Film Review - The Grissom Gang (1971)
'The Grissom Gang' is a violent movie about a family of six gangsters in 1930s America, a gang who stop at nothing and who kill without qualms. They're into anything that will bring in money, and that includes kidnapping, so when their paths cross those of young heiress Barbara Blandish, the Grissom gang abduct her and hold her to ransom. And the gang have no intention of letting her go when the money is paid. They are going to kill her. But they've reckoned without the unpredictable affections of one family member - psychotic Slim Grissom has developed an eye for Miss Blandish. And what begins as a gangster movie ultimately becomes a story of a most unusual and emotional relationship.
This is my review of a movie which offers an illuminating insight into how good direction and acting, coupled with natural human sentimentality, can turn one's sympathies towards the most unlikely of characters.
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WHAT'S THE STORY ?
Barbara Blandish is a spoilt little rich girl with an expensive lifestyle and little experience of ordinary people. So one night when a small time trio of opportunists decide to kidnap her (and in the process they murder her boyfriend) it creates a terrifying scenario on all sorts of levels. But things are certainly no better for her abductors. During the getaway, a chance encounter proves to have fatal consequences for the criminals as an old acquaintance happens upon them and engages them in conversation. This man sees Barbara in the back seat and he questions the crooks about her before letting them go on their way. Unfortunately for the kidnappers, this isn't just a passer-by, and he certainly isn't a friend either, He is Eddie Hagen, a member of the notorious Grissom Gang, a sordid and depraved family of killers, and when he hears on the radio about the kidnapping of a millionairess, it doesn't take long to put two and two together. And it doesn't take much time for the Grissom Gang to decide they want a piece of this action.
Four of the gang members pull up at the ranch house where Miss Blandish is being held, and they summarily execute their rivals. For Barbara Blandish, It's a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, because this gang is crueler and more vicious and they are not planning to let her walk out alive, even when the ransom is paid. Ironically however, the most disturbed, crazed member of the Grissoms becomes emotionally attracted to Miss Blandish. Slim Grissom has nothing going for him. He is a dim wit, uncultured, and something of a laughing-stock within the family, albeit one that they live in some fear of. He is like a child who acts without the restraints of judgment and rationality. Of course he's never had a girlfriend, but now he has found for the first time an object of desire.
Slim Grissom wants to look after his captive beauty, and Barbara Blandish soon appreciates that his unstable emotional attachment is all that will save her from Eddie Hagen and the others. She discovers that instead of submitting to the will of Slim Grissom, she can turn the tables, almost dominate him and make him do her bidding. Thus begins a bizarre relationship as the days of captivity drag into weeks in which Slim is at odds with his own family, and Barbara finds her mind a turmoil of repulsion, survival instincts and a need to be cared about. It's a situation which alters the fate of the Grissom Gang.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
John P Blandish
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Robert Aldrich
WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :
- James Hadley Chase (Novel)
- Leon Griffiths (Screenplay)
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1971
RUNNING TIME : 128 mins
GENRE : Crime
GUIDENCE : Some swearing. Many killings
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : None
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Kim Darby is Barbara Blandish, and this is a difficult role to play as Kim has to subtly amend her character's personality throughout the piece, at one moment spoilt and annoying, at another emotionally distraught. Hers is a truly memorable performance as a girl who initially takes the superficial adornments of a pampered lifestyle for granted, but who - through her encounter with Slim - eventually comes to value the honesty of heartfelt affection irrespective of where that affection comes from.
The Grissom Gang are a mixed bunch, and pretty much a leaderless bunch. The patriarch Doc Grissom is weak and ineffectual. Ma Grissom is very different. She is one nasty piece of work, and she commands the family home. Irene Dailey's performance in this role is very much over the top to be honest, and it may be more suited to a comic caricature of a gangster matriarch, full of contorted sneering expressions. Nonetheless the role serves very memorably to emphasise the deep unpleasantness of the Grissoms. Outside the family home, the 'master mind' of the criminal activities is Eddie Hagen, played by Tony Musante. This is an archetypal slick movie gangster. Others are Mace and Woppy. All are ruthless, but at least they have some rationale to their behaviour. Not so the final member of the family.
Slim Grissom is sometimes described in critics' reviews as the leader of the gang. He most certainly isn't; he's much too dim to make sensible decisions, but he is such an extreme emotionally disturbed character, the others will often let him have his way. They will ridicule his inadequacies, but they know not to push him too far, because Slim Grissom has a mentality which keeps him permanently on the edge of a deranged and violent aggression from which no one will be safe. It is such a unique portrayal by Scott Wilson. This is a man who thinks absolutely nothing of killing another man, and yet he is deeply and genuinely upset when - in order to stay alive - another character lies to him: 'Why you wanna lie like that? Didn't your folks teach you no better?' Slim Grissom is both the most sympathetic and the most dangerously crazy member of the family. He's someone who can in an instant turn from contentment to uncontrollable rage. One wonders how he might have turned out in a family with better role models. it is a powerful and complex performance requiring good acting every second he is on camera.
Other characters in this film include Robert Lansing as a Philip Marlowe like private eye Dave Fenner, and Connie Stevens as gangster's moll, Anna Borg. Wesley Addy has a significant part as the cold and uncaring father of Barbara Blandish.
Some performances are clichéd and overly dramatic - a justifiable criticism in the case of Ma Grissom, but the gross caricature may be intentional, as a kind of a black parody of gangsterism.
A second accusation concerns the unlikelihood that a rich young woman could find something sexy in a psychotic killer. However, the circumstances presented in the film, and the credence now given to 'Stockholm Syndrome' in which real-life hostages have developed a deep empathy for their kidnappers, perhaps make this scenario plausible.
A final criticism levelled at this movie is the glorification of gangsterism. But this is nonsense. 'The Grissom Gang' doesn't glorify these thugs. Quite the reverse. Indeed it is a very much less sympathetic portrayal than could be found in other highly respected films in this genre such as 'Bonnie and Clyde'. These are deeply unsexy grotesques. The Grissoms are futureless and alone in the world. No one would want to be like these people.
'The Grissom Gang' was a remake of 'No Orchids for Miss Blandish', a British film made in 1948. This in turn was based on a novel of the same name by James Hadley Chase. The book was apparently the most widely read novel in Britain during World War Two.
The original novel, the1948 film, and to a lesser extent the 1971 movie, attracted great notoriety for the level and nature of violence. The novel was denounced by some as exploitative and even pornographic because of the sexual behaviour and sadistic tendencies of some characters.
The diamond necklace in the film is absolutely genuine and extremely valuable. A courier accompanied the necklace everywhere whilst working undercover as a secretary. Further guards were on set during filming, and travelled with the necklace on location filming. And wherever the necklace went, the local police were informed.
One great scene features fine acting by Tony Musante, Joey Faye, Ralph Waite, as well as Scott Wilson, and illustrates how Slim - by virtue of his limited intelligence and sociopathy - is something of an outsider within his own family. Slim's smartened himself up and bought a new ill-fitting suit in an effort to please Barbara Blandish. Maybe he's even had a wash. Eddie, Mace and Woppy find his new look and his romantic intentions hilariously funny. They don't want to upset him, but they cannot suppress their giggles. Slim Grissom looks on, disturbed and puzzled by the laughter, frustrated because he does not understand their sarcasm, yet wanting to join in:
- 'Eddie what do you think about the suit - Well it's all right ain't it?'
Eddie Hagen stuffs a cloth in his mouth to silence his own laughs:
- 'It's a - a classic ..... Who made it - the Ford Motor Company?'
Woppy and Mace, like Eddie, are in stitches as Slim struggles to comprehend the joke:
- 'Well that ain't funny - Ford don't make suits.'
The scene puts the viewer in a disturbing situation; laughing is infectious and it's easy to find oneself joining in with the vicious mocking humour. On the other hand, it's equally easy to feel sorry for the dim-witted psychotic killer who is bemused and alone as he faces this verbal bullying - neither seems like the right response. That makes it a great scene.
However most of the best sequences in this film feature the developing interaction between kidnapped Barbara Blandish and psychotic Slim Grissom. These include a scene in which Barbara recognises the weakness of Slim's mind and lays into him with ruthless taunts, and the moment she learns from Slim the truth about the intentions of Eddie Hagen, Ma Grissom and the others. Towards the end there is a barn scene in which Barbara and Slim have finally established a relationship which is strangely touching. Quotes from these scenes are included below.
If the best sequences feature Barbara Blandish and Slim Grissom, so do the best quotes. Two contrasting exchanges emphasise this. In an early encounter in the bedroom, Miss Blandish slaps Slim as he attempts to kiss her. He whiningly pleads:
- I was just playing a little game. A little kiss. Why won't you let me kiss you?'
- Why? Because you're odious, that's why. Look at you! You're filthy and you smell! Do you really think I'd let a cretinous half-wit like you touch me? ..... You make my skin crawl. You make me want to throw up.'
At this stage, Slim the killer runs downstairs to his mom, almost in tears because the hostage has taunted him. The killer is like a little boy tormented by a classmate.
- Ma! Ma! She's saying bad things Ma. You promised me you'd make her my friend. You promised, and all she's doing is saying bad things Ma. She said I smell and she called me a cretin.'
Towards the end, the whole atmosphere between the two has completely changed. Slim and Barbara are alone together and a bloody end has become a real possibility. Slim is revealing his deepest feelings and the spoilt heiress is saying extraordinary things:
- 'Slim; I'm not worth dying for. Nobody's worth that.'
- 'If I ain't got you, I don't care what happens.'
Barbara's life in high society has given her a mistrust of others' affections. She recognises how young suitors have ingratiated themselves with her. She sees in Slim Grissom a genuine affection for the first time. Slim, for his part, can see the sadness in rich Barbara's life. He asks her:
- 'Haven’t you ever loved anyone?'
- 'Not like that, Nobody's ever loved me like that either. They've said it lots of times but - I guess they just didn't mean it the way you mean it.'
- 'Hey. That makes me better than all them college boys then huh?'
A pause, as Barbara thinks and looks at her abductor:
- 'Slim - don't get yourself killed. Don't die for me. Please.'
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?
The relationship between Barbara Blandish and Slim Grissom is everything in this movie. Without it, this is just another gangster movie - violent hoodlums machine gunning their way to wealth and destruction with some good set pieces and good characters, but rather clichéd, and at times overacted. There is no doubt about it, the film stands or falls on whether the audience can buy into the credibility of one peculiar relationship. There are three stages to the relationship between Barbara and Slim:
- Early in the film, Barabara Blandish is not only frightened by Slim Grissom, she is repulsed by him. She finds his whole manner, his whining manner of speech, his ignorance, his 'creepy-crawly' nature, his hygiene - everything - quite disgusting.
- Soon she learns that Slim will be her only defender against the rest of the gang. She has to rely on him, and she begins to regard him as her saviour. She needs him. She doesn't love him, but she tolerates him and uses him - she strings him along pretending to like him. She knows he will keep her alive.
- The third stage develops as Barbara appreciates the difference between Slim and her own father and the various boyfriends she's had in the past. Slim is the first person prepared to do anything - even kill - to save her. Barbara now recognises how Slim is the only person to truly care about her. A tenderness at last develops between her and the psycho who needs her.
The film opens and closes with the song 'I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.' The choice must be intentional. It seems love is the only thing Slim can give that's worth having, and it is the one thing that rich father John P Blandish cannot give.
If you can't believe in the relationship, then the film will probably not work for you. If you can buy into it, then uncomfortably one may reach the stage at the end of the movie where one feels much more sympathy for the insane killer Slim who at least has human emotions, than one does for the respectably upright but icily cold John P Blandish. Is that right or wrong? Either way, 'The Grissom Gang' certainly shows how the medium of film can turn one's feelings and force the sympathies of the audience in whichever direction the movie makers choose.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
'The Grissom Gang' is a violently aggressive gangster movie, with little subtlety in much of what goes on. But I would suggest watching this film for the character of Slim Grissom - an extraordinary performance by Scott Wilson - for the acting of Kim Darby, and for the interaction between the two people they play. If nothing else, it is intriguing to watch this screen 'romance' and to explore how one's own sentiments may change between the beginning and the end of the movie.
SOME OF MY OTHER CRIME FILM REVIEWS
- Rear Window (1954)
A Hitchcock thriller set almost entirely in just one apartment room, with bored, incapacitated James Stewart idly watching his neighbours through the rear window. It's innocuous enough - until he begins to suspect one neighbour just may be a murderer
- Falling Down
Falling Down is the study of a man's tortured mental descent from law abiding citizen to crazed killer, as he walks across town. This film documents how the final pieces of his life collapse on a hot day in Los Angeles. He is falling down.
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