Heiress falls in love with her captor in this crazy noir some call the worst ever made
No Orchids for Miss Blandish is an experience to say the least. In superhero comics a popular plot is the parallel earth, a place almost exactly like ours except with things slightly wonky and disorienting. No Orchids for Miss Blandish is that kind of Bizarro movie, like something you’ve seen already, but not quite, and maybe even something that would be considered a masterpiece in some alternate reality. But not quite. You get someone who reminds you of Sydney Greenstreet, someone dolled and dressed up to pass as a Rita Hayworth, in a nightclub like the one in Gilda, a henchman a little reminiscent of Vincent Price, another that’s almost Albert Dekker, a maître d’ played by Edward Everett Horton’s long lost twin, and a nightclub hostess who’s a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe. It’s a veritable doppelgangland made up of actors you’ll recognize from many movies, and headed by the better known Jack La Rue and Hugh McDermott (First Men in the Moon). The script is straight from the kitchen sink school of filmmaking, a greatest hits of the noir and gangster genre. Take White Heat’s Ma Jarrett, throw in a shootout, a dash of romance (you’ll know those scenes by their swelling music) and some pre-code backstage musicals. No Orchids doesn’t just scoop up every manner of cliché from the past, it also anticipates future trends with gratuitous violence and some jaw-droppingly (for 1948) risqué lines, blatant displays of leg and underwear and very obviously suggested sex.
But wait, act now and you also get corny dialogue and overwrought performances, that seem more like rehearsals or spoofs. “I’ve never counted my chickens until I’ve wrung their necks” for example. At this point it occurs to me that I haven’t even said what the movie is about. A sheltered heiress is kidnapped for her diamonds and for ransom, but while captive falls in love with the head gangster, already her secret admirer. Sounds basic but you’d be surprised to see how such a thin wire hanger can carry an entire gaudy wardrobe. Miss Blandish, played by Linden Travers (The Lady Vanishes), has a fiance who calls her ice cold, for she seems incapable of love (an alternate title for the source novel was The Villain and the Virgin, if that makes it any more clear). One night she’s out wearing her diamonds, her location is tipped off by an eavesdropping opportunist, and she ends up being passed from one gangster to another until she and La Rue meet, fall hard for each other and try to figure out how to live happily ever after. The other characters rotate in orbit around the couple, each maneuvering to secure their own interests as they see the diamonds, the ransom and their leader slipping away because of that stupid, unprofitable love business. The criminal players plot to backstab, while the good guys and girls cross paths in an impressively complicated plot.
Besides being laughably bad, No Orchids is also fascinating, partly due to the packed story and nonstop activity that keeps you from getting bored, partly because you’re just so riveted by the sheer trashy ambition of it all. Truly this movie might only be a few slight adjustments away from being one of the most epic crime movies ever made (and I suppose it is now, in a way they never intended). I would gladly watch it again, not just to confirm the thing actually exists, not just to make fun of it, but because it was entertaining. It aspires to the level of really fine film-making and almost reaches it only to collapse into some silly gimmick like turning the camera away to linger on an orchid during a love scene that you can still hear. There are some fabulously catty lines like the zinger delivered by singer Zoe Gail to the nightclub bunny with a well-used zipper on the upper half of her outfit: “the zipper’s in the wrong place.” How about Hugh McDermott scaling a ledge and trying to bust his way into Gail’s room by leaning in the window and saying “I’m working my way through college, would you like to buy a magazine subscription?” No Orchids is a British try at tough and gritty American noir, with warped views of what makes the Americans tick, by mostly British actors putting on ‘Merican accents which don’t quite stick. The music is good, and there are live big band performances, plus a comedy routine. The cinematography is not bad and the shots creative, with actors walking towards or away from the camera, viewers shown the nightclub floor from a high balcony and over a shoulder, sweeping staircases and seedy cabins in the woods.
Bodies pile up quickly and the violence is something shocking for a film of that era, explosive, frequent and graphic, dealt out with glee and exaggerated effect (I deduct points for the gunshots being such wimpy popgun sounds). Our modern movie sensibilities can spot a cliché setup instantly, like when the camera lingers on the grandpa sitting alone trying to fix a girl’s doll, making him a prime target for being gunned down by gangsters. Same with the sad sack seen frying up bacon alone in his shack; you know right away he’ll probably get it with that hot pan. Needless to say in 1948 such things were stunning. One character seemingly not shocked at all, by anything, is Travers as Blandish (do we ever actually learn her first name?), for whom a raised eyebrow is as disturbed she gets, when her first boyfriend is brutally murdered right in front of her during a botched roadside robbery. She seems more fascinated than repelled by the incident. Nor does she recoil from the gangsters, like most stereotypical movie females do; she seems electrified by the new experience, ripe for being romanced by the biggest “bad boy” in town.
No wonder then, when the movie came out there was a multi page spread in UK Life magazine with the headline statement “London can’t take it?” Interestingly, TCM’s site has no plot synopsis for the movie; I suppose someone just threw their hands up in despair at trying to describe this thing, but there is a great article there by David Kalat, who rounds up the critical derision and condemnation heaped upon the project. The source was a bestselling crime novel released in 1939, the first by British crime writer James Hadley Chase, who would become a popular thriller writer with dozens of his works made into movies. The more I read about him, the more Orchids kitchen-sink effect makes sense; Chase was inspired by The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Ma Barker AND Chicago gangster stories. The property was adapted into a play, which also starred Linden Travers, but was far more shocking than the film. Kalat describes an interesting case of history repeating wherein the filmmakers emulated the movie adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, another tale which was cleaned up for filming as The Story of Temple Drake, starring none other than Jack La Rue. All the hysteria succeeded in making No Orchids a huge hit. Director St. John Legh Clowes worked through low budget movies, but died soon after Orchids, and what a shame; I can make fun all I want but it must be said did some fascinating work here and maybe even had a noir classic in him.