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.