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November 27, 2018

The Grissom Gang

grissom gang spanish poster.jpg

Robert Aldrich - 1971
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

For myself, one of the best ways to judge the ability of a film director is in the visual choice or choices made in filming a conversation between two people. It almost seems like a lost art with too many contemporary filmmakers seemingly unable to trust their material, their actors, or the audience. The Grissom Gang may be one of Robert Aldrich's lesser films, but there is one scene that he gets absolutely right.

The kidnapped Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby) is alone with gang member Slim Grissom (Scott Wilson). The simple-minded Slim, infatuated with Barbara, has appointed himself to be her protector from the rest of the gang. Barbara is unaware that the ransom has been paid and that she is to be murdered to keep her from identifying her kidnappers. Aldrich films a conversation as a two-shot, that is, two people within the same frame. Wilson standing on the left side of the frame behind Darby who is in the foreground of the shot, filling the right half. The viewer can see Slim's face screw up with frustration over the plans of the rest of the gang, as well as Barbara's refusal to respond positively to his awkward courtship. In the foreground, the viewer sees Barbara's face contorting in horror at the news that she is not to be released, and that the million dollar ransom demanded has been paid. Because of the staging of the two actors, Slim does not see Barbara's face and is consequently unaware of her reaction.

Based on James Hadley Chase's novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, the 1939 novel was reworked to take place in Kansas City, 1931. Following the unexpected popularity of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), there were a handful of depression era gangster films that appeared in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Aldrich's film was unsuccessful critically and commercially. Thematically, it fits in with several other Aldrich films about a small group of people who are bound together in a situation that inevitably leads to the death of all or most of the members. In such films as The Dirty Dozen or Too Late the Hero, it is soldiers on a "suicide mission", while individual suicide, literal or symbolic, can be found in films as varied as The Big Knife, The Killing of Sister George and Hustle. A trio of small time hoods read about Barbara Blandish appearing at a soiree where she will be wearing a diamond necklace. A bungled attempt at stealing the jewels turns into the murder of Barbara's boyfriend, and the kidnapping of Barbara. A chance encounter with Eddie, higher up among Kansas City gangsters, leads to the Grissoms kidnapping Barbara. The gang is led by "Ma" Grissom, an intimidating, snarling older woman. Critics of the time who complained that the characters were overly melodramatic probably had not read Chase's novel.

What I also like about The Grissom Gang was some of the casting, especially the supporting actors. As the would-be jewel thieves, Matt Clark and Michael Baseleon immediately have the look of desperation on their faces. As "Ma" Grissom, the British stage actress, Irene Dailey, was unafraid to look much older than her actual age of 50, with wisps of a light mustache under her nose. The one member of Aldrich's "stock" company to appear here is Wesley Addy as the patrician father of Barbara, a man so cold that it's easy to see why Barbara might prefer the company of her psychotic protector, Slim. Most of the characters are glazed with sweat, the action taking place in July according to Chase's novel. In the scene with Slim and Barbara that I noted, Slim is wearing a dress shirt with brown rings under his arms from his perspiration. Give Aldrich credit for his attention to the kind of details that many filmmakers would ignore.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Howard Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, two film historians familiar on other KL Studio Classics releases, joined here by Steven Mitchell. Especially for those not as familiar with the filmmaker, they provide an overview of Robert Aldrich and his recurring motifs. There is also a short interview with Scott Wilson discussing his time filming The Grissom Gang, his frustration with how the theatrical release was handled, and his regret at not having had the opportunity to work with Aldrich again.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 27, 2018 07:45 AM