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Oddball movies don't come any stranger than this one, not by a long shot. Everyone knows that the English censors were outraged by violent and gory Hammer horror films in the late 1950s, but a similar wave of condemnation occurred ten years before, when a wave of postwar crime films dragged the country's cultural watchdogs into a new era of sex and violence. England couldn't halt a flood of movies about punk crooks (spivs) that contradicted the country's official self-image. Grahame Greene's novel Brighton Rock became a red-hot movie about a vicious scar-faced spiv played by a young Richard Attenborough. The morally murky It Always Rains on Sunday dealt with adultery and sordid sexual betrayal. Although efforts were made to have some of these films banned outright (as with the later Cosh Boy, said to glorify razor-slashing young thugs) producers followed the American example and used the outrage for added publicity value.
One of the most notorious of these crime pictures is 1948's No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a difficult-to-describe B&W independent produced, written and directed by one St. John Legh Clowes. Its source is a book and stage play that seems markedly similar to the notorious 1933 American movie The Story of Temple Drake, itself an adaptation of William Faulkner's story Sanctuary. Temple Drake is one of the key films that precipitated the enforcement of the Production Code. In both stories, an heiress is seduced (or raped) by her kidnapper but falls in love with him and turns her back on her family and upbringing. Heightening the connection is the fact that minor leading man Jack La Rue plays the rapacious male lead in both films, spaced fifteen years apart.
Original English reaction to the movie was unqualified outrage. An Archbishop spoke against it from his pulpit. The Observer said that "It has all the morals of an alley cat and the sweetness of a sewer". The Monthly Film Bulletin called it "the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen". The movie was a rave success when released in London, yet has reportedly never been shown on English television.
No Orchids wastes no time wading into salacious waters. The beautiful but sexually frigid Miss Blandish (Linden Travers of The Lady Vanishes) isn't happy about her family-approved engagement. Punk crooks intercept the couple on the way to a "hot" road house with simple theft in mind, but the unstable Riley (Richard Nielson) loses control and murders the fiancé. More killings follow. Crook Ted Bailey drags Blandish to an isolated shack, but before he can rape his captive, the Grisson Gang moves in. Enigmatic leader Slim (Jack La Rue) has admired Blandish from afar. He murders Bailey and imprisons Blandish in the upstairs rooms of the gang's nightclub, yet the heiress falls madly in love with him. Slim's cohorts are angered when he returns Blandish's diamonds to her father, along with her handwritten note saying that she's run away of her own free will.
The police close the case, but Bailey's stripper girlfriend Anna (Frances Marsden) suspects foul play. Grisson henchman Eddie (Walter Crisham) cozies up to Anna to keep her quiet, while conspiring with the rest of the gang to force Slim to demand a ransom. That's when the two-fisted reporter Dave Fenner (Hugh McDermott) steps in: he connects the Grissons to the original kidnapping and sets out to prove that Miss Blandish is indeed a prisoner in the Grisson nightclub. Now behaving like star-crossed lovers, Blandish and Slim can't stop the rest of the Grisson Gang from rebelling.
Some films date badly because of changing dramatic conventions. No Orchids for Miss Blandish may take the prize for a well-made picture that seemingly gets everything "wrong", yet is a delight to watch. Time has transformed its once-shocking subject matter into an Airplane!- like parody of gangster and noir clichés. The surface action revels in cheap thrills unheard-of in the 1948 English mainstream. Death is dished out by blackjack, broken glass, guns, a machine gun and even a hand grenade. Miss Blandish (she isn't given a first name) speaks in posh tones and swoons in shock at the prospect of rape by any of a half-dozen slimy gangsters. She then engages in long, passionate kisses with Slim: "I know you've killed people. You're cold, you're hard, you're ruthless -- but ..."
No Orchids takes place in some alternate gangland universe. Made in England and starring a mostly English cast, the movie's idea of gangland USA is a riot of misconceptions. The overcooked American slang comes from twenty years of gangster parodies: "You crazy rat you croaked him!" Few of the characters seem to belong in the same movie. Accents are all over the place. A hillbilly (Michael Balfour) betrays a cockney accent, while the hood Riley sneers his dialogue like one of the Dead End kids. A mob doctor (MacDonald Parke) looks like a cross between John McGiver and Elmer Fudd, and struggles with "intellectual" dialogue that replaces words like "walk" with "perambulate". Slick villain Eddie takes orders from Ma Grisson (Lily Molnar), a tough-talking Ma Barker clone. Ebullient headwaiter-chef Louis (Charles Goldner) delights in serving French delicacies to Slim and Blandish (who seems to have no first name), even when Slim shouts that he just wants a ham on rye.
American actor Jack La Rue plays Slim somewhere between George Raft and Humphrey Bogart. He's got a good dead-eye stare but not a lot of charisma, and generates zero chemistry with the high-toned Linden Travers. She seems to be addressing her "refined" dialogue to some other Prince Charming just out of camera view. Miss Blandish is supposedly transported into ecstasies of erotic abandon, but Travers never gets her hair mussed.
The film's skewed view of America is that all personal interaction is about money or power. Even Blandish's father and the police representative threaten each other. Several discussions end with somebody being slapped around. The sight of the tubby Ma Grisson repeatedly slapping someone she just met is hilarious. The attempt to imitate Hollywood-style gunplay is equally funny: Slim repeatedly out-draws assailants that plainly have the drop on him. The gun-toting Dave Fenner behaves more like James Bond than an investigative reporter. Despite the fact that the building is crawling with hoods, Fenner climbs into the window of the Grisson Club's lead singer Margo (Zoë Gail) when she's undressing for bed, and holds a gun on her. Fenner whips the drawstring from Margo's pajamas so she has to hold her pants up for the rest of the scene. She's apparently excited by this bullying seduction. In a subsequent absurd action scene in a tiny shack, Slim rakes Fenner with machine gun bullets and then has his henchman finish him off with a grenade. A minute or two later, we learn that Fenner has escaped completely unscathed.
Some of writer-director St. John Legh Clowes' direction is laughable, especially the love scenes. He does make good use of his moving camera. The showdown in Barney's shack shows Slim tossing his signature black dice, his body neatly framing the gangland action behind him. George Melachrino's music score has some wince-inducing stings (Ba Pa Da DUMMMM!) but contributes a lush romantic theme for the two crazy lovers, adding to the general tone of giddy awkwardness. What makes No Orchids into irresistible Camp is Clowes' inability to make any of these elements cohere: the film bounces from absurd violence to mawkish melodrama to lengthy musical performances. Clowes' script and direction are wildly uneven, and together with the bizarre accents and goofy characterizations, the entire show comes off as preposterous. Just the same, No Orchids for Miss Blandish is both exciting and funny. Something outrageous is happening every minute. 1
Keener eyes for Brit talent will recognize Danny Green (The Ladykillers) as the Grisson's main thug. Working unbilled as the club doorman is future Bond baddie Walter Gotell. In a much larger role, Sid James suffers as a bartender dealt a traumatic eye injury by the vicious Riley.
VCI's DVD of No Orchids for Miss Blandish is a picture-perfect transfer from prime English elements. The film is technically quite polished, and its impressive sets and camera work only make its oddball dramatics seem more bizarre. VCI includes a montage gallery of ad art and newspaper clippings. We wish they were reproduced in a form we could read. 2
Besides a pair of original trailers (American and English), the disc contains two interviews. A video interview by Joel Blumberg allows American importer Richard Gordon and actor Richard Nielson ("Riley") to share their memories of the show; Nielson remembers spending his entire salary dating actress Zoë Gail. The friendly Gordon is also heard on an audio interview conducted by Tom Weaver. He talks at length about the film's censor problems and says that he imported his release print through New Orleans to avoid vigilant New York customs officials. Although long-forgotten now, No Orchids for Miss Blandish was a minor scandal, criticized in print mostly by people who never saw it. It now plays as a highly entertaining vintage shocker, complete with unintended laughs and an inexplicably odd impression of America as seen through English eyes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The story is told so haphazardly that I thought that the club singer and Anna were the same character. After a while it seemed strange that "her" hairstyle kept changing, and it was a big surprise when both women showed up in the same scene!
2. No Orchids for Miss Blandish was "premiered" at the TCMfest back in May, which I covered in an earlier Savant column: "After a short break we drifted over to see the bizarre Brit Noir thriller No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which was a packed sell-out. The one festival title so far that I hadn't seen, this was the most rewarding show of the evening because I got to meet in person some people I'd only known from afar through DVD or reviewing work, like Kino's talented writer-producer Bret Wood. Distributor Bruce Goldstein's opening speech was a nicely paced and funny overview of the movie, in which a mostly English cast all play cornball New York mobsters. Then actor Tim Roth took the microphone and delivered his own humor-filled introduction, apologizing for the fact that the English didn't get noir right but assuring the audience that Brits love Yank crime pix. Roth described a gruesome scene that was missing from the archival 35mm print we saw. It must have been censored, as a character shows up at one point, apparently with his eye gouged out! Since Tim Roth mentioned the missing violent scene, it'll probably be included on the expected VCI DVD. No Orchids was a scandal in England because of what in 1948 was racy and violent content. To us it played as an over-the-top, hammy sleaze fest. The tin-ear stab at hardboiled dialogue is also a scream." -- April 24, 2010
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T'was Ever Thus.