"If you don't like the stakes, you shouldn't play the game." So challenges Ma Grissom. Judge George Hatch decided to take her on, risk it all...and play.
Our review of The Grissom Gang (Anchor Bay Release), published October 23rd, 2000, is also available.
"There is no evidence whatsoever to support the myth that 'Ma' Barker was even a criminal, let alone a criminal mastermind…She never robbed a bank, fired a gun, or was ever arrested. She knew of her sons' crimes, and lived on their ill-gotten income; but she was unknown to anyone but her family and the police.
"Petty crook, Harvey Bailey, scoffed at the idea that she planned any of their exploits. 'The old woman couldn't plan breakfast.'"—Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934
According to Bryan Burrough, J. Edgar Hoover created the legend of Ma Barker in order to boost public confidence and support for President Roosevelt's upgrading of Bureau of Investigation—later to be known as the FBI. Hoover called her "the most feared woman in American crime…who reared a spawn from hell that looked to her for guidance, daring, resourcefulness, and they obeyed her every word." By taking her down, the Bureau would be praised as heroes. Burrough also points out that, "After the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932, many smalltime crooks found that ransom demands paid higher dividends than robbing banks." Kidnapping cases soon covered the front pages of national newspapers, and also provided fodder for pulp fiction.
Robert Aldrich's The Grissom Gang is based James Hadley Chase's notorious first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, published in 1937. It was about a brutal kidnapping gone bad. It was immediately banned for its "pornographic violence," and it quickly became the hottest under-the-counter item around. A decade later, St. John L. Clowes adapted and directed the film version under the same title, and it was also banned, even in such liberal countries as Sweden and Finland.
Aldrich's 1971 film is one of his lesser known efforts, but MGM's recent re-release with an sparkling anamorphic transfer deserves another look at his interpretation of "Ma Barker" in The Grissom Gang.
Facts of the Case
On a tip, a couple of hoods hijack a car carrying heiress Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby) in order to steal her $50,000 diamond necklace. This simple robbery turns into a complicated double kidnapping when four member of Ma Grissom's gang take over and decide to hold Miss Blandish for $1 million ransom. But Ma (Irene Dailey) is no fool. She wants to launder the obviously marked bills in exchange for "$400,000 clean ones and go legit by opening a speakeasy with illegal booze and gambling raking in the dough." Eddie Hagan (Tony Musante), Woppy (Joey Faye), and Mace (Ralph Waite) don't like the idea, but nobody say no to Ma.
Her virgin, psychotic, and dim-bulb of a son, Slim (Scott Wilson), has taken a liking to Barbara and quickly falls in love. But she finds him a "cretinous, half-witted slug who will never touch me!" When she learns that Slim is her only chance for survival, Barbara soon has a change of mind…and heart. But is it for real?
How many films have been made about the "legendary" status of the real Ma Barker, all based on Hoover's self-aggrandizing pronouncements of this woman's threat to society?
Bill Karn's Ma Barker's Killer Brood (1960) claimed to be "True! Factual! The No. 1 Female Gangster of All Time!" The original ads featured Ma (Lurene Tuttle) screaming insanely, and blasting a submachine in the viewers' faces. Roger Corman's Bloody Mama (1969) starred Shelley Winters in one of the sleaziest exploitation flicks since Production Code restrictions began to tumble. Incest, narcotics, rape, and random killing rule, and Ma's jaw barely drops when one of her sons brings home his prison boyfriend.
In 1974, Steve Carver gave "Ma" a wicked twist in Big Bad Mama (played by Angie Dickinson), who uses her daughters as the gang. "Hot Lead! Hot Cars! Hot Damn!!!" Roger Corman's wife, Julie, apparently liked this idea so much, she hired Jonathan Demme to direct Crazy Mama (1975), updated the concept to the 1950s, and replaced the banjo music with a cool rock'n'roll soundtrack—just so the film wouldn't feel like the rip-off it was. (Demme was a good choice because the year before his debut film was Caged Heat, and he was familiar tough broads-behind-bars.) This Ma (Cloris Leachman) is named Melba, has only one daughter, pregnant to boot, and, having lost a beauty salon with her partner, Sheba (Ann Sothern), these determined and dangerous dames takeoff on gun-totin' robbery and killing spree.
In The Grissom Gang, Irene Dailey plays Ma with the same mythic, vicious ferocity as the previous actresses. With all of her in-your-face, "Look, Dearie!"s, and power-punching Miss Blandish in the gut during a nasty catfight, she is so over-the-top it's almost laughable. And she's got the "Ma Barker brains," too. "Let me tell you something about kidnapping. The only time they get caught is after they hand back the party they snatched. And that ain't gonna happen to us because we ain't gonna do no handin' back. After we get the dough…we kill the girl."
What makes Aldrich's film different from the other Ma Barker flicks, however, is the emotional depth of the two lead actors. Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood) plays Slim as deadly as he is dim-witted. He may not catch all of the sarcastic jokes constantly hurled him, but if a word or a look hits him the wrong way, he becomes instantly psychotic. Ma has allowed him to keep Barbara as his sex slave, hoping to "make a man out of him." But when she tells Slim, "The girl's got to go," he fires back with a shockingly deadly threat. "It you touch her, I swear I'll kill you, Ma. I'll kill you! And that goes for any of you that goes near her!"
His attraction to the snooty heiress is rather touching. He knows he can take her by force and rape her at any time, but he shyly chooses trying to earn her affection by changing everything about himself that she finds repugnant. He washes off his sweat and combs his hair. When that doesn't work, he buys an ill-fitting suit, hoping to emulate the debonair Eddie, and brings her flowers (orchids?). He treats her like the princess he sees her as, but her continued rejection is burning out his already short fuse. Scott Wilson makes Slim both sympathetic and dangerous because the viewer never knows when his mood will swing and his bad side will explode.
Kim Darby (True Grit) delivers an astonishing, multi-layered performance as Barbara Blandish. She takes us on a rollercoaster ride from socialite party girl to a desperate prisoner, forced to compromise her high-brow upbringing and become "damaged goods" in order to survive and, ultimately, to become an "outlaw" on the run with Slim. When she sees her first bloody body after a shootout, she screams hysterically, and when Slim tries to comfort her, she calms down, but stares off blankly off into space. In their biography, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Alain Silver and James Ursini note that, after, "Slim violently intervenes in an attempted rape, Barbara grasps the natures of primal emotion…she screams and shudders with each thrust of Slim's knife into [her attacker]. After this mock orgasm, it remains only for Barbara to reciprocate the love of her valiant defender." Kim Darby takes Barbara to yet another plateau of self-realization at the very end of the film, and it is a shattering scene to watch.
Tony Musante (The Yards) plays the slick opportunist of Ma's brood, Eddie Hagan. He's the smartest member of the gang. He's not so sure of Ma's nightclub plans, but knows better than contradict her decisions. When they flourish, he uses the club's success to his own ends while covering his tracks regarding his connection to the Blandish kidnapping. Musante turns Eddie into a terrifically sleazy gangster with a gift for glibness and some deadly backup for anyone who reads between his smoothly delivered lines. His performance reminds one of Benicio Del Toro's Gaspare in Abel Ferrara's The Funeral.
Connie Stevens, the star of some early 1960s "weepies" aimed at both adult and teenage audiences (Parrish and Susan Slade) has an all too brief role as Anna Borg, teetering on the edge of bimbo-hood unless she can land a job as a singer/dancer. We do get to see her do both in two unexpected and well-choreographed musical numbers. Robert Lansing (A Gathering of Eagles) nicely elevates the stereotypical, out-of-work P.I., Dave Fenner—who, at first, simply agrees to deliver the ransom money—then becomes a cagey conman, trying to infiltrate the gang because he still believes the Blandish girl is still alive.
Like Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich is one of the most successful directors to cross genres, and his filmography includes such titles as the film noir favorite Kiss Me Deady; housewife-in-distress Autumn Leaves; the war classicAttack!; audience-pleasing action movies The Dirty Dozen, The Flight of the Phoenix, and The Longest Yard; "grand-dame" horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; and too many westerns to list. The Grissom Gang is Aldrich's only film set in the rural Midwest of the Depression Era, yet it has many elements of his canon, the two most important being action and characterization. The film moves at a relentless pace, and either blood or passion and emotion hold your attention for over two hours.
MGM's 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks pristine with bright colors and crisply edged images; it, finally, does justice to Joseph F. Biroc's (The Towering Inferno) evocative and stylish cinematography. I say "finally" because The Grissom Gang was originally released by Anchor Bay in 2000, but in a 1.85:1 (non-anamorphic) ratio, which is confirmed at IMDb as the original theater-release format. I'd be curious to know why MGM made the change.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono sound is a vast improvement over Anchor Bay's Dolby's 1.0 Mono. The score by Gerald Fried (The Killing of Sister George) often backs up the expected banjo plucking with a lush, full orchestra to emphasize the emotional, violent, and comical scenes for maximum effect. There are no extra features, but with a film offering this kind of solid entertainment, it doesn't really matter.
From what I read in Brian Burrough's Public Enemies, "Ma Barker" was a sham. The thieves and killers were actually known as the "Barker /Karpis Gang," named after the Barker Boys and Alan Karpis, who was the real mastermind.
While using another surname, Robert Aldrich kept the "Ma myth" intact in a typically early 1970s film style. There are echoes of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and precursors of Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974). But Aldrich's The Grissom Gang deserves its own place in the gangland cinema pantheon.
Not guilty! And, Ma, stop over any time and I'll teach you how to plan a breakfast.
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