Few filmographies are quite as confusing as that of Robert Aldrich, a prolific producer-director who made a handful of stone classics, including The Dirty Dozen (1967), but also made the occasional picture that missed the mark so widely it seemed as if it was helmed by a beginner instead of a veteran. The Grissom Gang, for instance, is an absurdly long melodrama about a simplistic story that could have been presented with 40 minutes less screen time, and the movie is utterly bewildering from a tonal perspective. Is it a comedy, a drama, or a thriller? And what’s with the musical numbers?
One of myriad post-Bonnie and Clyde gangster pictures set during the Depression, the movie concerns a group of Midwestern thugs who kidnap an heiress for ransom. Although slow-witted and violent-tempered Slim Grissom (Scott Wilson) is ostensibly the leader of the group, the real power behind the gang is his monster of a mother, Ma Grissom (Irene Dailey). So when Slim takes a liking to the heiress, Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby), Ma endangers the whole group by agreeing to a change in plans. Instead of killing the girl after collecting ransom, thereby protecting the anonymity of the crooks, Ma “gives” Barbara to Slim as a playmate. Then, once Barbara figures out that Slim is the only person keeping her alive, she feigns affection—only to later develop genuine feelings for her brutal lummox of a captor. Sprinkled in between scenes of infighting among the gang members are vignettes that advance tedious subplots involving Dave Fenner (Robert Lansing), a private detective hired to act on behalf of the heiress’ rich father, and Anne Borg (Connie Stevens), a showgirl who dates one of the gang members.
In terms of on-set execution, The Grissong Gang isn’t bad. Aldrich generates tension with lots of sweaty close-ups, and the actors give intense performances. (Wilson does the best work in the film, though he frequently lapses into cartoonishness, and Darby seems out of her depth in nearly every scene.) The big problem has to do with the way Aldrich assembled the material that he gathered. In addition to retaining way too much footage—the movie seems to drag on forever—Aldrich commissioned a bouncy score that suggests he envisioned The Grissom Gang as light entertainment. Because, really, what says “light entertainment” more than myriad onscreen killings, an attempted rape or two, and the sweet scene of Slim threatening to murder his mom with a switchblade?
The Grissom Gang has its fans, who undoubtedly appreciate the overall malevolence of the piece and the tasty work of supporting players including Matt Clark and Ralph Waite, but nearly everything that Aldrich attempts to do with the movie was accomplished more gracefully in some other film by some other director. So, while The Grissom Gang isn’t a disaster, per se, it’s a long way from being compelling, original, or satisfying.
The Grissom Gang: FUNKY