Connie Stevens in The Grissom Gang
A week ago, a doozy of a snowstorm blew into town. We’ve seen our share of snow here in Buffalo, but three things made it different this time: (1) The snow was wet and heavy; (2) The trees were still laden with leaves; and (3) It was a fully orchestrated event with dog-rattling thunder and lightning, and howling wind. And it lasted for days.
Thousands of trees cracked and split and crashed, often bringing down power lines; most of the city and surrounding areas quickly lost electricity. My front and back yards are still almost completely covered with tree limbs; I’m lucky my house is still intact. Just by itself, living without power for a week isn’t too hard to get used to. What made it hard was the lack of heat and the rising water table, which threatened basement flooding. I spent the first few days bailing hundreds of buckets of water from the basement sump. I’d be exhausted at night, shoulders and back aching from all the exertions. (Manual labor and being "handy around the house" are not my forte!)
My next-door neighbor is a plumber and I consult him for all my home emergencies; he generously hooked up his generator to my basement sump so I could stop bailing, which was a life-saver. I had canned food to last me for a week. With the traffic lights on the blink, you took your life in your hands by venturing out on the roads; so, I spent most of my time at home reading by candlelight, piano-noodling and catching up on my sleep. Things could’ve been worse.
The week’s excitement notwithstanding, I’d hate to see Dennis Cozzalio’s wonderful Robert Aldrich blog-a-thon go by without tipping my chapeau in its direction. With my house in darkess and coldness, I nevertheless managed to watch two Aldrich films on my battery-operated laptop: The Grissom Gang and Hustle. I’d like to apologize for the cursory (and distracted!) thoughts that follow, but I figured that if I don’t set down a few words about these films now, I’ll never get around to doing it.
When I mention the name “James Hadley Chase” to Americans, I usually get a blank stare, but to Indian high school kids of my generation, Chase’s crime novels were as well-known as Harry Potter books are today. Chase was British but his books were set in America and he wrote in a thoroughly American hard-boiled James M. Cain-like prose; it was the literary equivalent of those early British Invasion bands who affected American accents in their singing and were so steeped in the musical idioms of this country that it was a shock to discover that they weren’t American. Also, Chase’s books were the closest an Indian student could get to laying his hands on ‘racy’ literature. By permissive Western standards, Chase’s novels would be too weak to even be tagged ‘softcore’ today but they packed a punch for the, um, image-deprived Indian adolescent.
The Grissom Gang (1971) is based on James Hadley Chase’s best-known book, No Orchids For Miss Blandish. In the 1930s, a crime gang family run by tough, machine gun-cradling matriarch Ma Grissom kidnaps a wealthy heiress (Kim Darby) for ransom. Ma plans to bump off the girl after collecting the ransom but her son Slim falls in love with the girl. Slim—a psychopathic creep—starts out as a laughable character, but Aldrich slowly turns the tables on us. The kidnapped girl begins to develop feelings—or at least sympathy—for him. The film ends on a note of great, unexpected pathos.
There are two families in the film, the kidnapped girl’s and the kidnappers, and perversely enough, the latter turns out to be the more sympathetic one! Aldrich is examining institutions—family, parenthood, romantic union—that have been represented in countless other films. Well aware of this, his view of these institutions is unconventional, distanced and sardonic but nicely complicated by sympathy. In this sense, his eye is not unlike Chabrol's: a touch entomological, although not, I would argue, misanthropic.
Another twisted romantic relationship is at the heart of Hustle (1975). Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve are lovers. He’s a hardened cop and she’s an upscale prostitute. At first, their relationship is business-like and ‘broad-minded.’ She casually conducts phone sex business around the house while he hangs about; unsurprisingly, this begins to send him over the edge. When things come to a head, Aldrich stages an unsettling rape scene and dares us to consider interpreting it as (perhaps) a love scene. Aldrich’s view of love may be sardonic but it is intelligently countered in both films through the sympathetic, even tender presence of the two female leads (Deneuve and Darby) who never allow the audience to pass easy judgments on the characters' motives, actions, self-interest, etc. In both movies, Aldrich achieves a balance between the psychological (how individuals behave alone and in relation to each other) and the sociological (how he sees American social institutions and the people who are part of them).
A few words about the music. The Grissom Gang is a post-Bonnie & Clyde movie. It lays down sprightly thirties jazz to accompany often horrific moments in the film. There’s a good reason why this works. Jazz of the swing era (the 30s) differed from jazz of the bebop era (beginning in the 40s) in many ways. For example, swing tended to be rhythmically more emphatic, stressing all four beats in a bar, which often gave it an insistent jauntiness. This contrast of a cheery soundtrack with dark subject matter has the interesting effect of distancing the filmmaker (and the audience) from the material, adding a reflective layer to the viewing experience. The music undercuts the images, and we’re forced to dialectically construct a personal response to the combination of image and sound.
An interesting touch. Hustle is a film with strong political critique; in it, wealthy and powerful lives are worth much more than 'ordinary' ones. As they are cruising down a Los Angeles boulevard in a convertible, Reynolds tells Deneuve that the Americans are trying to open the first McDonald's in Paris. Deneuve replies incredulously that they will never succeed. "Paris is a fortress against the hamburger!" she asserts. Considering all of Aldrich's knowingness, irony and political skepticism, Deneuve's conviction seems one that Aldrich perhaps cautiously shared at the time. (At least that's the feeling I got from the scene.) The sad thing is: All his pessimism seems completely justified today, while his one throwaway note of optimism has been proven false.