STUDIO: Synapse

RUNNING TIME: 78 mins.
Rare alternate opening credit sequence
Audio Commentary from Doris Wishman Archivist Michael Bowen and star, Leslie
Original Theatrical Trailer and Promotional Spots
Radio Spot

WARNING! This review contains not safe for work screencaps

In the 30s and 40s certain topics and visuals were completely taboo in the motion picture industry, thanks to the repressive Hayes Production Code. But that doesn’t mean your grandparents didn’t see some saucy movies in their time. One of the most successful ways of getting questionable content in front of audiences was the roadshow – a presentation of a movie in a faux-clinical setting. The film that made the most money doing this was Mom and Dad, which used a boring story about a young girl getting pregnant as an excuse to show a live birth, a caesarian section surgery, and most audaciously, clips of real VD. The film was introduced by a fake doctor, who was also on hand to sell “sex ed” books, and who was also there to make the “educational” aspect of the showing more believable to the local authorities.

Let Me Die Without Flossing

By the 1970s the world had changed so much that these types of roadshows weren’t needed to smuggle shocking material to audiences. Porno chic had come and gone, and even Jackie O had been down to Times Square to see Deep Throat. The genre sputtered on a bit though – Faces of Death is a good example of a film keeping the flame alive – before it finally moved on to TV, where it lives strongly on daytime shows like Maury Povich, which presents seedy nastiness with the patina of therapy (I had to resist using scare quotes there. Three times in two paragraphs would have been way too many times).

One of the last films in the roadshow tradition was Doris Wishman’s outrageous Let Me Die A Woman, a “documentary” about sex changes which is offensive, ridiculous, gratuitous and completely great.

The Nuclear Man gets lucky.

The Flick

Doris Wishman is a legend in the world of sexploitation. She got her start directing nudie cutie films, which pretended to be documentaries about naturists, or nudists. The best known Wishman nudie cutie was Nude on the Moon, surely one of the all-time great film titles. After doing a number of these, Wishman moved on to the genre that would earn her fame – the roughie, films that revolved around S&M and bondage, and were often breathtakingly misogynistic.

Let Me Die A Woman is a complete departure from that form, but it includes some of the classic Wishman touches (her editing style is unique, to say the least. She never shot a ton of coverage and would use random, bizarre – but often pointed and hilarious – cutaways at the most unexpected times) and is even made up of softcore loops she had shot years before, used as padding.

The film opens with “Leslie,” a real male-to-female transsexual going about her morning: waking up, getting dressed, all to the kind of soundtrack music you would expect from a Disney nature film. She gives a voice over telling her story, and the film will come back to an interview with her throughout – it’s the only part of the film that feels even remotely real, and it’s often shockingly interesting, especially because this tranny comes from the very macho Puerto Rican culture of New York City.

Gears change up pretty quickly, though, and we’re plunged into the world of Dr. Leo Wollman, whose dubbed voice will narrate most of the film’s gratuitous and exploitative scenes. He presides over some of the most uncomfortable moments in the film, poking and prodding the often mangled physiology of real transsexuals with a metal pointer. It’s part of what makes Let Me Die A Woman so fascinating – I think that the film, and Wishman, really has sympathy for people suffering from gender dysmorphia, but they’re not above parading them around like complete freaks.

Did this get you fired yet?

I’ve never found any of Wishman’s films terribly sexy (even her Chesty Morgan films are more awe-inspiring than boner producing), and Let Me Die A Woman is no different. The softcore scenes are, to use a loaded word, limp and dull. One that is supposed to take place in Morocco is only notable for including Harry Reems (star of Deep Throat) as a guy who is seduced by a post-op tranny too soon after her operation. I can’t imagine what the original scene was supposed to be – it was shot at least 6 to 8 years before this film was put together – but in Let Me Die A Woman it ends with the new woman suffering a tearing of her vaginal stitches. Probably the best softcore scene, from a purely comedic point of view, comes at the beginning of the film, when a hooker brings a john home. Whether he knows she’s a tranny or not is never clear – the scene is silent – but at the end the hooker’s tiny, shriveled peen is revealed to us, as the camera endlessly lingers on it in the shower. And by endlessly I mean you start to wonder if this is the rest of the movie.

There are two scenes in Let Me Die A Woman that have serious impact. One is a notorious, and long lost sequence, where a man cuts off his own dick with a hammer and chisel. It’s a re-enactment, of course, but Wishman brings some real tension to the sequence, and her own demented brand of charm – there’s a drumroll before the cringe-inducing severing (in which the man’s penis is coated in copious red paint). A truly disgusting scene involves actual medical footage of a post-op male to female tranny’s genitals. It’s horrible work, red and pulpy and sore and nightmarish, the kind of thing that could really fuck up the sex life of an unsuspecting 13 year old. Thank God I never discovered this film in my early exploitation days, and only watched films like Pieces and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS that could positively affect my worldview.

"And right here we’ll tattoo his name – Toby."

Obviously this isn’t a film for everyone, but the intended audience will love it. Let Me Die A Woman manages to be almost completely gripping, and often laugh out loud wonderful. I like exploitation films that make me feel a little dirty after watching them, and Let Me Die A Woman certainly fills that bill. The world of mainstream cinema has essentially hit the wall when it comes to DVD releases – all the major films are out, and the studios are going back for double or triple dips on them. Meanwhile labels like Synapse keep digging into the alternative, extracting hidden gems like this film. You’ve got your Godfather Trilogy. It’s time to start watching something less ordinary.

9 out of 10

The Audio/Visual

Let Me Die A Woman is compiled from bits and pieces, and there’s no continuity to the look of the film as a result. The picture is often grainy and dull, but Synapse has done a very good job in cleaning the print up, and many of the colors are unexpectedly vibrant. Some of the footage looks like crap, and some of it – like the chisel to cock scene – is perfect.

Let Me Die A Monty Python Sketch

The mono soundtrack is flat and hollow. Plus almost everything is ludicrously dubbed.

7 out of 10

The Goodies

This disc gets great marks for its commentary track – not only does Wishman expert Michael Bowen drop serious knowledge about the woman and the history of the film, he has managed to find the real “Leslie” and brought her to the studio to discuss the movie thirty years later. It’s a pretty amazing look into the world of exploitation from a different perspective, a complete outsider who stumbled into it very briefly. It’s a funny and fascinating commentary.

Bowen has also uncovered an alternate opening title sequence for the film – from 1971, when it was called Adam or Eve. This title sequence has Harry Reems and an actress cavorting naked in a funhouse mirror, and the lyrics to a theme song Wishman’s niece wrote for the movie. The audio component has been lost, and Bowen gives commentary over the silent footage.

Truly, few men would ever achieve so much in the field of achievement.

There are also a selection of trailers and previews for the film, and a great radio ad. Bowen also has written a mini-essay tracing the confused history of the movie, which is included as an insert in the DVD case. Synapse has given this film a very nice set of extras aimed at the serious exploitation fan.

9 out of 10

The Artwork

A wonderfully pulpy image, taken from the original advertising (and the original poster? I’m not clear on that) adorns the DVD case. The scalpel and the naked man and woman promise everything that Let Me Die A Woman delivers.

8 out of 10

Overall: 9 out of 10