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April 27, 2021

Switchblade Sisters


Jack Hill - 1975
Arrow Films BD Region A

While it may be true that certain parts of Switchblade Sisters were inspired by actual events and people researched by Jack Hill, the film is at heart closer to something like High School Confidential. And I love High School Confidential. But what we have is a film mostly populated by actors who are mostly well into their twenties, in a story that takes place in what I can only describe as a backlot Los Angeles marked up by an army of graffiti taggers. The mix of topicality does not make the film any more realistic. Any serious messages get lost the exaggerated, fanciful imagination of Hill.

The new girl at school, Maggie, is challenged by girl gang member, Patch, at the local burger stand. Patch is with the other members of the Dagger Debs, and gets her nickname from wearing an eyepatch. The gang leader, Lace, is the girlfriend of Dominic, "president" of the Silver Daggers. Maggie and Patch get into a fight, interrupted by the cops who take the girls to a reformatory. Maggie may the new girl on the block, but she is hardly naive to the ways of the street. Lace decides to give Maggie a chance to be part of the Dagger Debs, setting off a chain of events involving gang rivalries, jealousy and betrayal.

It should be no surprise that Robbie Lee, the young actress who played Lace, went on to primarily work as a voice artist. Snaggletoothed slightly keeps Lee from being conventionally attractive, but it is her voice that manages to be simultaneously annoying and endearing. Jack Hill described Lee's voice as reminding him of James Cagney, but that is not quite accurate. I think it is more like the voice of a child trying to sound tough, but it is still to high to be taken seriously. There may be better analogies, but Lee sounds more like a very young Mickey Rooney. Similar to some of the classic film gangsters, underneath Lace's tough exterior is a sentimental side that contributes to her undoing.

While it is not stated in any of the interviews with Hill or anyone associated with the production, I wonder if there was a time when Switchblade Sisters was intended to be a blaxploitation film. Previously, Hill had made his reputation with several films that made a star out of Pam Grier. There are scenes where making the film about black gangs might have made more sense. Some of the topicality of the time may be lost with a contemporary audience when the remaining Debs, now called the Jezebels, join forces with a cadre of black female revolutionaries who quote from Mao's Little Red Book. Back in 1975, most of the intended audience would know a reference to Angela (Davis) would not need to state her last name. As bad then as it is now, though, would to have a female character named "Muff", especially when played by Marlene Clark, an actress who deserved much better roles following Ganja and Hess.

In one of the supplementary interviews, Jack Hill states that he intended the film to be rated PG. Hill said that the R rating was due to the discussion of drug use, although I suspect that what also factored in the rating has been the tendency of a more punitive stance towards independent films. In an unsourced quote in IMDb, Hill also describes Switchblade Sisters as a fantasy. Both of these bring up the question as to whom was the intended audience. Hill's films, with the possible exception of Spider Baby, could all be described as exploitation films and were sold as such. Considering what was popular in 1975, the year of Jaws, it is hard to imagine that even under the best circumstances that Switchblade Sisters would have been embraced by a teen audience. The fantasy aspect might be best judged by Hill's choice to shoot several scenes on the backlots of MGM. Hill found this to be both more cost and time efficient than shooting (literally and figuratively) on location. But the virtually depopulated studio streets also add to a sense of unreality.

That embrace of commercial viability has proven elusive although the film has an afterlife with some critics and cult audiences. My own first viewing was in 1995 via Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures. The Arrow release is a reflection of the contemporary female fandom that has emerged following that re-release. The enclosed booklet includes an interview with Hill by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and an essay discussing the controversial rape scene. Heather Drain provides a more general overview of the film's narrative. The commentary track by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan provides more of a feminist perspective with Deighan providing a connection with several of the bad girl films from the 1950s. Fans of Jack Hill may also enjoy the collection of trailers from his other films included here.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 27, 2021 06:56 AM