Love Will Tear Us Apart
Throughout Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), hardboiled private dick Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) and his associate Velda (Maxine Cooper) seek the “great whatsit.” Although never officially described as a nuclear device, this weapon possesses all the incendiary impact of an atom bomb, and the film ends without showing whether they escape its force. From Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) to The Dirty Dozen (1966) to The Longest Yard (1974), time and again, Aldrich depicted a world coming apart at the seams, populated by hysterical characters who devour one another.
Though Aldrich possessed impeccable industry credentials, he remained something of a loose cannon for four decades. Born into a well-heeled Eastern family connected to the Rockefellers, he started as an assistant director and worked his way up the ranks, associating in the late 1940s with some of the major blacklisted artists of the day: Joseph Losey, Abraham Polansky, and Robert Rossen. He started to direct in 1953, and began a production company, Aldrich and Associates, soon after. Cahiers du cinéma lavished praise upon him, but it was not until the 1960s that he gained visibility and power in Hollywood. Baby Jane and The Dirty Dozen cleaned up at the box office, the latter film so much so that Aldrich was able to buy a small studio.
Aldrich’s habit of pushing the envelope of permissible subject matter came to the fore even more after he gained industry clout. The pictures he released thereafter—commercial flops, one and all—included a ferocious Hollywood satire, Legend of Lylah Clare (1967), a taboo-breaking drama about a lesbian triangle, The Killing of Sister George (1968), and an anti-war diatribe that amounted to a piss-take on militarism, Too Late the Hero (1970). Finally, in 1971 came the film that forced Aldrich to sell his studio, and remain a directorial hired gun: The Grissom Gang, now available on MGM’s DVD, without extras, save for a trailer.
Adapted from a 1939 bestseller, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, by James Hadley Chase, the picture was first filmed in England in 1948 with U.S. money and directed by one Leigh John Clowes. A pulp parallel to William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, the novel depicts a good girl gone bad after she is brutalized by criminal forces and then summarily rejected by her family. The plot’s crucial irony is that she is only able to feel love when she is romanced and raped by one of her captors, a sociopathic near-imbecile. The novel dismayed a number of readers and critics at the time, and George Orwell criticized its dismissal of mainstream morality. From it, Aldrich concocted a cynical fairy tale of a princess stolen away in the night, only to lose her virtue and nearly her mind in the process.
A mob, led by the no-nonsense, combustible matriarch Ma (Irene Dailey) and her slick sidekick Eddie (Tony Musante), kidnaps the society belle Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby) during the Roaring ‘20s. Their muscle comes in the sycophantic duo of Mace (Ralph Waite) and Doc (burlesque comic Joey Faye) as well as Ma’s deficient but deadly son, Slim (Scott Wilson). Barbara’s icy-cold father (Wesley Addy) then hires private detective Dave Fenner (Robert Lansing) to track down his daughter. The police are also after the gang for the kidnapping in addition to other crimes committed to cover their tracks. Ready to kill Barbara as soon as they receive the ransom, Ma allows Slim to satisfy his immediate attraction to the girl, who rejects his advances until she recognizes that Slim’s infatuation alone guarantees, for the time being, her survival. The gang defers to their cockeyed romance by constructing an Art Deco honeymoon suite in their bunkered sanctuary, where the couple acts out their surreal assignation.
Fenner and the cops’ arrival initiates a flamboyant shoot-out, after which Slim and Barbara hide out in a rural barn, where she drops all pretense of social superiority, as well as fear, and engages in heartfelt lovemaking with her trigger-happy Galahad. Clearly, they can share no happy ending, underlined when “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” ironically plays over the final credits.
Aldrich may have thought to pitch his fate on the commercial successes that followed in the wake of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which led to a cycle of period gangster features. Few of them, other than Roger Corman’s equally acidic and bullet-ridden Bloody Mama (1970), took as many liberties, either with the genre’s conventions or the big-screen excesses that followed the adoption of the MPAA rating system. Whereas Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s attractiveness compensated for their characters’ transgressions, Aldrich constructed a value-neutral environment in which neither victim nor aggressor possesses any certain motive. Fenner holds out for his fee from Mr. Blandish with as much eagerness as Ma and her cohorts pursue the ransom. They all have their price, marked down for fast sale in this expedient universe.
Any number of commentators have branded Aldrich a cynic, but in this and other films, he comes close to being a certifiable nihilist. The Grissom Gang reminds one at times of the similarly ill mannered and deliberately overwrought narratives of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Both deny the viewer a comfortable compass to gauge their ethical ambivalence or a character with whom to identify or sympathize. No wonder audiences found themselves at sea and uninterested.
Nowhere does the daring of Aldrich’s approach succeed so much as in the taboo-breaking romance between Slim and Barbara. At first, the young woman comes across as spoiled and devoid of sympathy for this amiable imbecile. She treats him pleasingly only as a means of self-protection, and the viewer gets the feeling that she observes the world through little more than the skewed lens of her social privilege. Aldrich toys with our attempts at identification by nearly mocking Barbara, almost as if she deserves to be tumbled off her high horse just out of principle. Slim’s complexity makes him even less easy for the audience to assimilate. At one and the same time a child and an assassin, Slim oscillates between wide-eyed antagonism and smooth-tongued surrender.
Yet, Barbara finally comes to see his purity of purpose during their last encounter in the barn. Little matters to Slim in the world other than her, and their union transcends class, morality, and even good sense. No partner from the conventional world she left behind would commit himself to Barbara as unreservedly as Slim does. Darby and Wilson create remarkably rounded individuals out of clichés: the stuck-up bitch and the psycho street punk.
For some, Aldrich routinely fell prey to unpalatable hyperbole. For others, he engaged the crazy quilt of American society with audacity and energy that are difficult to resist. The Grissom Gang, along with Kiss Me Deadly and the scalding anti-imperialist Western Ulzana’s Raid (1971), rank among the most compelling narratives in mainstream Hollywood history. Like his characters, Aldrich went for broke, taking his audiences on a thrill ride that could be thoughtful and hair-raising at the same time.