques employed was “solarization.” This was, in effect, a half-positive half-negative exposure, but it had only been used in the past in very small doses, nothing like what Cardiff had in mind. BBC boffin Laurie Atkin had invented a computer system that allowed solarization to be used more extensively. Footage shot during the day was taken immediately to the BBC lab at night where Cardiff could tinker about with creating his effects.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of this technique were the sex scenes. Without the solarization which hid naked bodies under a psychedelic whirl the sex scenes would never have got past the censor. There was an unfortunate downside, however. The Girl on a Motorcycle had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Critical approval there would have given the picture artistic momentum. Unfortunately, delays caused by the laboratory work meant the film missed its scheduled screening slot. Even so, French critics gave it the thumbs-up. British critics, on the other hand, gave it the thumbs-down. Lack of critical estimation did not appear to matter to British audiences who came out in their droves.
But it was a different story in the United States.
No wonder that to some extent this is one of the great lost pictures because Warner Brothers could not find a way to sell it in the U.S. Having paid a record $1.5 million advance, the studio (known at that time as Warner-Seven Arts) was hit by a double whammy. The picture was the first to receive an X-rating from the newly-established MPAA censorship system which replaced the previous Production Code. The new system was supposed to allow filmmakers greater latitude in terms of sex, violence and language.
Theoretically, that should have been a marketing bonus and the film should have ridden the “sex-art” wave and turned into an arthouse hit with the mainstream, captivated by solid grosses, to follow. In reality, many exhibitors refused to touch it, regarding the X-rating as a separate category catering for the worst of the adults-only smut market. Newspapers refused to carry advertising for films so rated. Critics hated it, all the New York critics giving negative reviews.
Warners slotted it into a handful of arthouse houses before pulling all prints out of circulation in May 1970 and sending to back for re-editing with the intention of re-submitting it, shorn of some of the nudity, to the MPAA in a bid to win a more acceptable R-rating. In other words, to “re-gear the picture for the general market rather than the adult sex-art trade originally in mind.”
To ensure that its reputation was not “soiled” the picture was re-titled Naked under Leather – if the content was tamer, the title was certainly not. Initially, that appeared to do the trick when it was re-released a full year later. It pulled in a “boff” $125,000 (worth around $864,000 now – a whopping $36,000 per-screen average) in 24 houses in wide release in Los Angeles, was “hot” in Denver and “tidy” in Chicago and found a few bookings elsewhere. But then it stalled and could not find the extra gear. In reality it did not do much better than on initial release. In the 1969 annual box office chart it featured at No 231 and for the corresponding 1970 chart it placed at number 253.
Sources: Jack Cardiff, Magic Hour, Faber and Faber, 1996, p242-243; “New British Lion Mgt. Gets Motorcyle Rights in UK,” Variety, October 18, 1967, 23; “Stylistic Dash Marks Cannes Films,” Variety, May 22, 1968, 26“British Lion Wraps Up Distribution Deal with W-7 for U.S., Towa for Japan,” Variety, August 28, 1968, 29, “Features Passing Through MPAA,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 20; “All Imports; N.Y. Critics All Bad,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 7; “Recall and Re-Edits W-7’s Motorcycle; X-Rating Now R,” Variety, January 29, 1969, 7; “Computer Tally of 729, 1968,” Variety, May 7, 1969, 36; “Naked under Leather,” Variety, April 22, 1970, 4; “L.A. First Run Healthy,” Variety, May 13, 1970, 9; “Top 330 Pix in U.S. for 1970,” Variety, May 12, 1971, 37.