Of course, it’ll cost you
The Grissom Gang, the 1971 film version of James Hadley Chase’s notorious novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), was a high-stakes gamble for director Robert Aldrich. Four years earlier, using the fortunes he’d reaped from his mega-hit The Dirty Dozen, he was able to create his own production company, The Aldrich Studios, with the express intention of showing Hollywood how to make entertaining and successful movies for much less than the typical budgets. But Aldrich’s own films for his fledgling studio offered little support for this idea: The Legend of Lylah Clare (1967), The Killing of Sister George (1968), and Too Late the Hero (1970) were failures both critically and commercially. He desperately needed a hit to keep his company going in its fourth year.
Chase’s novel about a Depression-era gangster family that kidnaps an heiress must have seemed an ideal property at first glance. The nostalgia craze of the late ’60s and early ’70s was going full tilt, and the wildly successful Bonnie and Clyde (1967) showed there was a particularly strong market for violent period gangster films. No Orchids for Miss Blandish was already a proven commodity, having been made into a film once before in 1949. But both the novel and the first film of it were widely denounced in many quarters as exploitative trash, wallowing in sex and sadism. In some regions the novel was banned, despite the enthusiasm of a few discerning critics such as George Orwell, who defended it as a masterpiece of style despite its sleazy content.
Unfortunately for Aldrich, The Grissom Gang followed its three predecessors into financial and critical failure and, until its resurrection on DVD through the courtesy of Anchor Bay, into oblivion. (A videotape version was allegedly released in the early 1990s, but I can personally attest that it was impossible to obtain.) Aldrich’s achievement can be properly assessed with this no-frills DVD, which offers reasonably crisp versions of the film in both pan-and-scan and nonanamorphic widescreen formats. Perhaps now it can take its place as one of the director’s most exciting and challenging works.
Set in Kansas in the 1930s, The Grissom Gang opens (and closes) with a well-known period song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” But on the surface at least, love seems to be in scant supply in the world of the film. A small band of cheap crooks plots the theft of a $50,000 necklace from heiress Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby), whom they kidnap from a party at her family mansion. A more ruthless gang, the Grissom family, murders the crooks and takes Barbara hostage, demanding a million dollars for her return and planning to kill her anyway. The money is paid, but Barbara remains alive. Why? Because one of the Grissom boys, Slim (Scott Wilson), has fallen in love with her. Easily the scariest of the boys, and on the surface the dumbest, he’s so smitten with Barbara that he’s willing to murder his own family — including his mother — if they try to carry out their plan to kill her. This dynamic dominates the film’s several parallel plots: Slim and Barbara’s increasingly intense relationship; the family’s ongoing attempts to both avoid the police (by killing anyone with the slightest knowledge of what’s going on) and get rid of Barbara without antagonizing Slim; and the police’s attempts, aided by a seedy gumshoe named Fenner (Robert Lansing), to nail the Grissoms and recover Barbara.
One of the most startling aspects of The Grissom Gang is its black-comic assault on the family. The Grissoms are one of the most vicious gangs in the history of film, led by a brutal, moustached “Ma” (Irene Dailey). They giddily mow down anyone — including friends, girlfriends, even each other — who gets in their way. Nonetheless, as the film repeatedly brings home, this collection of unsophisticated killers is also a family, deeply involved with each other, constantly engaged in all the little rituals and interplay of family life that include iron obedience to Ma and respect for Pa. In an early scene, when the Grissoms are about to murder the crooks from whom they’re stealing Barbara Blandish, Slim laments a lie one of the victims has told to save himself. He’s practically in tears at his vision of human failings when he says: “Why you wanna lie like that? Didn’t your folks teach you no better? Like Ma says, they’re real punks.” When Barbara’s kidnapped and brought to Ma, the latter says with a smirk, “No trouble with you, we’ll treat you like one of the family.” Like most families, the Grissoms want to better themselves. When they get the million-dollar reward, Ma says wistfully, “We’re gonna be big-time, legitimate.” And Pa, significantly a weakling in this matriarchal group, adds a mocking political touch, “Like Mr. Hoover said, prosperity’s just around the corner.”
The film is loaded with such references and motifs, which intermingle with the actual activities of the Grissoms to challenge and confound the viewer. They’re swift in dispensing justice as they see it, in scenes that pushed the envelope of acceptability even for the early 1970s. These include a brutal beating of Barbara by an irritated Ma, and the murders of many of those who circle the Grissoms’ orbit: a pathetic little photographer who dies in a urinal trough; an innocent gas jockey; a cynical black man who helped them bury the bodies; and of course innumerable policemen.
But Aldrich goes deeper than both the brutality and the family-burlesque aspects of the film. He makes the Grissoms human — more human than Barbara’s father, the odious Mr. Blandish (Aldrich regular Wesley Addy) — mostly through the character of Slim, who’s at once the worst and best of the lot. As enacted by Scott Wilson, Slim is one of the most unusual characters in cinema, both repugnant and endearing, forcing the audience into an uncomfortable identification with an antisocial, destructive psycho. (This is in keeping with many Aldrich films where a seemingly negative character — e.g., Beryl Reid’s nasty dyke in The Killing of Sister George or Cliff Robertson’s pathological boyfriend in Autumn Leaves — generates unexpected sympathy.) The film insists on Slim’s humanity, and eventually his transcendence, despite his cruelties. There’s something pure in Slim that can’t be found anywhere else in the film. In several sequences he’s confused and upset by the double-entendres and ironies spouted by his brothers; he sees life almost through a child’s eyes, but also has a child’s direct connection to his own emotions, which he acts on without irony or double-entendre, a trait that Aldrich obviously values highly. This becomes most telling in Slim’s encounters with Barbara, whose plush life has bred her to expect phoniness and emotional distance in her relationships. “Haven’t you ever loved anyone?” he says. Part of the power of The Grissom Gang is the way it brings a realization of love where it’s least expected: in an ultra-violent gangster film, and in a class-busting relationship between a murderous, low-class kidnapper and his wealthy, beautiful victim. The opening and closing tune — “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” — could also be read as Slim’s theme song. For Barbara, ultimately, love — from Slim — seems to be enough.
As if presenting a parade of burlesques of respectable institutions — courtship (in Slim’s courting of Barbara), marriage, the family — weren’t enough, Aldrich further jars the viewer with ahistorical motifs throughout. Connie Stevens’ floozy character Anna Borg, for example, sings (and looks) more like a modern singer than a ‘30s chanteuse. With its outlandish purple and red colors and mock-Deco stripes motifs, the bizarre honeymoon hideaway that Slim and his brothers spend two months constructing — a love nest that’s also a secret bunker — looks more like a Pop Art painting than a 1930s apartment. Sticklers may be annoyed with what looks like laziness or confusion in not maintaining strict historical accuracy, but the film is so rigorous in every other respect that these “mistakes” are surely intentional, purposely disturbing the viewer (a constant theme in Aldrich’s career) and showing that the film’s concerns are contemporary, despite the period setting.
Slim and Barbara’s final encounter in a remote barn, surrounded by veritable armies of cops and reporters, shows what for some — both inside the film (Mr. Blandish) and outside it (squeamish viewers who have been forced to respond positively to an apparently negative character) — is an unsettling merging of classes. This is what’s represented in the last coupling of Slim and Barbara, the erasure of desperately held class boundaries, consciously, tenderly broken by Barbara when she responds freely to Slim by initiating lovemaking. It’s instantly apparent when the two emerge from the barn that Slim and Barbara have come to a deep understanding, even lived as man and wife. And while the “problem” of Slim is quickly eradicated, Barbara becomes much more problematic. Mr. Blandish is now faced with a daughter who is “soiled goods,” who went from spoiled debutante to consorter with the criminals who kidnapped and beat her. In the film’s most devastating moment, she reaches out to him, holding a bloody hand that she begs him to touch; in response he savagely rejects her and runs. Unlike in the film’s theme song, the curdled, inhuman Mr. Blandish, who in his rigidness and curdled inhumanity symbolizes everything Aldrich and the film revile, can give his “baby” anything but love.
Aldrich always excels as an actor’s director, and The Grissom Gang is no exception. Even minor roles such as Connie Stevens’ Anna Borg, the cheap tap-dancing moll, have a lurid panache. Irene Dailey joins the rogue’s gallery of unforgettable gangster-matriarchs that stretches from Ma Cody in Walsh’s White Heat (1949) through Ma Barker as the title character in Bloody Mama (1970). Tony Musante registers strongly as the literally oily Eddie, and Wesley Addy brings his trademark icy Aldrich functionary to vicious life. Best of all are Scott Wilson and Kim Darby. As Slim, Wilson brilliantly conveys a kind of monstrous nobility, vacillating wildly between bursts of rage, tearful terror, and quiet humanity without veering into the kind of caricature that routinely marks the acting of others, e.g., Robert de Niro, who work the “psychotic simpleton” shtick. The underrated Kim Darby is also memorable as Barbara Blandish, giving a gravitas to that character’s progression from haughty heiress who takes everything for granted to a human being who can value honest emotion regardless of where it comes from.