Our review of The Grissom Gang (MGM Release), published January 27th, 2005, is also available.
Patty Hearst in the 1930s.
Robert Aldrich, director of such films as The Dirty Dozen and Flight of the Phoenix, made an inspired Depression era gangster movie in 1971. The Grissom Gang is a hard-boiled tale of violence and cruelty, but lets us remember that even a villain can have a heart. Anchor Bay is now releasing a barebones version of the film on DVD, with only fair results.
Facts of the Case
Kim Darby (True Grit) plays Barbara Blandish, a young socialite on the party scene in Depression era speakeasies. The society girl is kidnapped by small-time hoodlums who are in turn bushwhacked by a bigger, meaner gang, a family affair led by Ma Grissom and her sons. The murderous crew plans to collect the ransom and kill the girl, but simple-minded psychopath Slim (Scott Wilson—In Cold Blood, Dead Man Walking) falls for her and keeps the rest of the family from finishing her off. Now instead of either release or death Barbara faces imprisonment at the hands of a lecherous psychopath, and does what she needs to survive. Meanwhile the rest of the family realizes their predicament between the risk of keeping her alive and family loyalty (and fear) for Slim. The girl's father and police think Barbara is dead, but private detective Dave Fenner (Robert Lansing) is on the case tracking down the kidnappers. Noir meets the Depression in the rural Midwest in this tale of cruelty, from squalid hovels to ritzy nightclubs, and even love of a sort. But can Barbara Blandish ever truly escape, since even if she is freed she will be considered "damaged goods"?
The film is closely based on the 1939 "No Orchids for Miss Blandish," which raised many eyebrows at the time and was dubbed as sadistic pornography. The world created in the film is one where life is cheap; where people are shot at a moment's notice and people are used and abused. The violence is graphic, the sexual angle thankfully less so. There is no glamour to the world and the criminal element that inhabits it; though the rich make a boorish impression of it in the beginning. The rich are just as using as the criminals. The film gets a fair amount of its look and feel from Bonnie and Clyde which came out two years earlier. But this is darker. The film combines film noir pessimism and darkness with the freedom for graphic violence from the 1970s. An expert job of direction from Robert Aldrich, though one he probably wasn't thanked for at the time.
First-rate performances make this film even better than the world and the story would indicate, though I think both are convincing and well done. Kim Darby gives an understated yet powerful performance as Barbara Blandish, as she goes through the ordeal of her captivity. Initially she is the haughty heiress, and then when she realizes only the half-wit Slim is keeping her alive, resigned to her fate, though she is only able to live with it through alcohol and tears. Scott Wilson is absolutely believable as the simpleton Slim; he seems almost innocent even though he is a ruthless killer and makes his captive choose acquiescence to his desires or death. Ma Grissom (Irene Daily) is ruthless and tough; beating Barbara to a pulp on her one escape attempt. But she is absolutely loyal to the family and lets Slim keep the only girl he could ever have even though she is a continuing danger to them all. On the good guy side, Robert Lansing as the hard-bitten private detective moves adroitly through this dark world on the search for the kidnappers and is the film's only real hero. He is still underplayed and doesn't appear until late in the first act. Connie Stevens plays gun moll and nightclub singer Anna Berg, who falls for one third rate gangster after another and is key in getting to the truth. Her character is nearly a parody for its degree of stereotype, but still functions in this framework.
The Patty Hearst case was an example of what some call "The Stockholm Syndrome," in which a captive eventually sympathizes and even embraces their captors. From kidnapped heiress to accomplice in a bank robbery, her story was perfect grist for the tabloid mill. I wouldn't take the theory too far in the case of The Grissom Gang because it is never clear that Barbara falls in love with Slim. She obviously grows to care about him and to understand his mental limitations to partially explain his crimes. But whether that is love or pity isn't clear, which makes for a much better film than a cut-and-dried answer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This isn't one of those comfortable films to watch. Though the sexual angle isn't graphically shown as I said, it is obvious what is happening here. The girl is forced to submit to a man she first calls "odious" in order to stay alive. This goes on for months. In the meantime characters get killed off often for mere convenience. There is very little comfort here. But I found it interesting and intelligent even so.
This isn't a well-known film and doesn't have the niche audience that Anchor Bay normally depends on when they do their best work. This isn't even close to their best work. The disc gives you a choice between pan and scan and a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer. The film is worn, somewhat washed out, and suffers from numerous nicks and blemishes. There is some grain as well, but not so much that it can't be ignored. At times the transfer improves with better color and detail, mainly in indoor scenes. But the look overall is just adequate. The sound is likewise adequate but hardly something to be excited about. 2-channel digital mono is what we get, and I thanked my receiver for having a sound processor to make better use of it. Otherwise it would have been purely center channel despite showing as a two-channel mix. The sound quality is fair, without much in the way of hiss or noise, and the dialogue is clearly understood.
There are no extras. None. Not even a trailer. No subtitles either, an egregious lack that I'll continue to take umbrage with.
With only a fair transfer and no extras, I can't recommend purchase. But the film itself warrants a rental, because I think it is well worth seeing even if it is uncomfortable at times.
The makers of The Grissom Gang are acquitted for making an ambitious, tough film that certainly met controversy. Anchor Bay is not acquitted, for doing less than they are capable of with the disc. We've often said Anchor Bay does more for films nobody ever heard of than big studios do with some mainstream films, but this isn't one of those times.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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