No Orchids For Miss Blandish [St John L. Clowes, 1948] is a lurid, action-packed movie, a British imitation of American noirs. It’s based on the first of dozens and dozens of novels by James Hadley Chase, a specialist in American gangster/crime subjects who never lived in America. In a 1944 essay George Orwell cited the massive popularity of No Orchids For Miss Blandish, particularly with servicemen, as a disturbing sign about the seemingly robust British character. Real name Rene Raymond, Chase had various series of books set in New York, Florida, California, London, and the international theme park of Cold War intrigue (see here for more early book covers). It contains plenty of evil men (and almost no non-violent men), but No Orchids may be unusual among his work in its lack of evil women.
His books have great titles. Seen below: the third Vic Malloy novel, from 1950, and the third Helga Rolfe novel, from 1977.
Director St John L. Clowes had directing experience, but not in features. If he hadn’t died at 40 shortly after making this movie, he might have had a real impact on British cinema, because in the department of being…let’s say, not staid and subtle…this movie makes Brighton Rock look like Brief Encounter. The B&W looks great, everything is shiny and crisp, and whatever room a scene is taking place in contains a spare number of background items which set the scene precisely [chairs, paintings, little horse statues, a cigarette-girl, a Schaefer beer sign, and whatever the thing is on the wall in the early scene in Ted’s bar — a dartboard in a glass-fronted case?]. The calculated exception is in Miss Blandish’s opulent and dull family home, where there are objects everywhere to a smothering degree. The best shot is around minute 52, when she’s first seen at peace wither her captivity, leaning on the wall with a new hairdo, next to two wall-mounted masks that look a lot like her. Or maybe the best shot is one of the occasional bird’s-eye-view shots, in which the spotlight on the performers is an absolute perfect circle. A spotlight’s view of the action…other examples of that device are not springing to mind.
The most awkward part of the film, as you might expect, is the falling-in-love part, which happens even faster than you might expect. It’s so abrupt that one presumes she’s pretending to seduce Slim in order to get him off his guard and escape, as captives do in any number of fairy tales and films like Aladdin, Anaconda, The World Is Not Enough,Big Bad Mama, Toy Story 3, and Sleuth, as well as The Grissom Gang, Robert Aldrich’s 1971 adaptation of the same book. Although it’s the rare kidnapping/hostage story whose victim is rarely in any danger, this movie is just full of brutality and action. Lyrically romantic wordless interludes with music swelling [one of them just a 15-second close-up of some orchids and what looks like a decanter of port] stand out, because in general this is a snappy thriller that never gets boring. It’s not up there with Pickup on South Street, but it’s up there with Kansas City Confidential. Like Chase’s book, it’s the too-rare instance of the Brits going ALL-OUT to emulate an American genre, with results that America looked at with a patronizing “Whoa there, tiger. You seem so quiet, little buddy, but you might just be more screwed-up than I am.”
It’s hard to add much to this entertaining Slant review and this piece by John Beifuss. But I don’t think they focus enough on the diverse range of British actors’ American accents, or on the weird nightclub acts, of which there are more and more as the film progresses. The jazz clarinetist, the unbilled vaudeville comedy duo of Jack Durant doing Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet while his partner looks on, the amazingly acrobatic terp duo of Toy and Wing [billed as the far more British “Toy and Wyng”], and the schmaltzily melodramatic terp duo of Alicja Halama and Czesław Konarski. And then there’s the two songs by actress Zoë Gail as Margo. Every review I can find seems to emphasize this song (thanks, Youtube user deneuve1939!) as exemplifying the movie’s oddly cynical [that is, cynical in an odd way] approach to gender relations, so I won’t say anything about it except to tell you to watch out for the clues that Zoë Gail is not American. She hits the T at the end of words like “but”, “it”, “got”, can’t” too much, and there’s something about the word “through” that sounds wrong. As far as I can tell this song does not exist anywhere else but in No Orchids For Miss Blandish. Such a shame that it wasn’t included on Nancy Walker’s I Hate Men.
By far my favorite aspect of this film is what Robert Osborne advised me to watch out for before TCM‘s prime-time showing — the various fake American accents. My main experience with inexpert American accents by British actors is in sitcoms, and there can’t be too many movies like this, with a dozen or more honest attempts to sound American by Britishers who may have never done so on film before. Some sound great, some sound appropriate, some sound weird. Many of the actors only had a few other credits and there’s no way to know their true accents, so I’ll try not to assume too much. Let’s take a tour through the characters of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.
- Slim Grissom [Jack La Rue]
The one American movie star in the cast, La Rue lives up to his reputation as the poor man’s George Raft. It was a nice surprise that in some of the more happy romantic scenes he actually smiles. Slim’s motivations are unclear and he’s a good example of the leader who leads by fear and doesn’t really come up with the plans.
- Ma Grissom [Lilli Molnar]
I’m guessing Lilli Molnar was Hungarian, based on the name. And she sounds Hungarian, too. Oddly enough this might be the most accurate New York accent in the movie because she sounds like any number of stereotypical Jewish mothers. I guess “Grissom” is her married name, so maybe it was established in the book that Ma Grissom is Hungarian herself, but she certainly sounds weird.
- Doc [MacDonald Parke]
I cannot tell what role Doc plays in the Grissom crime family. Ma Grissom’s husband seems to be out of the picture, and she and Doc are both sixtyish, so presumably he’s with her. Canadian-born MacDonald Parke also played the American general in The Mouse That Roared. Here he is the absolute embodiment of the word “pompous”, both in speech and in appearance, and I honestly have never seen a character like Doc in a gangster movie before. He is both erudite and orotund, as well as rotund. His accent is great to listen to, halfway between W.C. Fields and Harry Lime. He has exchanges like this:
Doc: And you, Edward my boy. Does this rosy prospect, this rich and heartening future, displease you?
Eddie: I never count my chickens till I’ve wrung their necks.
Doc: Then we are reproved.
- Eddie Schultz [Walter Crisham]
Extremely thin professional dancer Walter Crisham has great posture and great charisma here. His entirely malevolent but calculating character steals every scene like Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Streetor John Turturro in Miller’s Crossing. Of all the obscure actors with big roles in this movie, it’s him whose lack of film credits surprised me the most. Will have to look out for other Crisham films — John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, the intriguing Joe Macbeth, the non-Ealing Alec Guinness comedy The Captain’s Paradise , and The Beachcomber, a Maugham adaptation that also has Donald Sinden, Glynis Johns and in his first movie, Donald Pleasance as a coolie.
Crisham does an exaggerated flat, Midwestern gangster accent, with kind of a grinding sound to it. He was born and died in America so I don’t think he had any trouble with it. They give him a lot of lines like “Anchor your stern, you,” and the R’s all sound American.
- Bailey [Leslie Bradley]
This actor is very intense, he does a whiny voice with emphasis on the R’s, and his accent changes based on who he’s talking to. He’s actually very convincing in the role, since it’s sort of a Fredo Corleone character. As this OTHER Slant assessment suggests, Clint Howard would be good in this role.
- Riley [Richard Neilson]
Now HE is interesting. This guy is a caricature of James Cagney in hair, in clothing [bow tie], in mannerisms, and especially in his voice. He takes the nasal and gritty voice also used by Bailey and Eddie Schultz and goes extreme with it, turning every word into a sneer and every vowel into a short “eh”. As in “A wise guy, eh?” He also smashes Ted over the head with a large glass object for no reason at all. There isn’t even anyone watching!
- Flyn [Danny Green]
You might recognize Danny Green as the big dumb guy from The Ladykillers. Befitting a man whose other movie roles include “Steddings’s Henchman”, “Socks, American Henchman”, “Barton, Moriarty’s Henchman”, “Nightclub Bouncer”, “Gangster”, “Smuggler”, “Safecracker”, “Truck driver”, “Lorry Driver”, and “Big Mo”, he here plays an American gangster henchman, alternating between eager, wary, and dumb. He sounds cartoonish but plenty of American actors sound cartoonish in the same way.
- Miss Blandish [Linden Travers]
The biggest English star here [The Stars Look Down, The Lady Vanishes], she just sounds English. Or mid-Atlantic, I guess. Extremely posh mid-Atlantic. Like Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers, you know.
- Mr. and Mrs. Blandish [Percy Marmont and ???]
Mrs. Blandish does the Margaret Dumont accent and looks and sounds the part. Mr. Blandish combines the posh English accent with Kentucky-colonel touches. They’re living in Manhattan but he’s supposed to be “the meat king”, so I guess he could be a self-made man from somewhere else in America.
- Dave Fenner[Hugh McDermott]
Probably the most well-known [at the time] British actor here, McDermott plays a real clean-cut middle-American newscaster type who is either a reporter or a private eye. He’s prominent in the extended early bar scene, then he disappears for about forty minutes, and then he becomes the protagonist after Mr. Blandish is informed that the ransom situation has become a romanceom situation. I laughed when looking at a synopsis of the novel, in which his character is treated exactly the same way. In scenes where he’s being friendly and casual [though underhanded], McDermott definitely works as the guy we’re identifying with. He melodiously overenunciates a few words, but not any more than Thomas Lennon does. But later on, he starts throwing his weight around, and suddenly his accent is terrible, like one of Joe E. Brown’s hick characters or Goofy.
- Police Captain Brennan [Jack Lester]
I refuse to believe that this is the Jack Lester who was a Chicago radio actor at the time, despite what IMDB claims. I singled his accent out as the worst of anyone who’s onscreen for more than a couple minutes. Like Andy Brassell, when he tries to sound American he actually sounds Dutch. Every sibilant sounds too much like a “sh”, and his pronunciation of “jewelry” is just weird. And would any American actor be comfortable saying “Good morning” to signal that he’s done talking to someone?
- The other policeman, with the small moustache
He has a very good Bogart-type gravelly voice. The one slip-up is that he pronounces “fiancé” way too accurately.
- The old guy who runs the gas station
Pretty good Yankee storekeeper accent.
- His granddaughter
She sounds about as American as the kids in Mary Poppins, but what do we expect, she’s 7 or 8. Why is she here at all?
Minor characters caught up in crime
- Margo [Zoë Gail]
The nightclub singer linked above, she sounds very good in the role and I’m surprised this was her only major movie role. She does a good Midatlantic accent [albeit with a surprising amount of slang] and sounds like Judy Garland when she’s singing.
- Anna [Frances Marsden]
A dancer at the nightclub (though we don’t see her perform), she’s the tough working-class Brooklyn girl with a heart of gold. Given lines like “Get a move on, wise guy” and “I’m a dansah, see? I got a careeah!”, she’s very convincing. She must be 80 by now, but I honestly think Frances Marsden, teacher of the Alexander Method to improve poise, posture, breathing and health for the performing arts, is the girl who appeared in this movie and 2 others.
- Louis [Charles Goldner].
Born in Vienna, Charles Goldner’s other characters between 1945 and 1953 include Robespierre, Dr. Franz Mesmer, “Colleoni”, “Luigi“, “Ramon”, “Piero”, “Anselmo”, “Paco Espinal”, “General Korsakov”, “Mr. Tsaldouris”, and “Gaston”. As Louis the French headwaiter, he bulges his eyes, scurries around, sighs watching dancers, and gets top-blowingly agitated when people don’t like his food. Just think “Manuel” but fluent in English.
- Ted [Sid James]
As an American, I’d never heard of Sid James [real name Solomon Joel Cohen], but after this film he starred in several British TV shows and the wildly popular “Carry On” series of movies. His accent is good here as the friendly bartender. Known in future decades as a lascivious old man, here he’s a serious youngish man, and having not yet gone gray or bald he kind of looks like Chester Gould’s Flat Top.
- Johnny [Bill O’Connor]
Johnny is the young hoodlum who comes up with the whole kidnapping idea. He sounds American enough, but very upper-class American. He looks like a college boy, too.
- Cutie [Annette D. Simmonds]
Cutie (the nightclub hostess, wearing an absolutely ridiculous outfit — like a cigarette girl but with no responsibilities at all except to be objectified) just sounds English, like your typical Cockney servant-maid girl. This is also true of Irene Prador as Johnny’s girlfriend, which is odd since she’s from Vienna and mostly played Germanic characters.
- The guy sweeping the floor when Johnny tries to meet with Slim
He sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Australian? South African? His only scene is very early in the film and it prepares you for an even more motley onslaught of accents than what comes to pass.
Nobody here uses the Texan-tourist accent we remember from Fawlty Towers or Absolutely Fabulous. Almost everyone gets a chance to shout or otherwise emphasize their accent, so you can really analyze their phonemic data if that’s your bag. Enjoy the nightclub scenes, the isolated barn scenes, the people getting slapped in the face, Lilli Molnar using the word “palookas”, the guy hanging on to a woman’s windowsill while she smashes a wine bottle over his hands, the guy who responds to a woman pounding on his chest by picking her up and dropping her in a full bathtub, and the overall strangeness of the orchids motif.