"You're the only dame that's ever got me; got me way inside and twisted my guts."
"No Orchids for Miss Blandish" should come as some small consolation to filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, whose "The Last Airbender" at the time of this writing had received some of the worst reviews of any film in his or anyone else's career. The fact is, moviemakers have been churning out bad movies for as long as movies have existed. Not that 1948's "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" probably fits into the same category of "bad" as Shyamalan's film. From what I understand, audiences actually booed "The Last Airbender" in theaters, while "No Orchids" is certainly worth watching, no matter how bad it is. Let me explain.
Don't let my 4/10 film rating for "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" fool you into thinking the film is a disaster. It isn't. Even "bad" can be fun. "No Orchids" is not quite in Ed Wood territory ("Plan 9 from Outer Space"), so bad it's good, but it's close. The big differences between "No Orchids" and anything Wood made are that the British studio Renown Pictures made "No Orchids; Englishman St. John Legh Clowes directed it from a lurid, best-selling novel by James Hadley Chase; and Clowes had a far bigger budget to work with than Ed Wood ever enjoyed. Nevertheless, taken as the "Plan 9" of serious crime dramas, the overripe melodrama of "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" can be devilishly funny.
Apparently, the idea the filmmakers had in mind for "No Orchids" was to make a Hollywood film noir in Britain, since this was 1948 and film noir, though not yet universally recognized by that term, was a popular genre of the day. So this would be a British film noir, based on a popular British noir novel. Only the British hedged their bets: Although they filmed in England using mostly English and European actors, they set their story in America, presumably New York City, meaning that practically everyone on screen had to learn to speak with an American accent. Therein lies the first of the film's humorous idiosyncrasies: Some of the non-American actors succeed; most of them don't. Most of them slip amusingly back and forth from American to their native tongues. After a while, you begin counting the examples, waiting for them, hoping for them, to flub it up again. It becomes a sort of game.
The story involves the attempted robbery of a wealthy young heiress, a robbery that goes horribly wrong when the robbers kill the heiress's fiancé and kidnap the heiress herself. Through a convoluted set of circumstances, the heiress winds up in the hands of another gang of crooks, the Grisson gang, headed up by tough-guy Slim Grisson, who promptly falls in love with the heiress and she with him. What's a poor guy to do?
Tough-guy actor Jack La Rue plays tough guy Slim Grisson, and La Rue is among the few actors in the film who is actually American. Therefore, we can at least trust his accent. We just can't trust La Rue or his acting. He seems to be channeling Humphrey Bogart and George Raft at the same time, and the filmmakers gleefully accommodate him since much of the movie borrows heavily from "Casablanca," anyway. If you remember, one of Warner Bros.' first choices for the role of Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" was George Raft, who turned it down, the role going to Bogey. Incidentally, tough-guy character actor Jack La Rue was no relation to Al "Lash" La Rue, the B-movie cowboy hero of the same era, although it might have been fun to see what Lash La Rue could have done with the lead role.
In any case, La Rue, Jack, is not only the boss of the Grisson gang, he's also the owner of a night club, complete with a gambling casino in the back. Much suspenseful fanfare, plus a little pomp and circumstance from the orchestral score, accompanies Grisson's first entry in the film, as though he were a minor prince, or as though the filmmakers remembered that first shot of Bogart in "Casablanca." Grisson's favorite activity, besides shooting people and falling for rich heiresses, is rolling a pair of black dice. Remember Raft with his coin tossing? In America the distributors changed the movie's title to "Black Dice." Every scene brings its hidden delights.
Yet it's not just the goofy American accents or the imitative qualities of the plot and characters that are bad enough for us to enjoy, it's almost everything else as well, starting with the supporting cast. They are almost uniformly awful. Linden Travers plays the heiress, Miss Blandish, as a schizoid personality who is about to marry a guy but doesn't seem in the least troubled when the baddies murder him right in front of her eyes. Then, for no apparent reason, she is suddenly in love with Grisson almost the instant they meet.
Walter Crisham as Eddie Schultz, the Grisson gang's second-in-charge, fares a little better than Travers, although he seems more suited to a horror film or to playing a headwaiter than playing a gangster. Then, speaking of headwaiters, we get Charles Goldner as Louie, the Grisson Club's headwaiter, who mainly plays it for comic relief, for what it's worth. Richard Nielson, who participates in the disc's bonus interview, is good as Riley, a petty crook, except that he seems to have studied Jimmy Cagney before doing the part, with a little Leo Gorcey (of the Bowery Boys) thrown in. Finally, we've got an old codger named "Doc" (MacDonald Parke), a member of the gang who holds his cigarettes European style; and a dapper journalist (Hugh McDermott) as the presumed hero of the piece, only as the hero he gets lost in the shuffle.
The worst player in the movie, though, is Lilly Molnar as Ma Grisson, Slim's mother and the brains of the gang. Molnar sounds Hungarian, Bulgarian, or perhaps even German, but whatever nationality she is, she's dreadful. She's so awkward, so clumsy, so bereft of delivery skills, she's a howl every time she shows up. I wish she had had more screen time.
And it's not just the actors' delivery that's bad, it's their movements, their gestures, which often come seconds after they should be reacting, as though the film editor spliced it all together with lag times between shots. I mean, it's painful enough listening to these actors speak, but having to watch their ungainly motions only doubles the hurt (or doubles the pleasure, depending on how you look at these things).
Since a lot of the story takes place inside Slim's night club, we get a glut of lumbering songs, dance sequences, and even stand-up comedy routines to punctuate the action, slowing it down to a crawl. Remember, these filmmakers saw "Casablanca"; they just couldn't get it right.
I could go on: corny dialogue that tries to emulate hard-boiled American patter; brutal beatings and killings that come out of nowhere; a good deal of phony, implied sex; a musical score that is trite and overwrought. Every time you think it can't get any worse, it gets worse. I loved it.
The video engineers digitally restored the film in 2010, and comparing the result with the two theatrical trailers that accompany the movie, I'd have to say they succeeded admirably. The black-and-white, 1.33:1 ratio picture quality looks clean, clear, and well defined. Contrasts are excellent, black levels deep, and signs of age--flecks, specks, fades, and lines--are few and far between.
Dolby Digital processing supplies the 1.0 monaural soundtrack with about as much clarity as one could reasonably expect. No, there isn't much frequency or dynamic range involved and no deep bass or surround sound, yet the all-important midrange comes through fine. Perhaps the sound is a touch forward, bright, and hard, but it's easily listenable. We notice a small degree of background noise in the form of low-level hum and hiss, but, again, it's barely noticeable.
The primary bonus item is a thirty-four-minute video interview hosted by silverscreen.com's Joel Blumberg of Richard Gordon, the film distributor who first brought "No Orchids" to America, and Richard Nielson, who played Riley in the movie. Their discussion and reminiscences about the movie are more interesting than much of the movie itself. Following the video interview, we get a forty-minute audio-only interview by film historian, commentator, and interviewer Tom Weaver of Richard Gordon alone. Then, we get a photo gallery of stills from the picture that moves along at its own pace.
Lastly, there are twelve scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and two theatrical trailers: the original British trailer and the original American trailer.
Taken in the right spirit, "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" can be a hoot. Sure, it's a poorly conceived, poorly acted, poorly executed gangster movie; regardless, it holds its own through the sheer power of nerve. It takes guts to make no apologies for ripping off countless film-noir classics. Indeed, the movie seems to delight in aping Bogart, Cagney, Raft, Mitchum, et al. If you're a fan of film-noir gangster flicks, this one should delight you with its unintentional parody.
"Call out the riot squad!"