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The Grissom Gang

The Grissom Gang(1971)

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Robert Aldrich's Bonnie & Clyde-style rural gangster epic tells the story of the Ma Barker gang from a different angle and comes up as one of his less exciting movies. The performances are all good but the film lacks a sense of humor or other hook to keep us interested for its unusually long running time. Kim Darby and Scott Wilson's star-crossed 'romance' is doomed from the outset, so there's little fun to be had on the way. And Aldrich's hard-slugging style often overpowers the material.

Synopsis: Three punks steal a diamond necklace from young heiress Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby) but foolishly kidnap her after shooting her boyfriend dead. A band of rural bandits run by the tyrannical Gladys 'Ma' Grissom (Irene Dailey) kill the punks and ransom Barbara as their own prize. Slick hood Eddie Hagan (Tony Musante) isn't perturbed by Ma's decision to kill Barbara after the ransom is paid, but her dim-witted son Slim (Scott Wilson) becomes pathologically attached to his prisoner, cleaning himself up to be worthy of her. Meanwhile, Barbara's father John Blandish (Wesley Addy) hires detective Dave Fenner (Robert Lansing), who gets a lead on the Grissoms through nightclub singer Anna Borg (Connie Stevens). The only problem is that after he finds out that Barbara has been sleeping with a degenerate hoodlum, Dad might not want his daughter back.

Robert Aldrich started as the leading edge in liberal outrage, seeking out hypocrisy in detective thrillers (Kiss Me Deadly), war stories (Attack! ) and even adventure tales (Ten Seconds to Hell, The Flight of the Phoenix). His films often hit a raw nerve with themes of suicide, madness, destruction and even the end of the world. He directed for drama but was not the best director of actors; talents like Ernest Borgnine tended to overact in his movies.

The Grissom Gang is a generic gangster story that alternates between action scenes and intimate dramatic material. Aldrich handles the drama as if it were action and lets the action go over the top. The repetitive bloody slayings of at least a dozen characters soon lose their punch. The only 70s director who made gangster violence even more monotonous was John Milius in his Dillinger; both films would be twice as good if they surprised us once in a while with a killing handled in some way other than point-blank mayhem. Nobody ever misses, everyone gushes crimson paint when shot, and many scenes add unpleasant details, like a photographer-snitch who winds up dead in a urinal.

The same problem infects many of the dramatic scenes, which are all well-acted except for Irene Dailey's Ma, who is so ferocious we think she's going to bite her own tongue off. Tony Musante, Robert Lansing and even Connie Stevens are quite good, but most of the action runs the standard gangster playbook (violence, betrayals, payback) with only the nasty violence to distinguish it. Almost all of the characters have a permanent coating of dripping wet perspiration on their faces, a perhaps realistic touch that nevertheless seems forced.

The underrated Scott Wilson and Kim Darby (late of True Grit and a host of lesser efforts) get all of the sentimental attention. Wilson's Slim starts out as a loutish oaf and slowly transforms himself into Barbara's noble protector. The captive debutante eventually responds with affection to his genuine concern, opening her heart when Slim finally states he'd rather die than see them parted. Any hopes for a tender ending are thwarted by the ugly spectacle of Barbara's millionaire father rejecting her for giving herself to her captor. The film ends like The Searchers, but nobody is redeemed. Aldrich would have made a better picture if The Grissom Gang had a more interesting point to make.

The Grissom Gang isn't the strongest production, as interiors lack a lived-in feeling and frequent zooms negate the period tone. At one point Slim installs Barbara in a garishly decorated apartment-prison decorated in a hash of bizarre styles that just don't belong in the early 1930s. When the plot narrows down to a series of knife slayings and machine gun standoffs (Ma's nightclub has steel shutters, like Tony Camonte's in Scarface), it's just a bloodier version of something we've seen many times before.

MGM's DVD of The Grissom Gang is part of its ABC acquisition deal and comes in a very good enhanced anamorphic transfer. Grainy shots appear to have been shot that way, and even though many colors are subdued, all the splattering hemoglobin is as red as can be. There are no extras.

For more information about The Grissom Gang, visit MGM DVD. To order The Grissom Gang, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson