The actual chain gang sequence of Girl on a Chain Gang is in the third act. There are no actual chain gang sequences; all of that action happens off-screen, almost as though producer, screenwriter, and director Gross couldn’t afford enough chain to make it happen. But getting there is quite the ordeal for characters and audience alike.
Chain Gang tells the tale of three Northern college folks, one white man, one Black man, and one white woman, who’ve traveled to the South to help get people registered to vote. Unfortunately, they draw the attention of a couple drunken sheriff’s deputies who’re thrilled to harass some Yankees. The film doesn’t identify the location of the film’s action outside the fictional town (it was filmed on Long Island). Still, with the constant gator references and the sheriff being terrified of the state police finding out he’s running illegal work farms, regularly raping women, and murdering men… it seems like Florida.
Julie Ange plays the woman who the sheriff (William Watson) and his deputies accuse of being a prostitute so they can arrest her and her friends without much incident. Ron Charles and Peter Nevard play the deputies. The film introduces them getting drunk with a local sex worker, Arlene Farber, who’s all right because she helps sheriff Watson frame folks. Chain Gang’s never subtle, but the closest would be its characterization of Watson’s religiosity. He’s a Bible-thumping, drunken murderer and rapist; the film only ever quietly acknowledges the ostensible hypocrisy (but he is, actually, just reading his Bible), like Gross knows he can’t be too nasty about the Christianity.
In the first act of the film seems like Ange and her friends will be the leads. Ron Segal plays the white guy, the most accomplished in the group (he’s going to Yale); he’s also the one who talks back to Watson and his goons, though it’s never clear if he makes those initial situations worse. The actor who plays the Black guy is uncredited, and his name seems entirely lost to history. Considering he’s the third lead for most of the movie—despite Ange being the Girl in the title, she disappears for most of the second act—one might assume the actor didn’t want his name associated with the film.
The protagonist for most of the film is the sheriff, who’s cobbling together a way to frame the trio and contending with his drunken moron staff and yokels to get the job done. There’s no one sympathetic in the small town outside Phillip Vanyon’s doctor, and he’s only sympathetic to a certain point. Gross is relentless in showcasing Watson’s villainy, with Watson perfectly marrying the mundane and obscene. Chain Gang’s got mostly bad performances and paper-thin writing, but it’s also entirely realistic. Gross unintentionally makes his exploitation picture documentary-esque just because the bad guys are so human and so conventional.
Watson’s captivating. He’s always revolting, always horrifying, always transfixing. He disappears at the end of the second act, after the film following him for probably an hour. Chain Gang runs a very long ninety-six minutes. The first hour zooms along, but it conks out as it moves through the second act. It’s already been puttering when Watson vanishes.
Ange’s sympathetic but not good. She suffers misogyny not just from the bad guys, but even the not bad guys, even her friends. Well, Segal. Segal being a selfish asshole is another one of Chain Gang’s seemingly unintentional truths. He’s also bad, acting-wise. The uncredited Black actor doesn’t do well in his big scene, but it’s terrible, so it’s hard to hold it against him. He otherwise is fine. Or at least, in the better lot of the film’s performances.
The film’s reasonably good looking for its low budget. The photography declines in the third act, but so does the direction.
There’s also a strange, upbeat jazzy score by Steve Karmen, which works in the film’s favor most of the time.
Outside the terrifyingly good performance by Watson, Girl on a Chain Gang has the most to offer as a historical object. It could be worse, it probably couldn’t be better, but it definitely could be shorter. Shorter would help.