Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Grissom Gang - John Aldrich (1971)

I put off watching The Grissom Gang because I’d read it was just a shoot-em-up gangster movie without a lot of nuance; that whenever the character-driven dramatic element started to get interesting Aldrich would crank up the gratuitous violence, etc.

Having watched it I can say it’s a thoroughly engaging film full of high-drama and big characters, as one would expect from an  Aldrich production. The performance of Scott Wilson, here in the full bloom of youth, rivets: it's both disturbing and heart-breaking. Kim Darby (as Barbara Blandish), despite one of the worst hair-cuts in film history, is comparably excellent. The two of them together generate real fireworks. O’Donnell and Granger come to mind, but their chemistry pales compared to the sparks that fly between Darby and Wilson.

Wilson never had the career he deserved. My first unwitting exposure to him was in Clayton’s The Great Gatsby, in which he playw George Wilson, the avenger of his wife Myrtle's (Karen Black) manslaughter. Few ever did anguished desperation as compellingly. Brad Douriff and John Savage, two other uniquely wounded souls, come to mind. 

As for the look of the film--it does sport one of the ugliest and period-inappropriate interiors ever. It’s gaudiness is previewed by earlier typically mod color miscoordinations (hues of green abutting improbable shades of purple-pink). It’s so outrageously ugly I actually turned off the color for a while. Hard to understand why Aldrich, not known for subtlety, chose such jarring tones. Perhaps it was his way of setting his film apart from the tastefully worn-out, vintage palette of Penn’s trend-setting Bonnie and Clyde.

Thankfully, the performances absorb most of our attention. Ultimately the test of a great film is its capacity to engage us and by making us care about the characters. In this Aldrich completely succeeds. He has crafted a piece of entertainment that in its often feverish intensity feels bigger than life without feeling overly theatrical. So there may very well be an element of genius in the mix. 

That is not to say the film doesn't have its problems. The scene between the father and the detective just before the finale could have been jettisoned. At that point we’re totally invested in the fate of Slim and Barbara and the dramatic flow should have been allowed to take its course as the rest of the characters faded into the background.

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