In its time, No Orchids for Miss Blandish was quite the scandal du jour. Based on an equally unseemly novel by the prolific British pulp novelist James Hadley Chase, No Orchids was a production that actively courted jeremiad-like responses and was accordingly met with shrieks of execration from members of the fourth estate (Life decried, "Without exception, the critics were horrified"), the Catholic Legion of Decency, and the British and American censors alike. It was so shocking that United Artists, who had planned on releasing the film in the U.S. after its initial run in Britain, only distributed the film in parts of Latin America. The film certainly wasn't helped by the new title it was given for its American release, The Snatch. It was later renamed a second time, to Black Dice, in order to give American audiences just a small taste of its content.
Less than a year after Film Forum hosted the U.S. premiere of a restored and uncut print, No Orchids remains somewhat jolting, though it's nowhere near the opprobrious smut-fest it was made out to be. First and last-time filmmaker St. John L. Clewes directed and wrote the adapted screenplay, ostentatiously pushing the envelope in terms of content as far as he could. The results make Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly look downright reserved in its solicitous lewdness.
There's no middle ground in No Orchids, nothing close to a normative or even relatable level of melodrama. Every man in the film is prone to violence, from the comparatively mild-mannered Mr. Blandish (Percy Marmont), who lashes out a few times after hearing that his daughter (Linden Travers) has been kidnapped by the Grisson mob, to the investigative journalist that climbs into strange women's rooms at night and threatens to douse a reluctant interviewee with hot oil if he doesn't get the answers he wants. All the women respond in kind by being hand-spinningly easy: The ice-cold socialite Miss Blandish, who is taken forcibly by a lesser gang only to wind up stashed away by Slim Grisson's (Jack La Rue) hoods, watches in horror as her fiancée is beaten to death, then is almost raped and then willingly falls into the arms of Slim himself. Lounge singer Margo (Zoe Gail) is even more loose: After she's roughed up by the aforementioned investigative reporter, she invites the man, whom she just tried to push out of a window with a broken bottle, to bed.
The lengths to which Clewes goes to not only preserve but escalate the provocative tone of his source material are oddly admirable. It's especially endearing in relatively innocuous scenes like the one where a policeman shoots a suspect on sight without giving the man in question time to surrender. The brutality of the story is so pervasive that it almost even makes No Orchids's preposterous doomed romance, where a rich heiress falling suddenly for a cookie-cutter mob boss, believable. To preserve the immediacy of Chase's novel, somebody has to either be roughed up or treated like a slut in every other scene. Luckily, the film's cast of character actors and bit comedians, including Charles Goldner doing his typical Italian waiter shtick and stand-up funnyman Jack Durant as a solo lounge act, to support that kind of superficial means of holding the viewer's interest, even if no individual actor really stands out after their tawdry actions (Durant's a rare exception, but some very funny Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre impersonations do not a good performance make).
La Rue and Travers's performances are especially underwhelming, he doing a half-assed Bogart impression while she delivers equally stiff fits of histrionics (note the way she howls like a wounded puppy when Slim initially kidnaps her). No matter how much time Clewes wastes trying to convince the audience that they were madly in love with each other, making the pair kiss each other deeply for what feels like an eternity in each love scene, they have zero chemistry and are individually just as lifeless.
Clewes thankfully provides the film with a sturdy intellectual foundation on which it can operate. Human interaction in the film is treated like a series of escalating power plays or a schizophrenic game of Telephone where each link in the chain tries to claim that they are the originating source of whatever message is being relayed. Slim, for instance, chews out Ma Grisson (Lilli Molnar) for acting against his wishes and treating Blandish like a disposable hostage: "As long as you thought the way I wanted you to, you could kid yourself into thinking you was running this mob." He does this right after hearing Margo sing "But When He Got It, Did He Want It," a raunchy little number that cautions male listeners that the downside to rape is losing interest in your victim soon afterward: "If you take by force, you must keep it. You can't even give it away."
The introduction of the plot to prey on Blandish in the beginning is filmed as if it were an atmospheric relay race. One group only gets in on the act after they've tricked themselves into thinking that they thought of the scheme in the first place. Ma Grisson warms up to the idea of taking Blandish for everything she's worth after her right-hand man tells her of one of his notorious "hunches." She initially dismisses the plan after a "two-bit chiseler" tries selling it to her. Clewes's makes the way one group's scheme is inevitably adopted by another a leitmotif, one that's admittedly more prominent in the film's first two acts.
Beyond that, Clewes just doesn't have the chops to make the emotional core of the film believable or even that interesting. The most striking things about No Orchids take place on its main story's periphery, from the way the characters are constantly misbehaving to the moody dynamism of Clewes's camera. His seedy ambition is the key and it makes No Orchids an exceptional B noir.
IMAGE / SOUND:
The image of this newly restored print of the film looks fine, save for some unavoidable grain and damage to the print itself, but the audio track periodically has a faint choppiness to it, almost as if the disc were about to start skipping. It can get little distracting at times, but it's not so bad that it will take you out of your viewing experience.
Apart from a trailer for the U.S. release of the film and the British release, VCI has included a recent video interview conducted by Silver Age Audio's Joel Blumberg with the film's producer Richard Gordon and bit player Richard Nielson (Nielson also starred in the stage play of No Orchids that preceded St. John L. Clewes's film adaptation). Gordon has a wealth of contextualizing knowledge at his command, including lots of fascinating anecdotes about his career as a producer of such genre films as The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood. Nielson is an equally adept raconteur and a very self-aware one at that. His dentures become unstuck and give him a pretty bad lisp by interview's end though. The other special feature on the disc is an audio-only interview with Gordon conducted by Tom Weaver, which mostly covers the same material.
First and last time director St. John L. Clewes's seedy ambition is the key and it makes No Orchids for Miss Blandish an exceptional B noir.