Russ Meyer had to take incremental steps to get to become the storied and respected filmmaker that he eventually did. His first step was being a gifted photographer who was as adept at his skill as mortars and debris rained down around him in the heat of battle as he was while studying the contours of his models’ bodies as they were lying at the base of an oak tree while bathed in dappled sunlight. His second step was punching through the wall of morality and releasing The Immoral Mr. Teas, his groundbreaking film that introduced actual nudity in a motion picture to those who would pay for the privilege to see it.
I would bet that Meyer’s most important decision in the evolution of his success was hooking up with and marrying the former Eve Turner in 1952. No doubt that Meyer had talent to burn and that his personality caused him to be a little shrewd but Eve took his game to a whole other level. At once both his business partner and muse, Eve Meyer pumped life into his output in which she was the subject by being both impossibly built and having a uniquely strong relationship with the camera. In terms of what they did for each other and each other’s work, you’d probably have to look to Jess Franco and Lina Romay for something comparable.
So it’s something of a shame that, as far as his motion pictures went, Eve Meyer was only ever in front of the camera in Eve and the Handyman, Russ’s follow-up to the previous year’s Teas. But her presence in it is both sly and smart; Eve Meyer is the primary woman on display in this film and it ends up being ten times as effective as Teas without having to resort to any nudity on her behalf.
Like Teas before it, Eve and the Handyman is little more than a sketch-pad for Meyer’s visual ideas and micro-budgeted creativity. A jack-of-all-trades handyman (Anthony-James Ryan) is stalked by a mysterious, trench-coated blonde whose constant, double entendre-stacked voice-over narration positions the film as a bawdy, Dragnet-style procedural in which every move of the handyman is noted and remarked upon by his voyeuristic pursuer. Gone is the gimmick in which naked girls pop up to awkwardly pose in the daydreams and hallucinations of our protagonist and replaced by the laser-focus of our bumbling hero as he completes his day-to-day tasks, never minding the many buxom women he encounters along the way (mostly all played by Eve Meyer in various get-ups).
Where Teas reflected women contented to be placed like statues and given little to do, Eve wants women to be the driver of the engine. Teas wants to be a moving centerfold and Eve wants to be the whole damn magazine. The jokes are livelier, the mood is more jovial, and, more importantly, Eve Meyer flips the script by giving the audience the first taste of what would be a Russ staple; the woman is on top and the man is the dope. Sexually oblivious, Bill Ryan’s Handyman gets saddled with Eve Meyer almost exclusively because her mission is to, ostensibly, wise him up. So she becomes everywoman in his path while remaining the detective that wants to sell him toilet supplies in the end.
Eve Meyer’s presence in this film couldn’t help but inform Meyer as to what exactly he wanted in the future. For Eve Meyer is the first “Russ Meyer Woman.” Eve Meyer showed Russ Meyer how to present a woman who looked like she wanted to be wanted. More importantly, she wanted the audience to know she knew they knew that she wanted to be wanted. Untangle all that and you’re are the heart of what makes Russ Meyer’s films stand so far apart from other films of their ilk that the massive delta between them renders it unfair to mention them in the same breath. Show me a Russ Meyer film that’s blessed with a narrative structure and I’ll show you a heroine that sprung forth from Eve Meyer’s roots which are so firmly planted in this film.
Once past the nudie cuties, the cinema of Russ Meyer is as equally hilarious and exhilarating as it is titillating. And even if the nudie cuties are tame pieces of antiquity, they aren’t bereft of a good laugh or two. The jokes in Eve take a while to unfold and your mileage with them may vary; they might or might not be worth it, depending on your perspective. But this film is the first to have this specific blend of broad, sight-gag humor and sex which was mostly missing from Teas, a film that feels like it can barely breathe lest it get caught doing what it wants to be doing. Additionally, in employing a panoply of visual ideas representative of intercourse and orgasm (the constant churning of oil wells, the coupling of trains, etc.), Meyer gives the thrust of the train into the tunnel at the end of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, itself released a scant one year earlier, nowhere to hide.
As stated before, there’s just not a lot of there there in the subgenre of the nudie cuties. They are what they are and the trick is to try and enjoy them with a sense of historical context because there just aren’t many of them that are going to stop the conversation at a dinner party and become the thing everyone will have to have seen before the next get-together. Depending on the director and the talent involved, they mostly all run the gamut between “unwatchable” and “pleasant enough”. With Eve and the Handyman, Russ and Eve Meyer joined forces to give the audience something a little more more memorable; electric burlesque compliments of Eve’s strong, palpable sexuality reminiscent of one of Howard Hawks’s joyously randy heroines and Meyer’s clean compositions, edited together like a breathless Gatling gun shooting off eye candy.
“The biggest catch in life, my friends, is a happy ending,” so says our heroine in the final line of the film. As much as that phrase meant something even in the creaky days of 1961, the film earns its right to use it as Eve and the Handyman, while not the best or bawdiest of Russ Meyer’s output, is truly his first effective mix of the sex and the sublime.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain