Mapplethorpe (Tribeca 2018)

Mapplethorpe (2018)

Director Ondi Timoner’s new biopic turns the camera on Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist who revolutionized art photography in the 1970s and 80s, raising controversy with his images of hardcore BDSM juxtaposed against tender portraits of calla-lillies and celebrity portraits. Mapplethorpe looks at the life of the artist from his relationship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), his time at the Hotel Chelsea, fascination with gay BDSM, and the permutations of his art until his death at the age of 42. Through his images and relationships with friends, lovers, family, and ultimately to the art itself, Mapplethorpe attempts to elucidate a contradictory, contentious subject.

Matt Smith’s performance as the central character is Mapplethorpe’s greatest strength. He embodies the conflicts that the film lays out. He’s charming and funny, vicious and unkind, loving to his subjects and exploitative of them in the same breath. He toes the line between exploitation and appreciation, such that it seems he does not fully understand his behavior. As he ages and becomes ill, he delves deeper in the light and dark, becoming more demanding of those around him and crueler in his behavior. Smith’s physical investment in the role is almost Expressionist, recalling Conrad Veidt’s total embodiment of his parts. Mapplethorpe blends with his own images, pressed between the light and the dark, the violent and the tender. The film’s often spectacular cinematography lends itself to this portrayal, as the colorful vibrancy of New York in 1969 gives way to black and white palettes of the 1980s that finally wash out the central character, turning him into a walking specter. Smith forces us to acknowledge the brilliance of the artist and the gentleness of his touch while at the same time seeing his cruelty and self-interest. And the film doesn’t excuse Mapplethorpe’s behavior – it simply seeks to represent it.

But for a film about so revolutionary a subject, Mapplethorpe remains oddly chaste in its onscreen depiction of male nudity, homosexuality, and BDSM. While it doesn’t shy away from showing Mapplethorpe’s image, in effective intercuts of the actual photographs, it coyly cuts away from sex scenes, avoids filming Matt Smith (or almost anyone) in full body shots, and reduces Mapplethorpe’s friends and lovers in the BDSM community to barely realized characters. Surely these men were more than just images, either to Mapplethorpe himself or in their own right. Surely they had personalities, thoughts, experiences of their own. In the middle of the film, a friend tells Mapplethorpe, “They must really trust you,” but we never see how he earned that trust, how his friendships developed, or how he staged these images in the first place. The film’s unwillingness to truly engage with Mapplethorpe’s subjects, and thus avoiding dealing with its own subject, makes it feel slight – the people photographed become just images, body parts, and we never see them as full characters.

In fact, the entirety of Mapplethorpe is slight, avoiding too much investigation of who Mapplethorpe is or what his art meant, either to himself or to the wider culture. His relationship with Patti Smith flames out, and she almost immediately becomes a nonentity, a person solely there to drive him from one aspect of his art to the next. There are little indications of the artist’s psyche—he relates the conflict and symbiosis between his Roman Catholic upbringing and his homosexuality and interest in bondage, and more than once remarks that his art must be viewed as a totality, hardcore images as well as the more “palatable” flowers and portraits. The juxtaposition of his portraits of celebrities and still-lifes of flowers with hardcore images, his interest in photography “as an artist” that never extends to learning how to develop the photographs himself, the very light and dark of his images…all of them provide interesting fodder for an exploration of a deeply conflicted artist producing deeply conflicted art, yet the film never follows through on any of them, instead leaving the deeper themes at the peripheries, content more to delve into one man’s suffering than to examine his work. While I don’t think we needed an explanation of Mapplethorpe as a person or an artist—those are always pat and ineffectual, even in the best biopics—there needed to be greater exploration of what he meant as an artist, what his art meant to the developing scene of the 70s and 80s, what furor he caused. We are told he was revolutionary, but we never shown why.

In some ways, Mapplethorpe is as much a contradiction as the man himself, a film that wants to investigate both art and artist, and yet can’t quite come to terms with either. There is so much hanging at the peripheries, begging to be examined, that one wishes the camera would shift focus just a little, to look at those people, themes, desires, fears that made Mapplethorpe what he was. Maybe it’s impossible to truly reveal the artist through a different medium than the one he employed, maybe the art must simply speak for itself. But it would’ve been nice to see this film try.

Mapplethorpe is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

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Nigerian Prince (Tribeca 2018)

Nigerian Prince (2018)

Cinephiles enjoy quoting the factoid that Nigeria has one of the biggest film industries in the world, on par with and often exceeding both Hollywood and Bollywood. But unlike Bollywood, which has had some success in exporting films across the Atlantic, Nollywood films rarely cross to America (despite being deeply popular across Africa). Nigerian Prince, the first full-length feature by director Faraday Okoro, is not a Nollywood film per se, but it pushes American viewers to reckon with our relationship to Nigeria, and perhaps to begin to treat Nigerian and Nigerian-American cinema with the respect it deserves.

Nigerian Prince focuses on two cousins, Eze (Antonio J. Bell) and Pius (Chinaza Uche), who meet in Nigeria when the American-born Eze is sent to stay with his aunt Grace (Tina Mba), Pius’s mother. Eze thinks he’s just in Nigeria for a few weeks, but soon learns that his mother has arranged to keep him there for much longer, enrolling him in school to, as she says, learn “where he comes from.” Eze protests—he’s an American, not a Nigerian, and rebels at being basically forced to remain in a country to which he has no connection. Pius, meanwhile, has become a barely successful scammer—both by email and in person—and has run afoul of a corrupt police chief Smart (Bimbo Manuel), to whom he owes a great deal of money. As the two cousins become more embroiled with each other, Pius begins to see a way clear of both his own and Eze’s troubles.

Nigerian Prince takes on two stories: a fish out of water narrative, and a crime thriller, converging them as Pius “teaches” his younger cousin about Nigeria. But it also escapes the clichés of a young man learning about his heritage, embroiling Eze deeper in Pius’s problems without romanticizing Nigeria or its inhabitants. There is no aha moment when Eze falls in love with the country he’s never known or had particular attachment to—rather, he learns how to live differently, and how to understand the far murkier depths of morality. Pius explains that his scamming isn’t really stealing, because those he scams always willingly part with their money. As we see this in action, it’s easy to be charmed by Pius (thanks to Uche’s excellent performance) when he convinces a greedy American that he can become rich by washing “black money,” actually just rectangles of construction paper. Pius is good at his job, but he also has difficulty navigating the degrees of corruption within his world and reconciling it to his basic decency. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, or so it seems.

The film’s greatest flaw comes in its third act, as Pius’s story becomes a central focus, pushing Eze to the background. We meet a few characters—like “Bimbo” (Crystabel Goddy), one of Eze’s classmates—who vanish as quickly as they appear onscreen, making the narrative occasionally feel unfinished. Eze’s story stops being a concern, his character only important insofar as it provides Pius with an opportunity to pay off the price on his head. This shift of focus doesn’t wholly damage the film, but it does mean that we begin to forget that this story started off about one character and has become about another, so when the final payoff comes, it’s hard to feel great emotional investment.

But it’s hard—very hard—not to get sucked into Pius’s story. Okoro has a deft touch with the camera, treating the streets, the countryside, and even the darkened alleys with a mixture of fear and love, a recognition of Nigeria’s complexity in the images of poverty and wealth, and in the character of Pius. Pius is charming, erudite, a talented con artist who begins to con the audience as well, transforming fluidly according to his situation. He’s untrustworthy, but he’s also scamming himself, constantly claim that he can survive if he does just one more scam, sends one more email, gets just one more day. He wants success in his field, but he has a conscience; he can convince himself that he’s not really stealing, and also knows when he’s taking someone for a ride. His relationship with Eze is untrustworthy because it’s impossible to know what he’s really going to do, if he’s really going to scam his cousin, if he’s really going to hurt someone he comes to care for. That tension, the danger that Pius represents and that even he does not seem to fully control, is one of Nigerian Prince’s most deceptively simple features.

And like Pius, Nigerian Prince pulls you in, charms you, and tells you a complex and powerful story without losing itself. The film draws no clear moral conclusions, no clear solution as to what, or who, is right or wrong. While it stumbles on occasion, Nigerian Prince is a damn fine film, from a director who should be watched.

Nigerian Prince has its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Tribeca 2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

Love, Simon has brought the teenage rom-com into the 21st Century, finally giving us a funny and heartfelt story about the difficulties of coming out (and falling in love). The Miseducation of Cameron Post is Love, Simon’s more serious sister film, a coming-of-age drama about teens sent to a camp to undergo conversion therapy. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and is now making its New York debut at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) as her aunt ships her off to God’s Promise, after she’s caught having sex with another girl on prom night. Cameron meets a host of other teenagers, there to “recover” from their same sex attractions through the dubious therapies of Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.), himself a supposed success story of his sister’s methods. But Cameron is resistant and begins to develop a set of friendships within the camp, particularly with Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), who help her learn to perform her therapy without letting it truly affect her.

The film strikes a surprising degree of nuance and sympathy for all the characters—the misguided adults included—highlighting the sense of confusion and anger as the teenagers try tto change their own sexualities. Flashbacks and dreams show Cameron’s romance with her friend Chloe, as well as the reasons her fellow campers have been sent away to “get better.” Without focusing too heavily on the suffering of the embattled teens, the film delves into the evangelical mentality of “fixing” homosexuality with a combination of faith-based teaching and misapplied psychology. Cameron is encouraged to figure out what in her past “made her gay,” and thus purge herself of her same-sex attraction. The film exposes not just the wrong-headedness and damage caused by such a blending of badly applied scripture and twisted therapies, but also the degree to which the people using those therapies truly believe that they are helping. Reverend Rick has also been forced to alter and repress himself, his cheery smile concealing a pain that he cannot fully repress. Each of the teens handles the therapy in their own way, some coming whole-heartedly to the belief that they are broken and in need of God’s love, while others (like Cameron and her friends) come to recognize that there is nothing wrong with them to begin with. Coursing through the film is the uncertainty—that maybe something is wrong—as each therapy session and Bible verse is twisted to imbue in them a sense that they are sinning simply by existing,

Although the focus is ultimately on Cameron and her experience, the film encircles her with a host of other characters, each of them played with intimate nuance. There are boys rejected by their fathers for being too “feminine,” and girls desperate to fulfill their parents’ notions of femininity. The intensity of teenage desire is multiplied among teenagers who are constantly being told that they’re wrong, confused, damaged, sick; that they cannot be loved by God and be gay, or even be anything other than a very narrow understanding of what “correct” gender looks like. And the film doesn’t so much fault religion as it faults the abuse of religion—in a particularly powerful scene, a boy passionately quotes a Bible verse as he begs to be loved for his “weakness” in loving men. Director Desiree Akhaven proves herself a deft touch in this film, which allows for the explicit expression of sexuality (there are more than a few love scenes) without turning them into a mere titillation for the audience. These are teenagers just awakening to their sexualities, both aware of what they want and frightened of what it means. The insidiousness of evangelical teachings permeates everything, yet the film doesn’t dwell in darkness or suffering. It is, in its own way, about purification, about final acceptance of who and what we are, despite what we’re told to the contrary. The teenagers can’t leave God’s Promise, even when they want to—their parents or families might decline to take them back if they’re not sufficiently “cured.” And if they are changed, then they must live their lives denying themselves and who they truly are.

I won’t go into spoilers, but it’s worth noting that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not about the suffering of LGBTQ teens. There’s a humor—sometimes an uncomfortable one—that runs throughout and helps to keep the narrative from dropping too far into the darkness. The strength of friendship, the searching for identity in a world that contains only narrow definitions of it, expands the story, giving it heart and understanding and even sympathy for the adults imposing their warped fears on teenagers who actually do know better. But the true heroes are still the teenagers, especially Cameron herself, who tries to survive without denying who and what she is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post will have its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22.

The Avengers: Tunnel of Fear

Tunnel of Fear (Episode 1-20, August 1961).

Any Avengers fan will tell you the sad tale of The Avengers Series 1 episodes. The very first season of the show is almost entirely lost, thanks to the habit of British television studios of not preserving the video stock used to record their shows. There were even a few episodes that were never recorded, just broadcast live. So all that remains of the first series/season of The Avengers are two and a third episodes, one of which (“Girl on a Trapeze”) that doesn’t even feature John Steed. But now we make that three and a third episodes, with the happy discovery of “Tunnel of Fear,” now released on DVD from Studio Canal.

“Tunnel of Fear” was the twentieth broadcast episode, nearing the end of the first season, and as such already has some of the hallmarks that would carry over into the second season and the introduction of Dr. Catherine Gale. But here David Keel (Ian Hendry) is still Steed’s partner in avenging, playing the occasional foil to Steed’s secret agent as they investigate nefarious goings-on at a local carnival. The episode opens with the arrival of Harry Black (Anthony Bate) on Keel’s doorstep. Harry is just recently escaped from prison, where he claims he went on a trumped-up charge. He begs for Keel’s help, and Keel only obliges when John Steed pops up (bringing with him a massive Great Dane named Puppy) and informs Keel that he’s been investigating the leakage of top secret information out of a Southend carnival, where Harry just happens to have worked. So Keel heads down to the carnival, while Steed takes Harry to the police, and promptly loses him.

Down at the carnival, Keel investigates, meeting a host of odd characters that include a hypnotist, the ghost-train runner Jack (John Salew), Harry’s mother Ma Black (Doris Rogers), and a bevy of dancing girls at a “girly-girly” show being run by none other than John Steed, having the goddamn time of his life as a carnival barker. The episode proceeds in twists and odd turns, very much reflecting the increasingly odd plot lines and character types that The Avengers would eventually become known for.

Patrick Macnee’s Steed is in top form here, a funny, energetic presence who loves dressing up and play-acting, but always with a canny, intelligent edge that can shift to steel if needed. Anyone who doubts that Steed’s feminism was inherent from the start would do well to really pay attention to what happens in “Tunnel of Fear,” and how Steed relates to the (numerous) women who pass through. He’s jocular and charming with Keel’s nurse Carol (Ingrid Hafner), and when he meets Ma Black, he embraces her as a friend, smiling over photos of her son with genuine good will. And while he’s having the time of his life corralling the dancing girls, it would be a mistake to understand Steed’s flirtations with them—especially Rosie (Julie Samuel)—as particularly lascivious. He’s playing a part, yes, and he’s enjoying it, but his flirtations are never predatory. We can easily see the man who eventually works his way into Cathy Gale’s affections, and makes Emma Peel fall in love with him. Steed was always a decent bloke.

Of course, there’s Ian Hendry’s David Keel, rightly considered the first Avenger, of whose influence we only get a taste, given the scarcity of the first season episodes. He and Steed spend a good bit of the episode apart, so there’s little time to process the chemistry between them. Keel’s a very above-board character, genuine in his desire to help people, but often a bit of a stickler for rules and adherence to his personal brand of morality. Maybe he’s underutilized in this episode, but it’s hard to care very much about him one way or the other. He’s there more as a foil for Steed than as a partner, and though his machinations eventually help his friend and solve the mystery, his time onscreen brings the mood and energy down a bit.

In the simplest terms, “Tunnel of Fear” is loads of fun. It maintains the slightly grotesque, film noir edge that all but vanishes in later seasons, helped along by the live television aspect of its taping. There’s a sense of the slap-dash the cardboard sets and reaction shots that is quite charming, if sometimes a bit hokey. The live aspects give the show a feel of a theater production, watching the actors play out their parts in real time, sweat and all. The DVD is well worth the purchase for any Avengers fan, or fan of 1960s TV. It’s more than just a curiosity—it’s a damn fine piece of television.

*If you purchase the Studio Canal DVD of “Tunnel of Fear,” be aware that the advertised Season 1 scripts are not included on the disc. You must contact Studio Canal (info@studiocanal.co.uk) to receive the scripts.

The Stolen Heart (1933)

The Stolen Heart (1933)Most film buffs know Lotte Reiniger as the pioneer of silhouette animation and the creator of the first feature-length animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a combination of One Thousand and One Nights stories that predated Walt Disney’s Snow White by over a decade. Reiniger was the creator of more than forty films using silhouette animation, a technique initially borrowed from the Chinese shadow puppet tradition that utilizes paper dolls to form silhouettes, then animated and photographed frame by frame. Reiniger is one of the frontrunners of stop-motion animation.

While Prince Achmed is certainly her most famous and ambitious work, Reiniger also made a number of shorter films, including The Stolen Heart, a 1933 short about a town populated by lovers of music who lose their instruments to an old demon. The thematics of the story involve the triumph of joyful music over evil, as the demon is eventually conquered not by anger, but by joy.

Films like The Stolen Heart make a passionate argument for Reiniger’s place in the pantheon of animation greats, a symbol of the power of female directors. There is no dialogue, and Reiniger’s storytelling depends on the combination of the visual and the use of music and song. The film comes off as an anti-fascist parable, reinforced by depiction of the demon as a gigantic old man, looming over the tiny village and robbing the people of their joy. But joy in itself is stronger than oppression and it is the action of the instruments themselves that liberates the people – the music echoes across the landscape, awakening the villagers from despair and eventually crushing the oppressive shadow. Reiniger’s silhouettes meld and transform, and give the impression of witnessing real life through a curtain, warmth and love radiating even as sorrow nearly cows the people.

Reiniger tends to come off as a footnote in animation history, partially because of her gender, and partially because silhouette animation is now largely a lost cinematic art. But it is hard  to watch The Stolen Heart and fail to be moved by it. Reiniger is an artist, a director of the highest caliber, and anyone who fails to seek out her work has done a disservice to themselves and to the history of cinema.

Guest Post: The Epic Intimacy of A Wrinkle in Time

In her first guest post, my fellow cinephile, amazing writer, former flatmate, and good friend Nannina Gilder eloquently analyzes A Wrinkle in Time.

We need to stop dismissing the experiences and tastes of teenage girls as shallow and superficial. Isn’t it the kiss of death to a “serious” band, or actor, or book to say that its fanbase is young and female? Unfortunately much of the art created for young women is made by people who have never been young women, and is often cynically trying to cash in on the demographic without ever truly looking to understand it. The knee-jerk reaction to dismiss and diminish anything that reads as feminine means that when an artist with a firm grasp of the experience creates a work grounded in it, its craft, structure, and innovations often get shrugged off as unworthy of analysis. Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time has been reluctantly hailed as a disappointment, a kid’s movie with little to appeal to adults, a good-hearted brightly colored Disneyfied muddle. But that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what DuVernay has done. How unique it is in its whole-hearted immersion into the head of a 13 year-old girl, and how that is a worthy and fascinating place to spend two hours of your life.

A Wrinkle in Time, as Madeleine L’Engle conceived it, is firmly rooted in the feminine experience and imagination, and Ava DuVernay’s adaptation visually brings this concept to life. At its core, emotion drives the film rather than action, and many people have criticized it for being full of sudden unexplained jumps and changes, but this ignores the fact that an adventure of emotion has a different pace and structure than the classic hero’s journey we are used to. Think of the wild mood swings of a preteen, how confounding the world can seem. The way L’Engle structured A Wrinkle in Time was not just shoe-horning a girl into masculine archetypes; there is not just one type of hero’s journey. In fact there are countless predecessors to Meg Murry in the folklore traditions of the world. Traditionally the heroine’s journey, like Meg’s, begins with loss; a loss of family or love, and she sets out to reclaim that part of her, tested over and over on her way. Each time she thinks she finds success she is given a harder challenge, and when she reaches her goal, it is marked by a deep betrayal.

Ava DuVernay understands that the way a filmmaker approaches this story should be fundamentally different, and she sees power in the things that the world tells girls are frivolous. In a change from the book, Meg Murry’s guides on her journey, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit, do not look like eccentric tramps, dressed in a weird assortment of mismatched clothes, but are gorgeously arrayed in dresses that look like something that might have been doodled on the margin of a 13 year-old’s notebook in her sparkling jellyroll pens. Each time they travel through time and space, or “tesser,” their wardrobe and make-up are gloriously changed, flying in the face of criticisms that in order to be taken seriously a woman needs to reject self-expression through fashion. Though Meg’s own wardrobe of a flannel shirt and jeans could easily be worn by her friend Calvin, she is never coded as masculine. Her love of science and propensity to get into fights are not viewed as being at odds with the fact that she’s a girl, but intrinsic parts of her. She is allowed to be neither a girly-girl nor a tomboy, inhabiting a middle ground of femininity that many will find refreshingly familiar.

Like the Mrs. Ws’ fashions, the worlds Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and Calvin travel to are deeply rooted in the feminine imagination. The first planet they tesser to, Uriel, has the heightened Technicolor extravagance of an animated film. Even the distant hills have a disconcertingly flat quality. Its excess can be overwhelming, and isn’t always appealing, but it has the feeling of a young girl’s bedroom, with butterfly flowers that undulate, speaking the language of color. Even the not entirely convincing form of Mrs. Whatsit after she transforms into a flying cabbage leaf are images that I have seen, either in my own childhood imaginings, or in the doodles and drawings of my friends. This is the world of Meg Murry’s mind. As are the amber balance beams of the Happy Medium, revealing Meg’s insecurity in very literal ways, and the ever-morphing evil planet of Camazotz, which deceives and changes at every turn, cutting into each person’s most vulnerable places with the goal of making them conform. It is not an accident that some of the surreal images on Camazotz, such as the use of bouncing balls, echo earlier scenes from Meg’s real life in school.

Just because A Wrinkle in Time is rooted in the fantasy lives of young girls doesn’t mean that it is haphazard or uncontrolled. Ava DuVernay is an expert at centering her films on emotion and grounding their visuals in the feelings of her characters. From her first features, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (dealing with grief and lives put on pause), DuVernay has deftly used close-ups and sound to both isolate and bring together her characters. In her masterpiece Selma she took an epic subject and, without removing its grandeur, grounded it in the intimate moments between the characters. This epic intimacy is turned up to eleven in A Wrinkle in Time. The way DuVernay frames her close-ups often gives room to reveal the distance or proximity of two characters in space. These shots emphasize relationships, emotion, and empathy and the inherent drama of these qualities, favoring them above action and physical conflict. This is a deliberate subversion of expectations for an adventure story, and says that the things women and girls are often belittled for can be their strengths. As Mrs. Whatsit says “Meg, trouble-problematic Meg. To you, I give the gift of your faults.”

Of course this doesn’t mean that the people and critics who don’t like A Wrinkle in Time are wrong, but what many of them aren’t getting is that it is an incredibly specific world, that wasn’t made for them. A Wrinkle in Time is a good movie, a beautifully crafted movie, an incredibly deliberate movie, and not everyone will like it. Not everything has to be universal (though trying to see the world through the eyes of others is a great exercise in empathy and the onus has been on girls to practice that far more than boys (and girls of color even more so)), but the fact that something isn’t universal doesn’t mean that critics get to dismiss specific works of art as small and inconsequential. Ava DuVernay has created something new, a sci-fi adventure in the mind and imagination of a girl, and in doing so has deliberately broken many rules in order to put new ones in place. I hope that it will find its niche that will allow it to be celebrated as the radical, feminine, beautiful, psychedelic cult classic it is.

-Nannina Gilder

Nannina is a screenwriter living in Western Massachusetts. You can get in touch with her via Twitter @NanninaGilder

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)

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.