It is hard to imagine that an English gangster movie produced during the late 1940s generated a fair amount of controversy despite eschewing much of the violent nihilism found in the original story on which it is based. Mark Fraser looks back at some overreaction to a not so dangerous work.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
To call St John Legh Clowes’ 1948 screen adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s 1939 short pot boiler novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish watered down would be a grave understatement.
In fact it’s fair to say the movie – which is set in the US but was made in Britain – is pretty much a complete bastardisation of the original book, despite its attempt to follow some of the author’s broader plot machinations while embracing the spirit of American film noir.
Without a doubt the biggest discrepancy between the two versions lies in their respective depictions of the relationship between the abducted titular character (Linden Travers), a rich heiress who is initially targeted for her diamond-laden necklace, and her principal kidnapper Slim Grissom (Jack La Rue), whose fatal attraction to his ransomed prisoner in both incarnations of the story ultimately leads to a bullet-ridden demise.
When Miss Blandish first encounters Slim in the novel, for instance, Chase doesn’t mince any words.
There is, he writes, “something so repulsive and terrifying about this creature” that the poor woman has a “mad urge to scream and keep on screaming”. Miss Blandish’s subsequent attitude towards her captor doesn’t change one iota throughout the remainder of the narrative, during which she is subjected to four months of doped up incarceration and rape.
And, by the closing moments of this ordeal, the author grimly notes: “Her body, racked and yearning for the peace of drugs, did not belong to her anymore. Although she had not eaten for many hours, hunger did not torment her. She just felt weak, as if she had been very ill for a long time.”
A devastating scenario to be sure, but all of this sorrow and sordidness is dust binned by Clowes who, presumably for commercial reasons, saw fit to turn Chase’s narrative into the most unlikeliest of love stories.
Gone is the notion that the psychotic Slim is “the coldest thing on two legs” – an “inhuman spirit” who, when younger, had a penchant for cutting up new-born kittens using rusty scissors.
Rather, he is something of a loveable lug; a gangster with such hidden charms that even a rich dame like Miss Blandish can’t resist the urge to get up and run off with him to somewhere like Cuba or Mexico. Indeed, the movie version of Slim is so docile he even takes lip from Louis (Charles Goldner), the fussy (read: foreign and campy) head waiter at the Grissom gang’s nightclub, whose character doesn’t appear in the book.
Missing too from the film are any suggestions of premeditated rape or enforced drug use. Instead, the couple enjoy restaurant-prepared meals in Slim’s lavish upstairs room (which is furnished with a baby grand piano) as they discuss their future options and kiss passionately like a pair of newly-weds.
So far removed is the movie from the book that at one point Miss Blandish tells her captor that despite all her wealth “I’ve never been as happy as I am tonight”.
At the end of the day it’s as if Clowes – whose movie directorial career started and finished with this crime opus – stripped the most distressing elements from the original story and then placed the rest of it into some parallel universe. Needless to say, aficionados of the Chase book may well find, as they probably did back in the 1940s, this screen adaptation rather blasphemous.
Sadly, for lovers of sleazy pulp fiction, the modifications don’t end there.
Another glaring change in Clowes’ script comes with its portrayal of Eddie Schultz (Walter Crisham), who is one of the smarter members of the Grissom gang in the novel, but finds himself playing second fiddle to a much savvier Slim in the movie.
This is really quite a pity as, in the original story, Schultz comes across as the small outfit’s most level headed heavy, even though he eventually rats his colleagues out after being brutally beaten by the authorities (in another scene which is omitted from the film).
In fact he may well be the book’s most interesting character; certainly one of the funniest pieces of Chase’s prose involves the gangster as he comes to the realisation that the constant bickering of his moll Anna (Frances Marsden) – whose boyfriend Frank Riley (Richard Neilson) he helps kill at the start of the novel* – is wearing him down: “Eddie frowned. This stuff meant nothing to him.”
On this note, it’s fair to say Clowes’ screen adaptation not only filtered out most of the source material’s nastiness, but also its dry humour. This too is a shame as, despite its overriding sense of immorality, Chase’s unsentimental novel is at times quite funny, albeit in a hard bitten and matter-of-fact kind of way.
For example, also excluded from the film is a character called Rocco, who at one point steals the traumatised Miss Blandish from the Grissom stronghold with the hope of returning her to her rich father (Percy Marmont) and collecting the reward money.
The distraught woman, however, is too far gone to be co-operative, effectively meaning he ends up helplessly babysitting an irreconcilable head case while the enemy closes in on them.
As he is about to be knifed by Slim (who only uses a pistol in the movie), Rocco questions his judgement: “He wondered what would have been his end if he had not started this. Why had he bothered with her?” he asks himself before being stabbed to death. Unfortunately these kinds of quirky insights, which help make Chase’s noir prose so effective, are totally absent from the screenplay.
Then there’s the big shoot out, during which the gang meets its demise.
In the novel, the mobsters (sans Slim and Eddie) – under the autocratic leadership of the vicious Ma Grissom (Lilli Molnar) – go down united after their premises are invaded by the police.
This is very different from Clowes’ version of events, in which Eddie (who has not been pulled in for interrogation by the cops), Flynn (Danny Green) and Doc (MacDonald Parke) turn on their matriarch in a murderous act of mutinous betrayal before trying to knock off Slim so they can make their escape with the loot.
Also worth mentioning here is the difference between the ending of the book and the movie.
According to Chase, after Miss Blandish is rescued and taken to a hotel room by ex-cop Dave Fenner (Hugh McDermott) so she can be collected by her father, it’s obvious she is not going to recover from her four month ordeal.
Despite Fenner’s reassurances that Slim has been killed, the hysterical woman gives a clear indication of her fragile state of mind: “He’s not dead,” she says in a high pitched voice. “He’s with me now. I know he is – at first I thought I was wrong, but I know I’ve got him with me. He wouldn’t leave me alone, ever – and he never will.” Within minutes she is dead, having hurled herself from the upstairs room to the pavement below.
While Miss Blandish also commits suicide at the end of the movie (this time by jumping from her bedroom window), it’s not because she has had her head done in by four months of drug-numbed sexual abuse by a psychopathic mobster. Rather, she is too broken hearted to continue living after being forever separated from the man who offered to break her free from the shackles of a filthy-rich and spoilt bourgeois existence.
Sign of the times
Interestingly, No Orchids for Miss Blandish generated quite a bit of controversy when it first appeared in the UK due to its violence.
Although the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) had cut about a minute out of the original print before it hit the screens, contemporary English movie scribes, whose country was besieged by a post-World War II crime wave, were in no mood for this sort of entertainment.
An anonymous review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, for instance, called it “a sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism” in which “all women are sluts and most of the men vicious murderers”.
“One after another come scenes of unpleasant bedroom interludes and revolting orgies of beating up and murder almost on a scale of a massacre,” it said.
“The film’s only saving grace, apart from its technical qualities, is that with all of its repulsiveness it is boring. This may reduce the danger.”**
Looking back, there is no denying No Orchids for Miss Blandish contains its fair share of beatings, shootings and face slapping – particularly when Riley is alive. (In one unexpected outburst, which doesn’t occur in the book, he viciously glasses barman Ted [Sid James] across the left side of the face with a pitcher of water, an act of wanton aggression which retains its shock value to this day.)
Nevertheless, it still pales in comparison when placed beside the nihilistic mayhem that dominates Chase’s novel.
Taking all this into account, it seems the British critics were perhaps too heavily influenced by the book when passing judgment on its screen adaptation.
*Anna’s murdered boyfriend in the original story is not Riley, but his partner in crime Ted Bailey (Leslie Bradley).
**Ex-BBFC examiner Richard Falcon, in one of the extras included with the recent Powerhouse Films Ltd Blu-ray issue of the film, says this analysis – which was just part of a “critical maelstrom of hysteria” – summed up how the British press of the day regarded it.
Words by Mark Fraser
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No Orchids for Miss Blandish is out now on Blu-ray in the UK.