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With: Kim Darby, Scott Wilson, Tony Musante, Robert Lansing, Connie Stevens, Irene Dailey, Wesley Addy, Joey Faye, Michael Baseleon, Ralph Waite, Hal Baylor, Matt Clark, Alvin Hammer, Dots Johnson, Don Keefer, Mort Marshall, Elliott Street, Dave Willock, Alex Wilson, Raymond Guth, John Steadman
Written by: Leon Griffiths, based on a novel by James Hadley Chase
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 128
Date: 05/28/1971

The Grissom Gang (1971)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Captive Audience

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After the considerable success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the depression-era crime movie became a genre in itself. Many of these films have been forgotten, but a few stand up today. One is Roger Corman's goofy Big Bad Mama (1974) and the other is Robert Aldrich's The Grissom Gang (1971), newly released on DVD.

Robert Aldrich had a great deal of success himself in the 1960s with films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). These films enabled him to become his own producer and obtain power over his own projects. What followed is a series of odd, personal films with a strange slant toward dark humor and violence. Most of these films confounded both the critics and the public and were henceforth blown off and forgotten. In the years since Aldrich's death in 1983, Ulzanna's Raid (1972) at least has gained a reputation as an underrated masterpiece. And though I wouldn't use such a strong word for The Grissom Gang, it's certainly a wonderfully entertaining and well-crafted movie that plays perhaps better today than it did in 1971.

Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby, from True Grit) is the beautiful young Kansas heiress with a $50,000 necklace who is kidnapped by the Grissom gang. The Grissoms plan to kill Blandish after they receive their ransom money, but instead the dangerously dim Slim Grissom (Scott Wilson) falls in love with her and insists on keeping her around. This is a pretty grim scenario, especially because of its non-consentual nature. It was based on the novel "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" by James Hadley Chase, which had been banned as pornography. Not to mention that The Grissom Gang is strangely similar to the Patty Hearst case, which occurred only three years later.

But Aldrich infuses the story with his weird sense of humor and visual style, and it comes across as smart storytelling. Blandish is never forced into a sexual situation. The first time she sleeps with Slim is after she's drunk several bottles of booze for perhaps the first time in her life. Later, she sleeps with him because she wants to. After months of being with him, she sees the gentle side of his demented soul, and, surprisingly, we do too.

The best scene occurs early in the film, after Slim has fallen for Barbara. She uses her newfound power to try and get him to make her a martini. He goes downstairs and suddenly learns of the Grissoms' plan to kill her. He explodes in fury and threatens to kill his own mother, holding a knife to her throat. The family realizes he's serious and they succumb to him. After a few moments' silence, he asks, "What's in a martini?" It's one of those scenes rich with meaning and unspoken characterizations.

Ma Grissom is by far the most sinister character, though. The evil mother character who leads the gang of dopey male criminals has a long history in cinema, from Cody Jarret's Ma in White Heat (1949) to Angie Dickinson's Big Bad Mama to Ma Barker's Killer Brood (1960). That would make an interesting study. In a cinema loaded with weak females, certain women characters are allowed to lead with an iron fist because of their matriarchal position. The most powerful image of Ma Grissom is of her cackling and firing tommy guns at the cops out her window while her domestic draperies jerk about in the wind of her bullets.

Now is the right time for a DVD release of this classic. If audiences and critics didn't get the film at the time, today's hip, cynical crowds will relish The Grissom Gang. It's definitely worth a look.

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