Bookending Independent Productions From Producer/Director Robert Aldrich





The runaway success of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen in 1967 led directly to a half dozen features made under the auspices of that uncompromising producer/director’s own production banner. Robert Aldrich Productions existed a scant three years, and was known by various other titles and distributed through an equal variety of subsidiaries, but in that brief period of unrestrained artistic freedom coincided with an emerging New Hollywood where auteurs – self-proclaimed and otherwise (and our subject here belonged partially to both) – took creative as well as financial control over their film work. Although the model proved unsustainable in the long term – initially modest and steadily declining returns marking each production as successively more difficult – the independence briefly afforded an already independent-minded filmmaker resulted in a string of fiercely and provocatively challenging titles. The emotionally savage The Killing of Sister George in 1968 resolved to the even more primitive violence of 1971’s The Grissom Gang; fifty years later, both appear only slightly less shocking for their onscreen depiction than for the complexity and complicity of their portrayal. Kino Lorber’s pair of Blu-ray releases highlight the unfiltered creative choices of a cinema provocateur par excellence.

The Killing of Sister George, again, may have been released fifty years ago, but one feels this still unclassifiable, comically-dramatic, emotional horror film one’s continual contemporary in viewing a first, second, or even third time. (All of which, one should add, the reviewer undertook as preparation.) One of two films Aldrich made back-to-back in England, this adaptation of an earlier stage success, by playwright Frank Morgan, opens the single-set flat of the theater production to the cobblestone alleyways, off-street pubs, afterhours hangouts, and television studios that the title character – played by the role’s originator, a revelatory Beryl Reid – clomps purposely through in sensible shoes. And while Sister George is the name of the equally sensible character featured for decades on a cozily idealized, British provincial soap, the astonishing actress playing the character is a good deal more complex. Introduced in an early scene half-drunkenly scandalizing a pair of novice nuns in the backseat of a cab, Sister George threatens, cajoles, and clowns her way through her personal and professional life with the unrestrained force of, possibly, the cinema provocateur who brilliantly complicates a more straightforward stage comedy. Susannah York, as Sister George’s much younger, live-in lover, and Coral Browne, as her slick TV executive superior and eventual romantic rival, round out a dark comedy of bad manners and biting satire of public (and self-) deception that director Aldrich re-frames as a devastating drama of damaged lives. Earning its initial “X”-rating from a reel-length lesbian seduction scene, that exploitative impulse is expertly balanced on the production and performance end by the achingly human levels of betrayal and humiliation that lead up to and follow it.

The Grissom Gang on first viewing appears the more explicit of the two films – in violence, nastiness, and generally extreme behavior – but its uncomfortable, purposely roughened edges linger past the final freeze frame to a jagged emotion approaching (and possibly exceeding) sympathy. Based on a scandalous 1939 thriller from British pulp novelist James Hadley Chase, and previously filmed in 1948 under its original title No Orchids for Miss Blandish, screenwriter Leon Griffiths re-drafts the setting (from New York City to the Midwest) and time period (late Depression to late Prohibition) to better capitalize on the gangsters and molls’ milieu of its Public Enemy-era kidnapping-and-murder plot. Complicating its post-Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969) levels of demythologized history and (un)romanticized violence, however, director Aldrich at no point offers easy access to, understanding of, or identification with his rogue’s roll of perpetrators (the title gang), protectors (lawmen), and victims. Indeed, Scott Wilson, as the psychopathic gang enforcer, and Kim Darby, as the kidnapped heiress, are individually as much victims as perpetrators in the larger social sense where unquestioned values of inheritance have separately failed them both. From Aldrich’s fiercely independent view, the grim procession of cold-blooded murders leading inexorably to the very public spectacle of police execution read contrary in The Grissom Gang to almost every depiction of these well-worn genre tropes – up to and including the lawmen’s hail of bullets that had previously signified a cathartic return to social order – shooting clear back to, say, Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 Underworld.  In other words, a perfectly executed gangster flick, which one can argue The Grissom Gang approaches, might more literally execute the very story elements audiences find perversely enjoyable. Here, rarely appropriate to its subject matter in film history, the real human emotions perversely formed between a kidnapper and his victim – selfless love on one end and true sympathy on the other – turn back on its viewers to make Robert Aldrich’s re-vision as stubbornly difficult as it is frankly unforgettable.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-rays are both remastered in high-definition from 4K scans of the original camera negatives; a presentation which would alone make these worthy additions to one’s home video library. The image, sound, and framing are as crisp and clear as the Aldrich style is blunt and forceful. In the discs’ special features, British lighting cameraman Brian West recalls amusing memories of assisting Aldrich’s frequent cinematographer Joseph Biroc’s images stand out against the constantly overcast London sky (The Killing of Sister George) while the late Scott Wilson, in an interview given shortly before his death in 2018, poignantly recounts his warm relationship on-set to all-accounts generous director Aldrich (The Grisssom Gang).

Finally, a bit of Aldrich-inspired medicine for this sometimes wrongheaded reviewer, turned easily by fashionable crutches of “socially inspired” criticism. Does “difficult” content such as the emotional battles between Sister George and Childie, the catty powerplays between S.G. and Mrs. Croft, or the jealousies, insecurities, and sadism of all somehow pretend to “represent” lesbian relationships or lifestyles as they were in 1968 or exist today? Hardly. No more than Slim Grissom’s and Barbara Blandish’s mutual orgasm of bloodletting could be said to stand for True Love in either 1931 Kansas City or 1971 L.A. To purge terms like “problematic”, “irrelevant”, or “dated” from one’s viewing vocabulary – and actually “see” the films on their own terms, along with director Aldrich’s unique and challenging vision – both discs come highly recommended with commentaries to help viewers more fully appreciate both films’ artistic complexities. Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson offer cogent thoughts on the life and career of the producer/director that are especially valuable for contextualizing The Grissom Gang’s place within the considerable Aldrich filmography. The Killing of Sister George outdoes itself with not one but two commentaries, the first featuring Kat Ellinger and the second David Del Valle and Michael Varrati, that together give as near as comprehensive an analysis as its multiple perspectives afford.

And finally finally, if any films reward themselves from multiple views and viewings, those films are The Killing of Sister George and The Grissom Gang; bookending (and now shelf-filling) productions from a brief flowering of film independence.

The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver.