dir. St. John Legh Clowes
1948 / Tudor-Alliance / 103′
written by St. John Legh Clowes
from the novel by James Hadley Chase
cinematography by Gerald Gibbs
music by George Melachrino
starring Linden Travers, Jack La Rue, Hugh McDermott, Walter Crisham, MacDonald Park and Lilli Molnar
No Orchids for Miss Blandish is available on DVD through Amazon.com
It looks like a certain thing for a trio of would-be gangsters: grab the incredibly valuable jewellery of millionaire’s daughter Miss “I don’t need no stinking first name” Blandish (Linden Travers) while she and her fiancée are driving through dark country roads on the way to a roadhouse. As it goes with things that are certain, the robbery plan ends with a dead fiancée, two dead would-be gangsters and Miss Blandish kidnapped by the last surviving gangster, a certain Bailey (Leslie Bradley). Oops.
Bailey drives his victim to a country shack, where is planning on, well, shacking up for a while and doing Miss Blandish harm. Just when he is about to rape her, members of the Grisson gang, who learned of Bailey’s plans and whereabouts by ways too complicated to explain, appear like a particularly inappropriate sort of cavalry. Their leader, Slim Grisson (Jack La Rue), decides to kill off Bailey and kidnap Miss Blandish (and her jewellery) for himself.
But a strange thing happens to the hardened gangster once his booty (human and monetary) is safely stashed away at the club he owns. Slim falls in love with his victim, even becoming willing to risk the wrath of his partner/boss Ma Grisson (Lilli Molnar) – who doesn’t actually seem to be related to him – for said love. When Slim tells Miss Blandish to take her jewellery and just go on home, it turns out that he’s not the only one who’s in love here. Clearly, that sort of mutual feeling can not end well in a noir.
At the time the British noir No Orchids for Miss Blandish came out, it seems to have caused a minor scandal by flaunting British censorship scandals towards filmic violence (and probably sex) enough to end the career of its director, the excellently named St. John Legh Clowes and its female lead Linden Travers. From my modern perspective, this, like a lot of things causing censors to foam at the mouth, seems more than just a bit overblown. Sure, conceptually the film’s scenes of violence are a bit more directly visceral than was typical for its time, but Clowes execution of those scenes is so unconvincing, with fists that miss bellies by miles and bullets that are so clearly never shot no audience member (many of whom will have lived through various kinds of real violence during World War II) can have been shocked by what’s happening on screen.
I suspect that it’s the sexual content that broke the film’s neck anyhow, seeing as the amount of innuendo and the number of scenes where the film is basically stating “the characters are now going to have premarital sex while the camera’s not looking” reminds of the raunchier Hollywood pre-code films I’ve seen.
But really, it’s not the sex nor the violence that makes No Orchids as interesting a film as it is, it’s the peculiar way it goes about its business of being a British noir. Most of the British noirs I’ve seen were putting their efforts into taking the aesthetics and philosophy of the Hollywood noir and putting them into a decidedly British setting, with decidedly British characters and exploring decidedly British themes. It’s none of that for No Orchids. Like the novels of James Hadley Chase (one of which this is based on), the film tries its damndest to pretend it is an American noir, setting its story in the USA yet still casting – apart from Jack La Rue’s ersatz-Bogart and Walter Crisham’s ersatz-Widmark – British actors for the roles.
This lets No Orchids take place in a particularly strange place – a USA where everyone tries for a different kind of badly done American accent to stiffly utter (often rather weird) dialogue full of off-key americanisms in, frequently while wearing clothes that are clearly supposed to be American-style, but actually look like the clothes people wear in classic gangster films as recreated by a mad tourist. This whole aspect of the movie has a highly alienating effect, putting a distance between a modern viewer and the film that makes emotional involvement near impossible. It’s all much too artificial too be immersive.
This effect is even further heightened by a script that is confusing and difficult to believe even for noir standards, and that oozes so much puppy-like excitement about aping all aspects of American noir it ever put its eyes on that it’s impossible to take it seriously at all. The film makes no attempt to make the sudden love between Slim and Miss believable even in the slightest, and instead puts them into scenes of bizarre domesticity that can’t help but leave one with the feeling that Clowes either had a very peculiar sense of humour and was trying to have the audience on, or is an alien only vaguely familiar with the idea and ideal of love. This sort of thing sure makes for an interesting film, but also left me giggling throughout the “dramatic” climax that – I think – is supposed to jerk a few tears.
So, by the standards of how a “good” film is supposed to be, No Orchids For Miss Blandish is pretty much a total loss. However, as a film that takes a by the time well-developed style of filmmaking and makes it weird through its own sheer wrong-headedness and an insistence on imitation as if it were a broken mirror, it’s absolutely brilliant. As regular readers of this column and my blog know, there’s not much I love better in a movie than the ability to present itself as part of a different world than the one I come from. No Orchids For Miss Blandish achieves that effect effortlessly, while also providing some very pretty pictures to look at (say what you will about Clowes’s direction, but he sure knew how to do “pretty fake”), horrible musical numbers and “comic” interludes to be disturbed by, as well as psychosexual nonsense to shake one’s head about.
For a film that is trying so hard to be like other films, No Orchids sure is very much only like itself.