Starring Robbie Lee, Joanne Nail, Monica Gayle, Kitty Bruce and Janice Karman. Directed by Jack Hill. Written by F.X. Maier. Produced by John Prizer. A Miramax release. Action. Rated R. Running time: 89 minutes.
You're Either In The Gang Or ...
What were Quentin Tarantino and Jack Hill thinking? After showing a lurid new trailer which uses critic's quotes to spin Jack's 1975 exploitation flick as a modern feminist empowerment manifesto, they swaggered up to the juice bar at the politically-correct Seattle International Film Festival with a spanking new print of, oh yessss, Switchblade Sisters.
Mark one for the boys. Quentin, that master of marketing, scored himself front page news throughout the media as the feminist thoughtpolice dutifully reported the self-righteous indignation of the estrogen-heavy audience. Switchblade Sisters was buzz. Ever hear of Switchblade Sisters? Jeez, I don't think I ever saw it. In 1975 I was a journalist, man, slugging it out, dreaming of better gigs... but I've seen Switchblade Sisters now, and for all its nostalgic notoriety it's a tough one to call. Which gang of critics you wanna join?
Gang #1: The Silver Daggers. If you like this campy style, this Dionysian overdose of cliches ... and I'm thinking of the substance abuse crowd here... then this is one of the great ones... right up there with Wild In The Streets.
Gang #2: The Crabs. If you don't like it... the bad acting, the cheezy sets, the line-em-up-knock-em-down list of sexy and/or violent acts... then you're like Roger Ebert, who panned this movie out of hand, dissing it as one of Jack's worst films.
What's all the fuss about? Bottom line, Switchblade Sisters is simply an early example of post-modern genre comedy, a self-referential farce in which we amuse ourselves by listing all the links we can find to all the other 1960s genre movies that played to The Boomer Generation. It's like counting the holes in the Albert Hall... and best of all, Hill was ripping off his own cliches, having made 16 genre flicks in his career. And think about it... all this self-referencing is, of course, the main lesson young Tarantino learned from his master's knee - and this flick. Jackie Brown is Quentin's homage to Hill, but Switchblade Sisters is the Hill film Tarantino chose to re-release on his fledgling Rolling Thunder Pictures.
And there's a good reason why Quentin chose Switchblade Sisters. It's R Rating, while tame today, still gives this flick a decidedly sexy edge.
The two lead gangsterettes, Robbie Lee (Lace) and Joanne Nail (Maggie) are two lip-licking young nymphettes, ultimately too innocent and sexy to pull off the level of toughness they're supposed to represent. They're like, improbably gorgeous. But improbable is this movie's middle name.
Robbie Lee is the top-billed female star. As the leader of the "Dagger Debs" - Lace's girl gang replica of the Silver Daggers, led by her boyfriend, Dominic - she experiences the teenage angst of the flick, dealing with a pregnancy her boyfriend ridicules, the shame of betrayal, the guilt of the death of her gangleader boyfriend, the loss of her baby, the rejection of her gang, and ultimately, the tip of Maggie's switchblade as it carves into her neck. Robbie is a cute little chipmunk of a girl, with an impossibly squeaky voice she tries to lower by clenching her jaw. The madder she gets, the more she clenches, and the slower she talks. She is, of course, an atrocious amateur actor, but she bravely brawls and bawls her way along, clenching and unclenching through her limited gamut of emotions. But still, her hysterical character is fun, and she exudes starlet attraction... and a body guaranteed to get teenage hormones pumping.
Joanne, who plays Maggie, the new kid on the turf, spends the first half of her screen time in microshorts and a tight tee-shirt. She has the body of a model and the face of an Olivia Newton-John... she's good at grimacing, has a sarcastic mouth, and is gang rules smart compared to Lace's primeval instincts... she's aggressive, trustworthy, and smoothly sexy... but then... she puts on her pants in the last half of the flick and turns into a psychotic, mao-spouting, white panther street killer. Given her innocent sexuality, neither role is even slightly plausible... and either way, that face doesn't reveal the slightest trace of anything... but a future of man-eating luxury.
Monica, a Glacial Beauty who plays the serpent-tongued lieutenant, Patch, gets to role-reverse the Hathaway shirt man. She is the film's closet lesbian, an obsessive anal-retentive who lost her eye during her initiation to the gang. Her eyepatch is big, silver-coloured, and embossed with a red and yellow butterfly. Isn't that a lesbian symbol? Monica icily plays her to perfection, her thin, cruel lips, high forehead, her straight-backed, mistress of the blade character adroitly done. Her devotion to the relationship she has with Lace is, of course, her Iago-like undoing, and her jealous plotting drives the story to its cliched ending. Ultimately, the cops don't even bother to arrest her... she's no longer in the gang.
The rest of the sex is pretty gratuitous: we see some breasts in the women's prison fight scene; we see more breasts flashed by one of Dominic's high-school prostitutes; and we see Donut, the gang's dumb, fat chick, who sports low-cut, tight tees that show off her ample talents. There's some sordid "alcoholic mom screws for the rent" scenes, a rape scene, and an abridged blowjob, and a lot of reckless shooting. The knives are saved for the climax.
Other than that, it's grimace or laugh your way through the dialogue. It sounds like mockery to me, but you know, you never can tell. All-girl street gangs could talk that way.
The plot? Immaterial.
Movie Poster Movie
So, where were you on '75? Staying alive? Doing the Crocodile Rock? The big story around at the time was Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Remember posters of her with the head bandanna and M-16 on her hip? Patty's pix gave the executive producer, Frank Moreno, the idea for a girl gang movie, The Jezebels. He had a lurid, low-budget poster made up. He showed it to producer John Prizer. John liked the idea. He talked with Jack Hill. Hill liked the idea. But they had no script. No problem. They auditioned writers by showing them the poster and asking them to come up with some ideas. The guy with the most saleable script ideas turned out to be F. X. Maier. Hill, Prizer and Maier then sat down and worked up a plotline to go with the title and poster. The basic plot twist? Hill says he had always thought about doing a movie loosely based on Othello, with the sexes reversed. This was the time.
With a budget of $320,000 the film was shot in 12 days. The actors all did their own stunts.
Bonus Stuff on the DVD.
Tape is doomed. You can get so much neat extra stuff on DVDs now, and as this is a Quentin Tarantino Rolling Thunder DVD, you get lots.
* voice-over commentary by Jack Hill and Quentin. Great for film students.
* intro to the film and Jack and an equally funny film outro of Jack's career by Quentin
* trailers to nine of Jack's most famous genre movies
Quentin does a lot of shilling about Jack during his frenetic Intro and Outro sections, shot in current rad-style digital video... and edited, not shot, into jerky madness. But why not? He wants to sell as many knives as possible.
"Sooner or later, every girl's got to find out - the only thing a man's got below his belt is clay feet." - Maggie
So, what's it gonna be? Are you tough enough to join the gang? Do you get it? It's funny, right? Or are you gonna sit at a different table? Yeah, chicken... sit over there. Hey you, shut up and listen... beauty of this film? It has no pretensions. Wanna fight about that? Get your girl and we'll see....
© Rick "Ojo" McGrath 2000
e-mail Ojo | the Ojo Files | Features | Culture Court
Film Court | copyright 2000 | Lawrence Russell