on 19 December 2010
The most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen." Thus did The Monthly Film Bulletin judge St John Clowe's film adaptation of No Orchids For Miss Blandish (aka: Black Dice) upon its appearance in 1948, reflecting the almost universal shock and disapproval of the British critical fraternity. Not until the equally vehement rejection of Peeping Tom, over a decade later, would a film face such an onslaught. Audiences found the movie to their liking despite or because of the opprobrium, and where it was shown takings were excellent.
Today, passions have cooled somewhat but, while Michael Powell's masterpiece has since been reclaimed by fans and admirers. No Orchids For Miss Blandish still remains outside looking in at the party; a guilty pleasure to some, an embarrassment of cinema to others. Never to my knowledge aired on UK TV and only lately granted a DVD release, it's a film which has received some limited reassessment in recent years.
Based on a novel by James Hadley Chase, then in turn made into a theatrical production, No Orchids For Miss Blandish tells the story of a rich heiress, kidnapped by a small-time mob, only to be captured from them in turn by the much stronger Grisson gang. Slim Grisson is in love with Miss Blandish and loses interest in the kidnapping as she lingers under his roof. The rich kidnapee in turn falls for the crook, starting a doomed romance.
Meanwhile, a newspaper man turned private investigator manages to crack the case. No less a critic than George Orwell praised the original novel as "a brilliant piece of writing." The movie attempted to carry over the transatlantic gangster milieu of that book intact, right down to having the entire cast, American or not, speak with an accent, incorporating 'authentic' settings and idioms into the action and so on - probably the first film made in England with a purely American setting, as one commentator noted.
Violent and (for it's time) sexually suggestive, lurid and melodramatic, nothing St John Clowe's movie contained pleased critics happier with a realistic tradition of filmmaking, or middle-class literary adaptations for discriminating audiences. In retrospect the categorisation of No Orchids For Miss Blandish seems less problematical. Neither sophisticated literary screen transposition nor completely convincing gangster piece, laced with titillation, and with roots in trash culture, I'd suggest that the movie is best seen as a landmark of British crime exploitation cinema.
At its heart lays a love story: that between Slim Grisson and Miss Blandish. It's a tragic tale too; not just because of the end which awaits the couple, but also in that Grisson is shown as being a fervent, secret admirer of the heiress from the very first scene (his distinctive double dice emblem on the card accompanying flowers) and so, ultimately, is just as much a victim of events as she. His tragedy is that he soon finds himself overseeing the kidnapping of the woman he loves, while Miss Blandish has the misfortune of falling for someone entirely unsuitable, socially or morally.
But without the sexual experience he brings she would, it seems, be condemned to eternal frigidity. It is no accident that, early on, her fiancé refers to the "ice in her veins" which needs "melting". Indeed one of the many things critics found unacceptable in the movie was the depiction of a woman's sexual awakening, particularly when tied to a liaison out of her class - something miles away from the usual Noel Coward-type drawing room infatuation. It's a scenario helped by some sensitive direction by St John Clowe, in a work characterised over all by some fluid camerawork.
Some have criticised the director's alleged clumsiness, but I can't see it. To give a standout example: although we know Grisson is 'stuck' on the heiress, nothing is said between them, except for a barely perceptible nod at her by the hoodlum after their first shock meeting. At a crucial moment later St John Clowe has Grisson, clearly thinking of the woman, walk slowly up his nightclub stairs, a fairly long crane shot. His impassive face is briefly superimposed onto hers. Then in the love scene which follows she leaves him, wavers, and comes back after a tense delay - events mostly off-screen. We still do not see them together, merely (for the second time) some orchids, and his words of relief spoken over the held flower shot. For a film so explicit elsewhere, the restraint and sensitivity of direction here is striking.
As Slim Grisson, Jack La Rue is impressive; more so when one remembers that it is almost half an hour before he is first seen on screen at all. A performance over-indebted to George Raft maybe - his habitual dice throwing recalling the American star's famous coin-tossing trademark - but still touching as a love-lorn thug and whose regular lack of expression and stolid soulfulness says more than any amount of mugging could do. As Miss Blandish, Linden Travers has attracted good words, too.
Others in the cast, even allowing for the variable American accents, are admittedly less strong. Ma Grisson (Lilli Molnar), who starts out, Ma Barker-fashion, as the leader of the gang, is less menacing that one might have wished; 'Doc' the Sydney Greenstreet-type among the supporting cast is too much of a stereotype to be convincing. However, mention ought to be made of Walter Crisham's Eddie, Grisson's frightening henchman, a very intimidating and malevolent presence. While some aspects of No Orchids For Miss Blandish have been ridiculed, the budget was obviously quite a reasonable one; the nightclub fairly expansive and convincing for instance, allowing the director a chance for multiple set-ups.
Of course the club, Grisson, and his followers are a world away from Miss Blandish's previous social circle. In a way characteristic of British noir and thrillers, the film has a firm idea of class; not only in the separation of crooks and toffs, but upstairs and downstairs (the working class lovers overhearing the conversation of their betters from the basement, at the start), as well. Even the underworld has its social structure, one which the 'success' of the Grisson gang is contrasted to the smaller group doing the initial kidnapping. Only love, it seems, can cross these boundaries, but then such romance is fraught with risk. For Miss Blandish, her new relationship brings 'freedom', this from the "first man I've ever met" - a slight emphasis on 'man' when she speaks implying the anaemia of the class she has just rejected.
Freed from the documentary-style and improving moral rhetoric of much contemporary British cinema product, fore-fronting violence, female sexual fulfilment, and apeing a lowbrow American genre to distracting effect, No Orchids For Miss Blandish quickly became a byword for all that was wrong with cinema, with no chance of any artistic recognition (as quipped future PM Harold Wilson: "No Oscars for Miss Blandish!"). Today, when shown at all, it still receives a degree of scorn - especially from Americans principally unable to get past the accent issue, or who prefer the remake (The Grissom Gang, 1968), by Robert Aldrich.
Across the Atlantic, though, it has least received the better DVD release, including a couple of supporting interviews and improved picture quality. In the UK, it's the typical bare bones edition for those wishing to seek it out, one which cheerily quotes one of the notorious negative reviews on the back by way of recommendation. To those who wish to discover what all the fuss was about, I can say that the film may be variable, but entertaining and memorable. It's certainly an important document of Britain's cinematic underbelly. No plaudits for Miss Blandish perhaps, but no outright dismissal here either.
Tudor-Alliance presents "NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH" (1948) (104 min/B&W (Dolby digitally remastered) --- This film contains much appreciated noir and good acting in Glorious Black & White --- Jack La Rue plays Slim Grisson with just the right balance of toughness and elegance, while Walter Crisham, MacDonald Parke and Lilli Molnar carve out their memorable portrayals as the other main baddies --- Linda Travers rounds off the cast in a sexy and very appealing squeaky-clean heroine who gradually learns that she likes it rough --- One of most passionate kissing scenes in an early film era --- As the film progresses the actors engage in their frequent snarling exchanges, and then the violent action kicks into gear, this takes the audience on a thrilling roller coaster ride -- loving every minute of it --- If you thought old British films from the 1940s were prim and proper -- better guess again, this film has sex and violence galore.
Under the production staff of:
St. John Legh Clowes [Director, Producer & Screenwriter]
James Hadley Chase [Novel] novel
Oswald Mitchell [Associate Producer]
George Minter [Executive Producer]
George Melachrino [Original Score]
Gerald Gibbs [Cinematographer]
Manuel del Campo [Film Editor]
1. Jack La Rue
Date of Birth: 3 May 1902 - New York City, New York
Date of Death: 11 January 1984 - Santa Monica, California
2. Hugh McDermott
Date of Birth: 20 March 1906 - Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Date of Death: 29 January 1972 -London, England, UK
3. Linden Travers
Date of Birth: 27 May 1913 - Houghton-le-Spring, Durham, England, UK
Date of Death: 23 October 2001 - Cornwall, England, UK
4. Walter Crisham
Date of Birth: 29 January 1906 - Worcester, Massachusetts
Date of Death: 27 October 1985 - Granada Hills, California
5. MacDonald Parke
Date of Birth: 30 July 1891 - Canada
Date of Death: 17 July 1960 - London, England, UK
6. Lilli Molnar
Date of Birth: Not Shown
Date of Death: 20 October 1950 - Unknown
7. St. John Legh Clowes [Director]
Date of Birth: 1907
Date of Death: 1948, UK
the cast includes:
Jack La Rue ... Slim Grisson
Hugh McDermott ... Dave Fenner
Linden Travers ... Miss Blandish
Walter Crisham ... Eddie Schultz
MacDonald Parke ... Doc (as Macdonald Parke)
Danny Green ... Flyn
Lilli Molnar ... Ma Grisson (as Lilly Molnar)
SPECIAL BONUS FEATURES:
1. Video Interview with Richard Gordon and Richard Nielson by Joel Blumberg
2. Commentary with Richard Gordon, Richard Nielson and Tom Weaver
3. British Trailer
4. American Trailer
5. Photo Gallery
Well acted and good direction makes this a must view --- All in all, good transfers and a lot of content for the money --- Nice release from the VCI people --- A great film to add to your every growing collection.
Total Time: 104 min on DVD ~ VCI Entertainment #8568 ~ (5/25/2010)