Sunday, September 2, 2012

No Orchids for Miss Blandish

This supremely odd British gangster movie from 1948 is so rare that after its initial and censored release, it hadn’t been screened uncut in North America until the Lincoln Center played it 2011. I caught it at the Hammer a while agao, and then again at the TCM Festival, claimed as the film’s uncut West Coast premiere. In fact, the TCM print had a significant act of violence missing and, if I recall my first viewing correctly, a few further trims.

It was the film’s startling viciousness that made it totally reviled on its release in England (although the ever-wise Dilys Powell recognized the amoral violence but declined to pass judgment). Press comments ranged from “as fragrant as a cesspool” to the Guardian’s splendid “un-British”.

Indeed it is deliberately un-British. As well as being brutish and violent, with “the morals of an alley cat” (The Daily Mirror), the film’s delicious weirdness comes from being a New York-set gangster film made in England, with an almost entirely British cast displaying an alarming variety of “American” accents (the worst offender by far being Sid James). The story is taken from (British author) James Hadley Chase’s novel of the same name (also used for Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang), the classic fiction of Stockholm Syndrome avant la lettre. Miss Blandish is a society dame. She gets snatched for her jewels by some low-lifes whose quarreling leaves two of three dead, the last one rubbed out by the aforementioned gang, who hide her and the ice at their fancy nightclub/casino front. Thing is, the title refers to Miss Blandish’s daily receipt, and refusal, of orchids with a card emblazoned with dice. It’s no surprise that Slim Grissom’s going to want to keep her around when they should really just bump her off. This doesn’t sit well with the rest of his crew.

Tim Roth popped up at the TCM screening to give a little spiel, albeit he’d just seen the movie for the first time the day before, and had nothing worthwhile to say. His description of the film as ponderous, poorly edited and shabbily costumed is totally inaccurate. It snaps along at a fine pace (even finding time for five separate night-club acts), and the costumes (and production design) are really pretty decent, with good suits for the men, some very slinky dresses for Miss Blandish, and some funny business with the zipper on the saucy cigarette girl’s bodice.

The bizarre collision of American style with British trappings takes some getting used to, but even on first viewing it’s apparent that the film has a great deal going for it. There’s some nice fluid camerawork and strikingly executed action throughout; but its main strength is in its characters, and lots of terrific, hard-boiled dialogue (people end sentences with “see” quite a lot). The combination of casting and directing rounds out even the smallest of roles: the original three schmoes (deliciously derided by the bigger hoods) are a soft-bellied slots collector, a sad-eyed dapper, and a pint-sized psycho (with the best Bowery Boys accent), and that cigarette girl does a lot with big hair and an attitude.

There’s a hero of sorts, who’s a kind of self-satisfied Alan Ladd type, but the bad guys are obviously more interesting, from slim, cool Eddie who always pulls on his kid gloves to give a beating, to the older, portly, struck-off Doc, and the terrific Lili Molnar as Ma Grissom. Slim is played by the only actual American in the cast, Jack La Rue; far from a leading man in his own country, here he gets a particularly good entrance and then proceeds to soundtrack his first scene, a good shakedown, with the continual rolling of his dice. He doesn’t do much acting as such but he has a fine face, like a Frankenstein mash of Bogart and Ricardo Cortez.

Linden Travers as Miss Blandish doesn’t have much to do but she convincingly falls for him because he’s “cold, hard and ruthless”; their love affair, if slightly colorless, has its tender moments, with full romantic soundtrack treatment and ending that surprisingly recalls They Live By Night (with a terrifically bitter coda to twist the knife). “Cold, hard and ruthless” is a pretty good description of the film itself and it is exactly that committed amorality – don’t forget the gang rape and incest – along with the unified vision of its weirdness that makes it a truly distinctive, and eminently cultish classic. It certainly doesn’t succeed as a simulacrum of American gangster chic, but it is an unqualified success in the creation of its own bizarre and unique netherworld – not for everyone, but as ripe and rare and delicious as old cheese, for those with the taste for it.

d/p/sc St John Legh Clowes ph Gerald Gibbs ed Manuel del Campo ad Harry Moore m George Melachrino cast Jack La Rue, Linden Travers, Hugh McDermott, Walter Crisham, MacDonald Parke, Lili Molnar, Danny Green, Zoe Gail, Sid James
(1948, GB, 104m, b/w)
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