Most moviegoers back in the early eighties wouldn’t have blinked an eye at the casting but, for those in the know, Sharon Mitchell’s brief bit as “2nd Nurse” in William Lustig’s ferocious 1980 masterpiece Maniac was a small but significant milestone for the both of them. The New Jersey native Mitchell was just shy of a year younger than the Bronx bread Lustig when they first met during a New York casting session in early 1977. The proximity of their ages wasn’t all Mitchell and Lustig had in common during that first fateful meeting. They were both hungry (literally and figuratively) and struggling to make a name for themselves in the electric, and sometimes insane, world of film in the New York cinema in the seventies. Just past twenty in 1977, Mitchell was smart, feisty, lovely to look at, and a junkie. A former N.Y.U. film student, Lustig only had a tiny pot to piss in at the time but he had found a handful of investors in that sweltering summer of 77 to fund what would be his first feature as a director and Mitchell was his ideal, if surprising, leading lady. Inexperience and youth be damned, the two were a perfect team and the little film they made together, The Violation of Claudia, would help launch two extraordinary and wild careers that would be as unpredictable as they were influential. New York in 1977…a year of blackouts, Berkowitz and Billy ‘Fuckin’ Bagg.
Written, edited, and directed by William Lustig under the pseudonym Billy Bagg in just a few days for a measly budget even the most seasoned filmmakers could have barely cut a trailer on, The Violation of Claudia is a shockingly well-made and effective feature. An adult take on Bunuel’s 1967 stunner Belle de Jour, Lustig’s first film is a fascinating hour-long time sex film that is both erotic and witty. Label it exploitation, but it is intellectually driven exploitation crafted by a man clearly immersed in film history and captivated by all things cinema. Seemingly creatively birthed by the infamous NYC blackout of the summer of ’77 and the Son of Sam shootings, The Violation of Claudia marked the beginning of the creative cinematic bond between New York City and the gritty filmmaking style of William Lustig. It would be the first of many distinctly New York films Lustig created throughout his uncompromising career.
Dealing with sexual repression in an openly sexual arena, The Violation of Claudia would be an essential entry in William Lustig’s filmography even if it wasn’t his first feature. What could have been a by-the-numbers quickie becomes a truly rewarding and satisfying experience. You can sense Lustig’s creativity and drive in every shot of The Violation of Claudia. For a film shot so quickly by an artist so young, there is real clarity and fluidity in The Violation of Claudia‘s direction and Sharon Mitchell’s performance as the frustrated title character is really quite wonderful. Had she been around in Hollywood’s Golden Age, Mitchell could have been a real contender, a Myrna Loy with a ‘fuck me’ smile. Sharon Mitchell was more than a good actress, she was a unique one and her work in The Violation of Claudia is both endearing and touching.
Mitchell isn’t the only on-screen powerhouse appearing in The Violation of Claudia. The mighty Jamie Gillis turns in a typically strong supporting turn and the legendary Long Jeanne Silver also makes a brief, but memorable, appearance. The intense and extremely talented Gillis appeared in nearly a dozen films throughout the tumultuous year of 1977, which included not only Lustig’s debut but Radley Metzger’s Barbara Broadcast and perhaps most unforgettable, the terrifying Waterpower which saw Gillis delivering one of the great performances of the period. Silver had also appeared in Waterpower and it along with The Violation of Claudia marked two of her earliest performances on screen.
While it feels like it belongs exclusively to 1977, The Violation of Claudia would play throughout the late seventies, well into the mid-eighties, often on the bottom half of double-bills with a variety of other adult films. Besides its seemingly endless theatrical run, The Violation of Claudia also appeared on late-night cable television throughout the eighties in a heavily edited cut.
Like much of his work, Lustig watched as The Violation of Claudia created no small amount of controversy. A hysteria-driven article from a 1977 edition of Newsday used the film as an example of why ads for adult films were in their estimation a major “problem” and “blight”.
An even more hysterical uproar surrounded the film’s television cut in 1982 when an insurance sales agent named Kevin Finn went on an anti-porn crusade after he watched the film out of “curiosity” with his wife. Despite having all the hardcore sex being cut out, the neutered cut of The Violation of Claudia still left Mr. Finn “embarrassed, sickened and appalled”. Lost to time, is whether his wife felt the same way.
Distribpix’s special edition of The Violation of Claudia is another grand slam. Paired with Lustig’s second feature, Hot Honey, The Violation of Claudia has never looked or sounded better and the extras Distribpix have assembled include the original trailer, a slideshow of vintage articles, clippings and pictures, and a terrific hour-long podcast featuring Lustig talking about his background and films with Distribpix’s Steven Morowitz. The best extra is the incredibly informative and entertaining commentary track featuring Lustig and Nicolas Winding Refn, amid filming his Drive.
More information on this now out of print release can be found at Distribpix’s original listing and this article from their blog focused on the film. Used copies of the now hard to find disc can be ordered at Amazon.
-Jeremy Richey, Originally Published at Moon in the Gutter, 09/08/2014-