Friday, November 25, 2022

The Strange Woman (1946)

The Strange Woman is a 1946 melodrama directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. It sometimes gets described as a film noir which is a bit of a stretch although it can be considered to belong to that odd sub-genre sometimes known as gaslight noir - period melodramas with a touch of film noir in both content and style.

In the early 1930s Ulmer had been well on the way to establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s top directors until an affair with the wife of a producer got him blackballed from all the top studios. He ended up at PRC, the lowliest of the Poverty Row studios and the absolute bottom of the Hollywood food chain. But in 1946 he had a stroke of luck. Hedy Lamarr had bought the rights to a novel called The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams and she hired her childhood friend Ulmer to direct. This gave Ulmer a luxury he hardly ever enjoyed - the chance to work with big name stars who actually knew how to act.

Ben Ames Williams who also wrote the novel Leave Her To Heaven (the basis of the magnificent film of the same name).

Lamarr knew what she was doing when she bought this property. She knew that the role of Jenny Hager would give her the chance to demonstrate her acting chops and she makes the most of that opportunity.

Jenny Hager is a young girl growing up in the seaport of Bangor in Maine. Jenny is ambitious. She wants money and luxury and she knows that the way to get those things is through a rich man. And she knows that the way to land a rich man is by using her very considerable sex appeal. Jenny is gorgeous and she oozes sex.

Her father Tim Hager is a self-pitying drunk who beats Jenny regularly. He beats her once too often. He over-exerts himself and drops dead of a heart attack. It’s a rather daring scene for 1946 since there are definite hints that the beatings have sexual overtones.

Jenny schemes her way into marriage with the rich middle-aged Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart). To be fair to her she really does try to be a good and loving wife. Things start to spiral out of control when Isaiah’s son Ephraim (Louis Hayward) returns from Cambridge Massachusetts where he has just qualified as an architect. Jenny and Ephraim has been childhood friends, even childhood sweethearts. There’s a key scene in which Jenny, still a small child, throws Ephraim into the river where, unable to swim, he almost drowns. Ephraim’s cowardice enrages Jenny. It’s a scene which makes some of her later actions more comprehensible. She despises cowardice in men.

Jenny and Ephraim soon decide that they’re in love but Jenny is married to Ephraim’s father Isaiah. If only Isaiah were out of the way Jenny and Ephraim could be happy.

After a complicated series of events Jenny ends up married to Isaiah’s right-hand man John Evered (George Sanders). John had been engaged to Jenny’s girlhood friend Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke) but Jenny soon takes care of that obstacle.

But this is melodrama and there are further complications in store, and further tragedies.

The Strange Woman
’s claims to being film noir are very very thin. Those claims rest entirely on the notion that Jenny is a femme fatale but I think that’s a misunderstanding. She is a character straight out of melodrama. And this movie is pure melodrama. It’s full-blown deliriously overheated overcooked melodrama. And that’s the best kind of melodrama. It is also very much a women’s picture as that term was understood in the 40s. The terms melodrama and women’s picture have always tended to bring out the snarkiness in reviewers but melodrama is a perfectly legitimate genre and it’s a genre of which I’m very fond.

Jenny is certainly a schemer but that judgment has to be qualified. Given her nightmarish childhood and the appalling situation in which she finds herself after her father’s final beating her decision to use sex to get herself out of that situation is entirely understandable. In the mid-19th century a woman in her position would have had no other option unless she wanted to end up as a menial servant.

And while Jenny does wicked things her motivation is always love. In that respect she bears a very close resemblance to Ellen in Leave Her To Heaven. You could say that they’re both women driven to a kind of madness by their need for love. And given Jenny’s relationship with her father she has more excuse than Ellen for being consumed by the need for love.

Hedy Lamarr gives what some consider to be her career-best performance. And they may well be right. She’s terrific. Jenny is a complex woman. There’s bad in her but there’s good as well. Her motivations are not always straightforward. It’s likely that she doesn’t always understand her own motivations.

As far as morality is concerned it’s worth pointing out that Ephraim does at one point admits to Jenny that during his time in Cambridge his leisure hours were occupied with drink and prostitutes. There’s a considerable amount of moralistic hypocrisy in the attitudes of the good folk of Bangor.

George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Gene Lockhart and Dennis Hoey (as Jenny’s father) are all good. George Sanders was perhaps oddly cast here but he manages pretty well. This is however a movie that is entirely focused on Jenny and it’s Hedy Lamarr’s performance that matters and she delivers the goods.

When making judgments on the outrageous plot you always have to keep in mind that this is melodrama, a genre with its own conventions. It’s a fine melodrama plot.

This is a movie about a woman who makes certain choices of which viewers in the 1940s would certainly have disapproved but it’s also a movie about love, about romantic obsession. It’s also, by the standards of 1946, surprisingly frank about sexual desire and surprisingly erotic.

The Film Chest Restored Version DVD offers a fairly good transfer of a movie that was at one time only available in rather dire public domain versions. It would be nice to see this movie get a Blu-Ray release. The DVD is OK but a special edition Blu-Ray with some nice extras might help this overlooked movie reach a wider audience.

It’s impossible not to keep comparing this movie to Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Since they’re both based on novels by the same author it’s not surprising that there are countless thematic similarities. Both are melodramas which have wrongly been labelled film noir and both are movies about women tempted into evil by an overwhelming need for love. Both feature powerhouse performances by superb actresses. Leave Her to Heaven is one of the two or three best Hollywood movies of the 40s but The Strange Woman stands up pretty well in a comparison.

The Strange Woman is an intriguing visually stylish melodrama and it’s highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Nice write up of a bit of a neglected Gothic melodrama that flirts with film noir. I know we mentioned this earlier in the year in another conversation and I'm going to try to catch up with the movie again soonish now that you've brought it to mind again.