One of the rarest titles at this weekend’s TCM Fest is No Orchids For Miss Blandish, a supremely odd British gangster movie from 1948. It’s so rare that after its initial and censored release, it hadn’t been screened uncut in North America until the Lincoln Center played it last year. That venerable institution’s director of programming was present to give us a bit of background, claiming that last night’s show was the film’s uncut West Coast premiere. In fact I and a theater-full of others were lucky enough to have seen it last summer at the Hammer so that’s just untrue. The TCM print also had one significant act of violence missing and, if I recall my first viewing correctly, further trims.
It was the film’s startling viciousness that made it totally reviled on its release in England, and the guy (yeah, I forgot his name) gave a very good and informative introduction including slides of contemporaneous news clippings (nice to see that 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 supreme oddity comes from it being a New York-set gangster film made in England and 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 receiving and refusing, orchids every day 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 was also present to give a little spiel, even though he’d just seen the movie for the first time the day before and had nothing worthwhile to say. But he has that charming accent, so it’s OK I guess. 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 time to get used to but even the first time around it was apparent that the film had a great deal going for it. There’s some nice fluid camerawork and the action is strikingly executed throughout. But its main strength is in its characters: the script gives them lots of terrific hard boiled dialogue (people end sentences with “see” quite a lot) but it’s the combination of casting and directing that 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 the best, from slim, cool Eddie who always pulls on his kid gloves to give a beating, to the older, portly, struck-off Doc. Slim is payed 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 ends surprisingly like 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 – did I mention gang rape and incest? – along with the unified vision of its weirdness that makes it a truly distinctive (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 (available next week on dvd).