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Producer-Director Aldrich at a Crossroads: The Killing of Sister George (1968) and The Grissom Gang (1971) from Kino Lorber

The Grissom Gang ()

The Grissom Gang (1971)

A Review Essay by Tony Williams.

Following the commercial success of The Dirty Dozen (1967), iconoclastic director Robert Aldrich fulfilled his dream of purchasing his own studio. As well as attempting full independence from the Hollywood studio system that he was both part of, and opposed to, the director aimed at a particular type of continuity with a past that he hoped would extend into a more productive future. The property had formerly belonged to Charles Chaplin, with whom Aldrich had worked with as assistant director before he moved on to becoming a director himself, after working in television to gain the appropriate full director credit after functioning in different capacities within the studio system. Another key influence on Aldrich was the short-lived Enterprise Studio where he had worked with Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Lewis Milestone, and others as assistant director. As Aldrich later recognized, Enterprise was a hopeless utopian project doomed to failure after later productions did not achieve the box-office success of its first venture Body and Soul (1947). (1) Paradoxically, The Dirty Dozen was not an Aldrich studio production but an MGM film. Like later Enterprise films, Aldrich chose to follow-up The Dirty Dozen not with an imitative sequel, as would be the case today, but with a series of challenging films representing the type of independent commercial cinema he felt would succeed with audiences desiring change. However, like Enterprise Films, his choices for his own studio did not receive the critical and commercial acclaim he hoped. Therefore, he eventually relinquished his brief role as studio head studio and returned to the Hollywood fold but, where he still championed the type of cinema he believed in.

Despite this sad chapter in Aldrich’s career, contemporary criticism has found much to admire in these Aldrich Studio films, even those that contained major problems, such as The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968). It is a pleasure to see Kino-Lorber reissuing two of these films in digitally revised editions with relevant features and audio-commentaries. The Killing of Sister George (1968) and The Grissom Gang (1971) gained release in a particular chronological order. The first followed The Legend of Lylah Clare while the other preceded the collapse of Aldrich’s studio. However, despite their individual qualities, I’ll review The Grissom Gang first, due to its particular merits and importance.

Both films have precedents with previous film versions and source material (novel and stage production). The Grissom Gang’s origins lie in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931). First filmed as The Story of Temple Drake (1933), remade in a British cinema version in 1948 as No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) with Jack LaRue (1902-1984) repeating his menacing role of “Trigger” (originally “Popeye” in the novel) in a version with a British cast but with a another different name “Slim Grissom.”  Set in America, English writer James Hadley Chase’s (1906-1985) 1939 novel of the same name bears more than a passing resemblance to the Faulkner original. Another changed version appeared in America in 1961, directed by Tony Richardson (1928-1991). Hybridity marks different versions of this narrative, so it is quite natural that Aldrich retains the name “Slim Grissom” now played by Scott Wilson (1942-2018) for his version derived from a British “film noir”, now photographed by Joseph Biroc (1903-1996) as an early version of color development that would soon receive visual codification as “neo-noir.” Biroc’s photography is an early version of the trend, its lurid colors approximating Technicolor at its most garish before transition towards the more subtle tones of Aldrich’s Hustle (1975) and other later works.

738329230326Despite a lack of mainstream recognition during initial release, The Grissom Gang received several insightful reviews over the decades. Like all Aldrich films, it both reflects a particular genre while undermining it. It also echoes the hybrid history of its William Faulkner original source. Despite belonging to a wealthy East Coast family, Aldrich reacted against his privileged background. His formative years occurred during a Great Depression he chose not to ignore. He appears to have understood the economic and psychological devastation brought to many of its unfortunate victims both at the time and afterwards. Rather than engage in Capraesque idealism or engage in denial by working together and “putting on a show” as in countless 30s Warner Bros’ musicals, Aldrich depicted this era in all its grim ugliness. He revealed the bleak reality of an era often ignored or sanitized in contemporary Hollywood productions. The Great Depression affected people in everyday life. Its victims resembled manipulated pawns within a dark Emile Zola-esqe bleak deterministic existence where no hope appeared possible. Virtually every character bears no relationship to the ideologically manufactured cinematic Hays Code behavioral norms projected on to audiences during this particular era. Instead, Aldrich depicts his characters as sweaty grotesques in a pre-air conditioned world whose roasting-in-hell results as much from sadistic psychological conditioning as by the huge lights employed by Biroc on the set. As in all Aldrich films, characters do not reproduce any stereotyped behavioral patterns well known from Hollywood cinema. They appear grotesque, but some change in remarkable ways leading audiences to revise previous interpretations and understand the unavoidable tragedy they will all face after the conclusion of each film.

Special features include an interview with the late Scott Wilson who, like so many others, expresses his appreciation of the late director seeing him as a giant in the old film industry. An audio commentary by Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson follows. It contains some relevant information about the film and director but often unravels in a random set of observations. It contrasts poorly with more structured commentaries by Tim Lucas and the more coherently expressed set of observations by David Del Valle and actor/filmmaker Michael Varrati on the Sister George DVD where Del Valle at least has notes to refer to during the process.

One commentator sees The Grissom Gang as a bridge to later Aldrich, while another expresses reservations over the film, ones he should have thought over well before arriving in the studio to deliver a commentary. A commentator describes the film as “unsavory,” but one may ask…why? Another sees the film as another Aldrich exploration of the seedy underbelly of everything. These are superficial descriptions, and one yearns for some deeper, more structured exploration. Leon Griffiths’s (1928-1992) screenwriting role receives notice, and one commentator suggests that Aldrich was grooming him to take the place of Lukas Heller (1930-1988). Yet Heller continued to work with Aldrich, and Griffiths’s association with the long-running TV series Minder (1979-1985) did not occur until well after this film. Griffiths’s role is more diffuse here than Heller’s and needs some more clarification rather than random assertions. However, some very good observations emerge from discussions, such as the director’s tendency of challenging audiences there just for formulaic entertainment and recognition that the film is really about two family victims who grow and mature rather than gain redemption in the typical Hollywood manner. Barbara and Slim are “prisoners of their parents” from whom they eventually depart, rejecting their respective trained functions as “attack dog” and commodified glamor girl heiress. They are equally victims of their own culture that will not allow them to live outside its confines. Rather than being a gangster film, The Grissom Gang is really a very poignant work about growth and the emergence of maturity on the part of two-mismatched Depression-era Romeo and Juliet family victims that occurs much too late for them to develop further. The commentators astutely note Biroc’s use of shadow cross imagery above Slim the night before his social martyrdom at the hands of callous institutional forces. Yet, although references occur to Aldrich films, such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte (1965), they do not make the necessary epistemological leap into recognizing how the family situation motivates many of the director’s films and in what specific way it functions in each instance. Future Aldrich criticism needs to explore further this neglected film that exhibits more complexity than initially appears. Like The Killing of Sister George, The Grissom Gang develops Aldrich’s previous explorations of the gothic in neo-noir directions.

Grissom 02Commentators note that this is the most brightly lit of Aldrich’s films, even comparing the garish psychedelic set design of the “love nest” to a scene from Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), but why Aldrich and Biroc chose this path remains unexplored. They note the combination of sadism and survival that characterize his other films, but rather than engage in “bludgeoning” the audience, could not Aldrich’s stylistic choices represent his own visual form of violent social expressionism intended as a critical visual commentary on a ruthless society? This audio-commentary raises such issues into consciousness and further consideration despite the unsatisfactory manner in which they occur. However, they do not lead to deeper types of interrogation. Commentators note the absence of Aldrich’s regular composer Frank DeVol (1911-1999) and his use of Gerald Fried (1928- ) but express uncertainty over this change, the reasons for which are well known. They also mention that Aldrich’s preference for Biroc rather than Ernest Lazlo (1898-1984) in his earlier films resulted in the latter’s slowness, something that Orson Welles (1915-1985) felt concerning Stanley Cortez’s (1908-1997) work on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). This is another indication of the close stylistic connections between both directors. (2)

Rather than depict Barbara’s suicide following the death of Slim and her callous rejection by her father, played by Wesley Addy (1913-1996) in one of his most uncaring performances, the film ends with a freeze frame of her distraughtly looking towards her departing father in a car. Aldrich did shoot the final scene of her drowning but decided to end the film in its present form. However, this was not lost on Kim Darby, who remarked in a later interview, “I don’t think she lives much longer.”

The Killing of Sister George was another controversial choice on the director’s part that went far beyond recording Beryl Reid’s (1919-1996) theatrical role on film for posterity. Far from being about lesbianism, it was really another crucial study in the fragility of human relationships and the tendency to engage in illusions rather than confronting the grim realities of an oppressive society that damn all Aldrich characters, whether male or female. This Kino-Lorber reissue again renews the debate about a film maligned unjustly and misunderstood on initial release.  The excellent restoration also owes much to the supplementary insightful contributions of three critics on audio-commentaries: West Country-born Kat Ellinger, who is very good on British cultural references unknown to most American viewers, and David Del Valle and actor/filmmaker Michael Varrati on the other track. Although Ellinger tends to use the word “subversive” too much, this is excusable for a critic who has done her homework as well as being attuned to the complexity of a film that goes well beyond its convenient category as a lesbian film, one criticized at the time and beyond for not displaying “positive images” throughout its entire narrative. That was not Aldrich’s intention. Del Valle and Varrati make similar observations.

738329230029In 1955, the BBC decided to eliminate a favorite character, Grace Archer from a long-running soap opera The Archers (1951- ). They later fired Ellis Powell (1904-1963) from the title role of another radio soap opera Mrs. Dale’s Diary (1948-1969) when the BBC decided to revamp the show and cast Jessie Matthews (1907-1991) as a replacement. It contributed to the demise of this alcoholic actress the same year. These events formed the basis of Frank Marcus’s original play that featured Beryl Reid in the title role. (3) Although Aldrich intended to cast Bette Davis in the film version, the Hollywood actress visited Reid in her dressing room following a Broadway performance to assure her that she was the only one to play the role. Well known to British radio audiences as a comedian from her appearances on Educating Archie (1950-1960) along with many other guest stars such as Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques, and the young Julie Andrews, among Reid’s most notable roles were obnoxious schoolgirl Monica and Birmingham born “Marlene from the Midlands.” Her casting in the stage production of Frank Marcus’s play proved, that like many other comedians, she could move from comedy into tragedy. Ellinger not only explores relevant British cultural associations, such as national investment in soap opera stars (forget “The Great Tradition” and the admonitions of Q.D. Leavis in Fiction and the Reading Public!) as well as Coronation Street (1960- ) being television’s longest running soap opera but also the real issues behind Aldrich’s film. It is less about lesbian relationships but more to do with a bleak examination of a sado-masochistic, co-dependent relationship that transcends sexual boundaries. That is the value of the audio-commentaries on this DVD, since they recognize the real issues that the film actually deals with. Dysfunctional relationships characterize virtually all of Aldrich’s character, whether heterosexual or homosexual, and the merit of the film is in showing that no area is immune from problems that affect the rest of society. No “safe places” or “positive images” exist. Like the other commentators, Ellinger also sees The Killing of Sister George as the director’s implicit critique of a Hollywood system that uses and abuses its victims then casts them aside when their use-value evaporates.

David and Michael begin their exploration with the relevant line, “Time to shed a little bit of love on this film.” Both commentators are well-known experts on film history and production within the Hollywood community and bring these unique perspectives into play. They note that both Angela Lansbury and Beryl Reid were warned off the play, but Reid decided to accept the role, something that led to her ascent into other major roles such as Connie Sachs in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). Del Valle sees the film as another Aldrich attempt at getting back at the Hollywood system with the director recognizing that performers often lose sight of their real personalities and become trapped into playing stereotyped roles. It is an observation reminiscent of Boris Karloff’s line in Targets (1967) lamenting that once the elderly actor could deliver different performances but now “can only play Byron Orlock.” Decades ago, a Manchester journalist mentioned to me in the 70s that William Roache (1932- ) of Coronation Street was once a very versatile actor but admitted that all he could play now was Ken Barlow, a distinction that led to his listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest serving television star in a continuous role. Sister George will not have this problem but knows that her future options are limited. For every William Roache, others are not so lucky, as the cases of Ellis Powell and Jill Browne (1937-1991), who played Nurse Carol Young in ITV’s long-running soap opera Emergency Ward 10 (1957-1964), show.

Director Robert Aldrich and Susannah York on the set of "The Killing of Sister George" 1968 Aldrich Studios © 1978 Bob Willoughby

Director Robert Aldrich and Susannah York on the set of The Killing of Sister George

Michael notes that this was not the first time Aldrich had featured lesbians and cites World for Ransom (1954) and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1967). He also could have mentioned Queen Beria (Anouk Aimee) in The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (1963), but all commentators agree that this neglected Aldrich film is also worthy of future study, and one looks forward to its restoration and accompanying intelligent audio-commentary. David and Michael also see the film as anticipating Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant (1972), a later film that also does not glamorize lesbian lifestyles, again suggesting that the film is less about tormented lesbians but more about how the entertainment industry destroys fragile and vulnerable human beings. Role-playing is common to both George and Childie, a 32-year-old woman who denies the fact that she had a child at the age of 14 ignoring her own age and personal history by remaining in a “Never-Never Land” of being a little girl in search of a mother, a role she also recreates with her collection of dolls. Both The Killing of Sister George and William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band (1970) may contain negative depictions of the lifestyle but also include certain moments that affirm it, as in Emory’s speech in the latter film. Both these critics recognize the complexity in this film, especially in its emphasis on toxic relationships and draw astute parallels with other Aldrich films, such as Baby Jane and Charlotte. In fact, the focus is upon power and domination rather than love, making it less of “a lesbian film” but one dealing more with the corrosive and destructive effects of sado-masochism on human relationships. Although George appears to be the controlling partner in the relationship, David and Michael also recognize that Childie is also a manipulator and game player similar to Kat Ellinger’s interpretation of a film conscious of the dangerous blurring of necessary boundaries between fantasy and reality.

the-killing-of-sister-george-1600x900-c-defaultThis is a very rich commentary track full of some very original interpretations. Our commentators note oblique references to the visual style of Hammer horror with Mercy’s Dracula cloak when she enters the Gateways Club and her garish red dress especially during the notorious seduction scene. They compare her to Baroness Meinster in The Brides of Dracula (1960). Yet, they also ask relevant questions, such as who really is the vampire? It may not be one person. All the main female characters exhibit dysfunctional behavioral traits, in one way or another. (“One for All and All for One”?) Mercy may adopt Childie but is really letting into her life a woman who is a psychological mess and should understand that that her new acquisition’s role, playing an infantile fascination with dolls, will not really help but lead to her continuing subservience and submissiveness. Theirs will not be a “positive relationship,” a dilemma due less to their lesbianism but more with the psychological flaws within their own personalities. As our commentators note, Mercy will not be a positive influence, since she manipulates Childie by using the same doll George had earlier used in a more threatening manner. All are predators and victims in different ways. Like The Grissom Gang, The Killing of Sister George is a complex film. They are all ahead of their time and perhaps parallel James Jones’ literary explorations into the dangerous cultural world of American masochism seen most notably in Some Came Running (1957) and Go to the Widow Maker (1967). (4)

The special features also contain an interesting interview with British cinematographer Brian West, who shot several location scenes in England that defied the expertise of Biroc and who was more accustomed to the Hollywood system and the less challenging aspects of non-British weather. Like Wilson, West speaks highly of Aldrich’s professional abilities on the set, referring to him as a director of the old school. Similarly, all three commentators note the significance of London’s lesbian Gateway Club in their commentaries (5), but David and Michael are unaware of the fact that, while homosexuality was illegal until 1967 in England, lesbianism was not. (6)

References

  1. See the still indispensable article by Allan Eyles, “Films of Enterprise: A Studio History.” Focus on Film 35 (1980): 13-27. For Aldrich himself, David Walsh, “100 Years since the birth of American filmmaker Robert Aldrich,” https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/08/31/aldr-a31.html
  2. See Tony Williams, “Welles, Toland, Aldrich, and Baroque Noir Expressionism.” Film Noir: Light and Shadow. Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Cinema and Theater Books, 2017, pp. 182-209.
  3. Matthews’s popular musical comedy 1930s personal would later lead to her playing a major role in Savoy’s Lord Horror series playing not “The Bride of Frankenstein” but the desired object of Lord Horror himself! See https://www.savoy.abel.co.uk/HTML/hch1.html. For an interview with artist John Coulthart, see also https://supervert.com/essays/horror-panegyric/interview-with-john-coulthart. I well remember visiting David Britton in his Withington Office several years ago when he played LPs of Jessie Matthews!
  4. See Tony Williams, James Jones: The Limits of Eternity. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; Jake Rutkowski, “On James Jones and The Limits of `Eternity’: An Interview with Tony Williams”, Identity Theory, February 20, 2017. http://www.identitytheory.com/james-jones-limits-eternity-interview-tony-williams/ .
  5. On the Gateways Club, see https://flashbak.com/the-lesbian-gateways-club-and-the-killing-of-sister-george-46751/.
  6. See https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-19315,00.html

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Author of Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich (2004), he is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.

Read also:

Between Fantasy and Reality: A Matter of Life and Death (1946) from the Criterion Collection

“America First” or Second? – America Through a British Lens: Cinematic Portrayals 1930-2010 by James D. Stone

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