The Switchblade Sisters

Certificate: 18
Running time: 91 mins
Director: Jack Hill
Starring: Robbie Lee, Monica Gayle, Kitty Bruce, Joanne Nail
Genre: Drama, Action, Exploitation
Format: DVD
Country: USA

You’ll be slightly surprised at how well you actually know this movie without having ever watched it.  It’s release in 1975 was nothing major to write home about, though those who were following the career of director Jack Hill would be excited, it has taken a number of years for the true worth of the girl gang flick to be represented through homages and references.

Lace (Lee) is the snarling leader of the Dagger Debs who along with her right hand lady Patch (Gayle) rule the streets and school when they’re not being booked by the police or in conflict with rival gangs.  The apple cart is well and truly upset when a new girl arrives into town (Nail) and threatens to oust Lace as leader and steal her boyfriend.

The Switchblade Sisters lasting charm is one that most of Jack Hill’s work revolves around, yes it’s exploitation cinema so there’s a little more nudity than modern cinema audiences are used to, but the women are tough.  Modern cinema, for the most part, has it’s female characters (even those played by high profile actors) spouting exposition dialogue that either furthers the narrative or explores the character of the leading man.  Not Jack Hill.  Like Coffy, Foxy Brown and Spider Baby his films are worlds that revolve around tough women.  Having attended film school with Francis Ford Coppola you can’t mistake his ability to write, especially in a tough genre like exploitation and this film, his penultimate, is no exception.  The story is classic Shakespearian with it’s echoes of MacBeth but it is more than that, this story is an ancient story, a primal and basic story and it is his ability to pair a basic story with interesting set pieces and strong, rich, characters that shows why cinema misses Jack Hill.  The dialogue is wonderfully touched, in the review of Coffy it mentions the writers who work at length to capture the effortlessness of Hill’s understanding of language and again this is true of The Switchblade Sisters.  In conversation with Kitty Bruce (Donut) in 2010 she made light of her days on film and this is the problem with Hill, he makes it all look too easy and perhaps it was to him.

The cinematography of the film is typical of Hill also.  The writer/director must be considered one of the true auteurs of Hollywood cinema alongside the likes of Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks.  Each of his films have their own individual look, identity, a feel of their own but you can watch for a matter of moments and just know that this is a Jack Hill film.  So strong is his signature that it’s impossible for modern directors to replicate (please story trying Quentin).  Two great scenes stand out, the first being the prison fight.  All elements in this sequence is just right, the fighting is not choreographed to the usual faultless standards.  It’s real and in looking real Hill can take liberties in other ways, the camera work, funky fight score and more than occasional glimpse of flesh punctuate the combat and give the film it’s sense of fun.  The second is the fight between Lace and Maggie (Nail) which is played off their shadows against a wall and is a brilliant use of light and focus from a fantastic director.

The director has surrounded himself with fantastic actors, not all of them will still be recognisable as “faces” to today’s audience but they are all outstanding.  Kitty Bruce (as Donut) plays the comedy sidekick roll to a standard that you would expect from an actor twice her age.  Monica Gayle (as Patch) is also great, she is the power behind the throne and is ruthless in pursuit of keeping it she cuts a dominant and threatening figure like a tougher version of Christina Lindberg.  The standout performance belongs to that 70’s serial show stealer Robbie Lee.  Her portray of Lace, and her general acting style, is one of crazed menace but with a insecure warmth and charm that would almost make you want to give her a hug and tell her it was all going to be ok before you realise she’s stuck a knife in you.  Such is her skill that you spend a lot of the scenes she’s not involved in looking forward to seeing her again, she has managed to craft a well rounded and complex character for a genre that is often criticised for having two dimensional offerings driving their narrative.  Her softness in scenes with her boyfriend is only matched by her cold hearted brutality in others and you can’t help but fully understand her which is even more amazing as the film isn’t riddled with massive amounts of exposition.

The Switchblade Sisters is so much more than a simple exploitation film or a “chick flick”.  It’s roots live in Shakespearian tragedy, which is why it’s remembered and referenced to this day, as the matter is timeless and at it’s heart about human emotion.  “The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play may be”[1] in referring to The Switchblade Sisters feel free to add the word brilliant in there.

[1] Blaise Pascal


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