Archive for February, 2018

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.


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.