There’s precisely one sequence in No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948), St John Legh Clowes’ grisly gangster film adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s novel, where the stars align and everything comes perfectly together. It happens about a third of the way through the film and centers on a bone-chilling confrontation between two criminals.
The first, a gutter crook who orchestrated the kidnapping of pampered heiress Miss Blandish (Linden Travers), the second, Slim Grisson (Jack La Rue), a cold-blooded member of the Grisson gang, one of New York City’s most feared crime syndicates. After bungling the kidnapping so disastrously it devolved into a triple homicide leaving Blandish’s fiancé and two of his criminal accomplices dead on a country road, the crook spirits his victim away to a hidden cabin where he tries to rape her. But he’s found out by Slim who moves in to snatch Blandish—and her ransom—away from him.
Showing up to the cabin with a coterie of thugs, Slim sits on a table and starts rolling two black dice into a dish. The sound of the dice is deafening, maddening. Click-clack. Click-clack. CLICK-CLACK. And all the while the crook begs, yells, and pleads with Slim to have a heart and leave him with a piece of the action. Click-clack. Just one of her jewels! Click-clack. Please, anything!! CLICK-CLACK. Broken, defeated, the crook sobs a surrender and turns to leave. But at the last moment he spins, desperately pulling out a pistol. With a flash, one of Slim’s lackeys blasts him to pieces and he collapses to the ground as dead as his hare-brained buddies.
This scene is a masterwork of tension, dread, and atmosphere. Slim’s quiet, almost insouciant cruelty; the unflinching long camera shot and expert character blocking; the uncaring click-clacking of the dice like the ticking of a clock counting down to the kidnapper’s pitiless doom. All of these blend together magnificently into magnetic movie magic.
If the entire film managed to match this moment’s brilliance, No Orchids for Miss Blandish would have been one for the ages. But the sequence is an anomaly in one of the most inexplicable, poorly conceived, and even more poorly executed genre exercises of its time. Though a British film based on a British novel made with a British cast, Clowes’ set it squarely in the seedy underbelly of New York City, forcing all his actors and actresses to adopt painfully forced and exaggerated American accents. The result is a cast where the men all sound like affected, nasally James Cagney/Richard Widmark crosses and the women like congested Katharine Hepburns. Seemingly emboldened by its gritty American setting, the film takes an almost pornographic glee in absurd, over-the-top violence. Beatings, drive-bys, assassinations; homicides, matricides, defenestrations. Gangsters are gunned down with detached boredom and innocent bystanders with sneering impunity, leaving their innocent bloodied bodies to be cradled by wailing children. More than just being violent, the film is also stunningly casual in its misogyny. There isn’t a single woman who isn’t kidnapped, threatened, slapped, beaten, raped, or murdered at some point. The central plot itself revolves around a queasy case of Stockholm’s Syndrome—Blandish naturally falls for Slim and the two embark on a doomed, star-crossed affair.
Upon its release, the film was immediately condemned by film censors, critics, and moral guardians, resulting in many theaters refusing to screen it. No Orchids for Miss Blandish was hardly the first gangster film to push the boundaries of onscreen violence and misogyny—the infamous grapefruit assault in William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) and the myriad murders in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) shocked and horrified audiences in their time. But unlike those films where skillful filmmaking elevated them to the status of great pop art, Clowes’ film is too incompetently made to warrant any serious critical reappraisal. The film is an unmitigated mess burdened with embarrassing over-acting and a script that careens from one poorly paced set-piece to the next. The brief moments of explosive violence are drowned in an overall miasma of tedium peppered with grating nightclub performance sequences and aggravating comedic relief at the hands of an obnoxious Italian chef. The sudden romance between Slim and Blandish isn’t just unsettling, it’s downright ridiculous in its instantaneous intensity—even sixteenth century Veronesi teenagers wouldn’t buy it.
Besides the novelty, so-bad-it’s good factor, the sole selling point for No Orchids for Miss Blandish is its beautiful cinematography. Filmed by Gerald Gibbs, the man who shot Ealing Studios classic Whisky Galore! (1949), the film is more beautiful than many of its American contemporaries. Chock full of stately pans, meticulous shot compositions, and gorgeous nighttime interiors, it looks like a big-budget prestige film rather than a down-and-dirty gangster shoot-em-up.
Those curious would do well to look to Kino Lorber’s recent Blu-ray release as part of their British noir series—though it sports only a couple of trailers as special features, the digital transfer is luscious and worthy of Gibbs’ superb work. It’s just a shame Gibbs didn’t have better material to work with.