No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)

No Orchids for Miss Blandish is based on a book of the same title by James Hadley Chase – a notorious 1939 crime novel that the writer supposedly composed on a bet to “outdo The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Despite the controversy surrounding its depiction of sex, violence, and general nastiness, the novel was a major success and later became a stage play. It was finally transformed into this film, which is a study in all the worst aspects of film noir and indulges its enjoyment of sex, sadism, and melodrama to a degree that’s still kind of shocking.

Linden Travers is Miss Blandish, a bored heiress about to marry an equally boring man who is summarily knocked off during a simple jewel robbery. After bludgeoning the bridegroom to death, one of the robbers takes Miss Blandish hostage, intending to ransom her back to her father. He’s murdered in his turn, this time by the Grisson gang, headed by Slim Grisson (Jack La Rue) and Ma (Lilli Monar), and Miss Blandish once again changes hands. It doesn’t take long for her to fall for Slim, however, as he offers her a life of excitement and cruelty that her regular world was sorely lacking.

On the face of it, the story is pretty bog standard for a film noir, but this film milks every lurid detail, doubling down on the gangster patter – while a British film, some of the cast are American and Canadian, and it makes for a weird and somewhat jarring combination of American accents and attempts at American accents. No one is particularly comfortable with the words they have to speak, though, as the actors appear to be doing game impressions of Bogart, John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, and Rita Hayworth. But even Bogie couldn’t have made much out of this script, which insists on tossing in every single gangster cliche in the book, and inventing a few of its own. No one is nice, not even Miss Blandish, who is a combination of – ahem – bland and heartless. The lack of anyone to root for, or even anyone to enjoy watching, makes the film feel that much colder and meaner, exacerbated by its continued insistence of depicting coercive sex and violence with a clarity that somehow made it past the censors.

The frank depiction of pretty coercive sexuality is the film’s most cringeworthy theme. Miss Blandish’s first kidnapper attempts to rape her, only interrupted by the arrival of Slim; it’s implied that Slim also has sex with her, though the film subsumes that slightly and indicates in a few lines that she kind of wanted it.  A nightclub singer has an extensive song entitled “When He Got It, Did He Want It?”, which proves to be a celebration of famous rapes. The newspaperman Flyn (Hugh McDermott) later breaks into the singer’s room, holds her at gunpoint, then promptly sleeps with her. Miss Blandish’s excitement with Slim seems to be mostly about him being so violent and dangerous, which could have proved an interesting amour fou, if there was any heat between them. But while Travers is a decent enough actress, La Rue is a bargain basement Humphrey Bogart, and his shift from ruthless killer to tender lover makes very little sense.

The ham-fistedness of No Orchids for Miss Blandish does provide a kind of perverse enjoyment, however. The shifts in tone are wild – one minute we’re watching gangsters summarily execute each other in the most brutal manner possible, the next we’re treated to our lovers making eyes at each other in a forest. There are some odd attempts at humor, like the scene where two members of the gang debate the merits of Italian cuisine, or that horrifying rape song. The sheer dedication to nastiness is fascinating on its own, as we watch one gangster smash a bottle in a guy’s face, or stomp a man’s head in. This film was banned in some British territories, denounced by Bishop of London, and roundly condemned by critics. Unsurprisingly, it was commercially successful.

I stumbled across this film because I remembered learning about the controversy surrounding the book during a crime fiction class. While I can’t claim that my life has been materially improved by watching No Orchids for Miss Blandish, it was certainly a unique experience. At least we learned that the Brits really shouldn’t try to make American films.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish is available to stream on FilmStruck.

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Outrage (1950)

Between 1949 and 1953, actress/writer/director/producer/general badass Ida Lupino directed five feature films, making her the most prolific female director of her era. She was only the second woman to join the DGA, and she learned to direct during one of her extensive suspensions from Warner Brothers, where she wandered the backlots and watched directors at work. She was vocal about the need for more female directors, for directors to take on more taboo and out of the way subjects. And, like so many of her fellow female stars, she was far smarter and more talented than she was probably ever given credit for.

Outrage was her third film as a director, and in it we can see most clearly the development of the talent that she would hone to perfection with The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist. And like those films, Lupino takes on a deeply taboo subject with an unforgiving clarity of vision that transcends the film’s somewhat pat third act.

Outrage deals with rape and sexual assault with explicit attention (for the era) and a degree of sympathy that’s as refreshing as it is surprising. The film focalizes itself not through the pain suffered by those surrounding the victim, not through the search for the attacker or the machinations of the family, but through the victim almost exclusively. Lupino makes use of multiple POV shots to drive home the audience’s sympathy with the violated woman, her sense of fear and shame and undirected anger, and how she finds a way to cope with the trauma of her assault.

Ann Walton (Mala Powers) is a young woman working as a bookkeeper, with a boyfriend who becomes her fiance (Robert Owens), a loving family, and a normal, middle-class future. As she leaves work late one night, she’s followed and then attacked by the man who works the concession stand near her workplace, and who we see early on hitting on her with no response. Ann runs and then blacks out before the attack; she can’t recall the face of the man, remembering only the scar on his neck. Her sense of shame around her family, her fiance, and her fellow workers eventually drives her out of town, fleeing to the countryside where she finds a kind of solace with the help of Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews). But her assault continues to haunt her, even as she tries to repress it, and her terror soon takes a darker turn.

Outrage has so many interesting elements that it’s difficult to pick up on a single one. Lupino treats the subject with sympathy, but also photographs it as a film noir. When Ann flees from her hometown, she does so with the air of a criminal – she hides her face when her disappearance is talked about on the radio, and begins to act guilty when she’s introduced to a local sheriff. She changes her name, and declines to talk about where she came from or why she left. All of this is part of the recognizable tropes of film noir – the man or woman on the run. But Ann is the victim, not the criminal; her shame was something that was forced upon her. The film takes pains to avoid placing any blame on Ann for her assault. She hardly knows the man who attacks her; her greatest crime is turning him down, and even then it’s a rejection that carries very little weight. Like many women, Ann is catcalled and whistled at and she generally ignores it or takes it in stride as a simple fact of being female. Up to her assault, Ann is treated as an average woman, without any particular neuroses or anxieties; the sort of woman about to marry a long-time boyfriend, with a family that loves her and a good job that she enjoys. She is, in other words, a normal girl for the 1950s.

This act of rendering a victimized woman completely sympathetic, avoiding even the shadow of blame attached to her, drives several points home. The terror of the assault is that it really can happen to anyone; Ann’s greatest error is an understandable fear that slowly morphs into panic, which in turn makes her make bad decisions and errors as she runs. In Lupino’s work, victimized women are not “asking for it;” they are not “fallen women,” they do not “lead men on.” They are normal, average women victimized not just by a single man, but by the expectations and taboos of the culture surrounding them.

The film’s strongest and most terrifying scene is the lead up to the assault, as Ann’s eventual rapist pursues her through an empty urban landscape. Ann’s walk through the empty streets and industrial yards is at first relaxed; it’s quite obvious that she has done this often, and she’s comfortable in her surroundings. As her attacker pursues her, occasionally whistling or calling out, her panic develops. She’s clearly aware that she’s alone, isolated, and under threat. Lupino’s camera draws away from her into overhead shots combined with medium close-ups, emphasizing her isolation. Belatedly, Ann begins to do what most women are instructed to do in such situations – she heads for a cab, that quickly pulls away from her, and then begins banging on windows, calling for help. But no help comes. Ann finally resorts to hiding from her would-be attacker, but fails at the last to escape him. This combination of panic and an attempt at clear-headedness is believable – as any woman who has ever been followed by a man will tell you – and reminds us that most women who don’t actually fight their rapists are not actually consenting. Ann is terrified, she runs, she finally blacks out to defend her mind from the attack. It’s heart-breaking partially because the story is all too familiar.

As the film goes on, Lupino develops the terror that men can be for women, including ones that technically “mean no harm.” Ann’s fiance Jim at one point chases and grabs her, trying to convince her that they should run away and get married barely a week after her assault. Late in the third act, another man attempts to kiss Ann, despite her repeated denials. Ann’s horror at men and the prospect of being married, is part of her trauma, and the film doesn’t blame her for it. The men that she’s able to connect to following her assault are the ones like Bruce, who do not obviously view her as sexual, and who do not attempt to touch or coerce her.

Outrage’s greatest weakness is in providing a kind of solution to Ann’s trauma via Bruce, a reverend and a former Army chaplain who attempts to break through Ann’s reticence with a recounting of his own traumatic experience. The film relies on a pat combination of psychological and religious salvation that jars a bit with the earlier, noir-ish tone. In this, however, Outrage shows its generation more than anything. There are really only two solutions for Ann in the 1950s – salvation, or condemnation, and there was every possibility that the film would err on the more recognizable side of the “fallen woman” trope and plunge Ann into a life of vice or prostitution. But Lupino does have a defter hand than that. If the film somewhat shirks in its otherwise clear depiction of rape culture in the final act – including a decidedly post-war explanation of the attacker’s warped psychology – I think it can be forgiven.

Outrage is very much a film of its time, but it renders a sympathetic, complex understanding of the aftermath of rape, told through a woman’s eyes and with a woman’s camera. While Lupino would make technically better films, she probably never made a more significant one.

Also showing in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block is Blood Sisters, a humorous entry from director Caitlin Koller that entertains, even if it doesn’t completely stick the ending. Two young women spend an evening doing what all young women do: watching movies, drinking vodka, and performing blood rituals. The pair cut each other’s hands and chant incantations to become “blood sisters,” but soon find that things have gone wrong when they won’t stop bleeding.

The humor is strong here, as the two girls debate going to the doctor and attempt to fix things themselves. The punctuation of horror with laughs works well, for the most part, and undercuts the scares without totally relaxing the tension. The final few minutes, however, don’t really pay off, as the girls come up with an idea to stop the bleeding. It feels like the film needs to be five minutes longer to develop their reasoning, rather than jumping from one event to the next without a clear connection. At the same time, though, it’s a well-made short, with good performances from the two women, and a sharp script. It just needs to be a bit longer.

Blood Sisters will show in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block of Final Girls Berlin on February 2.

I’ve now remotely covered Final Girls Berlin for two years, and each year I’ve found one short especially that stands out to me. Last year it was Goblin Baby, and this year…it’s What Metal Girls Are Into. The first was because it was an intriguing and sharply realized film (that still needs to be a full length feature), and the second is because, in this time of #MeToo, it is deeply satisfying.

What Metal Girls Are Into comes to use courtesy of director Laurel Veil, and tells the initially familiar story of three young women on vacation who stumble into their own personal hell. In this case, it’s three metal-heads, heading to a heavy metal music festival, who are staying at an isolated house somewhere in the desert. There’s no cell service (of course there isn’t), no wi-fi, and the proprietor is creepy and over-solicitous, opening his first conversation with the girls by asking them why they’re not smiling. When the three find something disturbing in their freezer, they decide to wait to call the cops…and of course, things go wrong from there.

The strength of this short is the use of horror tropes that establishes the situation, only to be skewered. The dialogue and attitudes – young women dealing with a creepy dude, trying to ignore his behavior because they just want to have fun, and the dude in turn becoming insulted when they won’t respond to his overtures – is on point, horrifically reminiscent of way too many conversations that pretty much every woman has had. The women themselves are unmitigated badasses, and the performances here excellent, a combination of humor and terror that is both entertaining and believable. I won’t spoil the final line, but it’s…satisfying.

As with Goblin Baby last year, I want to see this one as a full-length horror film, featuring this cast. All the ingredients are there, and they’re perfectly delicious.

What Metal Girls Are Into is showing as part of the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block on February 2.

It’s that time of year again – time for a reminder that women are still pushing the boundaries of horror filmmaking. The Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, which began yesterday, provides a showcase for both shorts and features, directed (and often written by) talented female filmmakers. If you ever wondered about my constant assertion that women are the future of horror, then check out some of these films and be educated.

First up for me is Black Coat, part of the festival’s “Mind Games” shorts block. Directed by Tatiana Vyshegorodseva, the film wends through a nightmarish fantasy as a young woman awakens by the side of the road, with no memory of who she is or why she’s wearing someone else’s black coat. Picked up by two strangers who insist on being paid for the lift, she finds herself plunged into a circuitous nightmare.

The film aspires to a fascinating if somewhat obscure kind of surrealism, weaving a dark narrative that only clarifies within the last few minutes. It’s visually reminiscent of the sparseness of Ducournau’s Raw, though in this case it’s decaying architecture and evocations of homelessness that drive the horror. Pursued by terrors, the protagonist has to find a way out of the nightmare’s spiral, repeating events and actions until she can finally open her eyes. There are some shorts that feel like they’re templates for features, but Black Coat functions best as a short, a quick, sharp piece of terror that confounds and finally resolves. While I almost hoped for clearer elucidation of the film’s imagery, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that any further exposition would have damaged the film’s final moments. It’s a short story (literally based on one), reliant on visual language, and can only be resolved through visuals. An example, in other words, of pure (horror) cinema. 

Black Coat shows as a part of the “Mind Games” block on February 2. 

*Note: This is an analysis, not a review. There are spoilers for both Psycho and Phantom Thread. As I’ve only seen Phantom Thread once, this analysis may change over time. 

In a pivotal scene in Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson utilizes a visual reference to Hitchcock’s Psycho, drawing out the film’s Hitchcockian aspirations and establishing a parallel relationship between Alma/Woodcock and Marion/Norman. Alma has gone out to demonstrate her dress before Woodcock’s patrons, and Woodcock rushes to a peephole in one of the doors to watch her perform. The image of Woodcock’s eye lit by the peephole references a shot in Psycho, where Norman Bates watches Marion Crane undress through a secret peephole in the Bates Motel office. Woodcock’s visual association with Bates is not just a comment on him as psychopathic lover, but also an attempt to draw parallels between Woodcock’s act of voyeurism and Norman’s.

Norman’s act of voyeurism is presented as pathetic, a moment of perversion for a lonely young man. At the juncture in the narrative, the audience is unaware of Norman’s psychopathy and his behavior, while unnerving, is simply an act of voyeurism. What will happen to Marion is as yet unknown. As the camera takes Norman’s perspective, drawing close to the image of him at the peephole, the audience comes into visual sympathy with him – we see what he sees. The shot cuts to the image of Marion removing her clothes from Norman’s perspective, the frame edged with black as the camera mimics the view through the peephole. The reverse shot cut brings us into close-up with Norman’s eye, and then again cuts back to Marion as she moves toward the bathroom.

The act of voyeurism is not merely an act that Norman performs, but an act that the camera – and, by extension, the audience – performs with him. Pushed into sympathy with Norman whether we want to be or not, the audience is implicated in his act of voyeurism and all that it entails, up to and including the eventual murder. But Norman’s behavior is also tentative; his voyeurism slightly embarrassed, as though the act of looking is compulsive rather than wholly deliberate. What is more, he steps away from the peephole before Marion fully undresses—it is thwarted desire, perverted though it is, that compels him, and he doesn’t want to see it through to conclusion.

To look and be looked at returns again and again in Psycho, especially during the pivotal lead-up to the shower sequence, and the scene itself. When the camera gives us our first real glimpse of Mother, backlit by the sheer white of the bathroom, the shot is from Marion’s perspective. The peephole shot of Norman’s eyes recurs in its mirror image of Marion’s dead eye, the camera spiralling from it following her murder. Just as the audience has looked at Marion from Norman’s perspective, so do we see Mother from Marion’s, and finally ourselves, her eye looking back at us. The dynamic of looking and being looked at, and the violence and violation that is a part of the look, returns throughout the film, implicating the audience as well as the characters in its varieties of voyeurism and violation. (This scene, by the way, becomes even more complicated once we understand that Norman is Mother and that is it Norman’s initial act of voyeurism that eventually awakens “Mother’s” homicidal tendencies.)

Phantom Thread utilizes this dynamic as well, but the peephole shot here is one of the more blatant uses of another film’s imagery to draw the act of voyeurism into focus. Where Norman moves tentatively to observe Marion, Woodcock’s observation of Alma is breathless – he practically flings himself at the peephole, even though he’s standing in a room full of other models and seamstresses. Alma, meanwhile, is fully aware that Woodcock is looking at her. Unlike Marion, who is a passive and basically innocent victim (her greatest crime, vis a vis Norman, is trying to be sympathetic to him), Alma is a performer in her own objectification. However, the film does not therefore give her greater autonomy than Marion. She is performing as a model, and is therefore only present to be a passive object of the look. That Woodcock extends this objectification to his own form of rather sexless titillation further complicates the referentiality in using the peephole shot – he is looking, and the object of his gaze knows he is looking, and thus performs for him. But she also has no choice but to perform – she is a victim as well, because her professional role of a model enforces on her a passivity removes any choice that she might have. He will look and she will be looked at, no matter what. The way that Woodcock looks at her is not particularly a mark of his perversion, because that is literally her role.

The other marked difference in the shot as used in Phantom Thread is the lack of audience perspective/sympathy in conjunction with Woodcock’s voyeurism. Where Psycho forces the audience into visual complicity with Norman, including all that comes after, the audience is not forced to be complicit with Woodcock. He flings himself against the door, but the next image we see is not associated with Woodcock’s gaze. We briefly observe Alma returning his look as she glances at the door, knowing he’s watching her, but the camera itself does not take Woodcock’s perspective. The lack of POV distances the audience from the character, but also does not force us to interrogate our place in Woodcock’s voyeurism. His obsession, such as it is, is more an aesthetic one. While Norman’s vision is both intentionally titillating and intentionally disturbing, complicating the audience’s ethical standing in terms of the characters and in terms of the eventual murder and its solution, the scene in Phantom Thread makes no such demand of its viewers. Rather, Woodcock’s obsession forms a sort of aesthetic romance that the camera reinforces by declining to truly represent it as voyeurism. Where Hitchcock attempts to draw his audience into uncomfortable proximity with his obsessive character, Anderson allows the audience to remain distant and thus not particularly culpable. Looking and being looked at is a matter of aesthetic appreciation, not of perversion.

Yet Anderson chooses such a clear and deliberate reference to Psycho, in the midst of a film that is very much about looking and being looked at. This referentiality, while somewhat incoherent, is a mark of Anderson’s attempts to draw the viewer into the film vis a vis Hitchcock, to imply that we are, at least partially, to understand Woodcock’s relationship with Alma as having a corollary in Norman’s voyeurism. This is not particularly carried through to the rest of the narrative, however, and the Psycho reference gets lost in a pattern of referentiality and aesthetic fetishization. Phantom Thread’s treatment of voyeurism in general, and the presentation of the peephole shot specifically, avoids making the audience culpable in the interplay of dominance and submission, violation and control, that makes up so much of Phantom Thread’s narrative. We are asked to understand voyeurism from afar, to appreciate it aesthetically, and, much like Alma, to never really question our participation in it.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

One thing you have to say for director Yorgos Lanthimos: he makes challenging films. The Lobster dared viewers’ comprehension (and patience), and his most recent The Killing of a Sacred Deer extends that, crafting an aesthetically honed narrative that borders on incomprehensible. Is it good? Is it incoherent? Does it even matter?

The plot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is made only slightly more coherent when you realize that it’s (very loosely) based on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. Colin Farrell is Steven Murphy, a heart surgeon living an exemplary (and remarkably clean) life with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and two children Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Steven has a curious friendship with troubled teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose influence in Steven’s life increases as he insinuates himself deeper and deeper into the family. Soon Martin’s motivations become (somewhat) clear when Bob comes down with a mysterious illness that Martin claims is a punishment for Steven’s past transgressions. Steven now has a dreadful choice to make or risk the total destruction of his family. What ensues is a battle of emotionless wills between Steven and Martin, leading to a somewhat inevitable conclusion (again, especially if you take Euripides into account).

The mythological basis only just manages to make greater sense of a film that doesn’t quite make sense on its own. But taking The Killing of a Sacred Deer at face value – as I had to while watching the film, initially – there is a complex of tragedy and comedy feeding into a narrative that never completely fulfills its promise. The film slides between apparent, if studied, realism and the supernatural – characters speak with a precision that mimics stagecraft (to a degree), as they move within sparse settings photographed with a mobile but distant camera eye. This is all deliberate, and one has to admire Lanthimos’s dedication to the imagery that he constructs. The Murphys live in a pristine world where everyone has a set responsibility – Steven repeats his injunction that Bob cut his hair and water the plants, as per his familial role – and everything is as ordered as it is soulless. The movement from the Murphy house to the hospital and back again is surprising because there really is no sense that the two places are any different – the sterile world that the Murphys inhabit forms itself around them, and thus the inevitability of their tragedy is laid bare. Enter into this Martin, who stands out in his messiness, his off-ness, as he slurps pasta and explains to Steven that there’s no animosity in what is happening to the family—just justice. It’s a horrifying turn, but it’s hard to be overly sympathetic to Steven, who refuses to acknowledge his transgressions or his role in Martin’s vengeance.

Barry Keoghan is a standout here, playing Martin with a sociopathic tenderness that makes him fascinating and horrifying to watch. He’s a haunting presence, even when he departs the screen for long periods of time to provide space for the horrors of the Murphys. There’s more than a hint of the vampire in the way that he has to be invited in to the Murphys’ household, the way he insinuates himself with Kim, and even the way he attempts first to obtain some reparation in hooking Steven up with his mother (Alicia Silverstone, underused but excellent in her small role).

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not going to please anyone not already convinced by Lanthimos’s style. It’s a deeply aesthetic film, moving slowly from one scene to the next with deliberate camera movements and dolly work, avoiding drawing us too close to the characters (for fear, I think, that we might actually consider them human). It looks unflinchingly at the cruelty of the situation, and there’s really no one – save, perhaps, the children – to sympathize with. In that sense, it’s a perfect Greek tragedy, fatalistic and completely, viciously moral. But it doesn’t make for particularly pleasant viewing, and there were several moments when I simply considered turning the whole thing off.

This Blu-ray release is very pretty to look at, the HD looks great and the sound mixing excellent, but the special features are incredibly thin, comprising only a single featurette. I would have welcomed a more in-depth look at the film’s mythos, the stories that Lanthimos is drawing from, and the way that he constructs this tragedy within a modern setting. While I’m no fan of a director telling his audience how to understand his work, to have some basis for what Lanthimos thought he was doing might have helped to deepen my understanding of the film’s imagery. That the Blu-ray provides no further elucidation of the film’s project is a weakness, because it would have at least been interesting and would certainly justify purchasing it.

I’m almost inclined to write off The Killing of a Sacred Deer as a failed attempt to reconstitute the meaning of tragedy, a very ambitious but ultimately incoherent work of art. The film wants so much to force its viewer to interact with a combination of obscure meanings that it manages to establish no clear moral universe. At the same time, there’s something fascinating at the base of all this, failure or not. While it’s hardly a film I want to see a second time, it did keep me thinking and debating within myself for the better part of a weekend. That, in itself, makes for an intriguing work of art.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is now available on Blu-ray.