The recently departed critic Andrew Sarris recommended further study of Edgar G.Ulmer when he amusingly wrote: “Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer, and he is no longer one of the private jokes shared by auteur critics, but one of the minor glories of the cinema. Here is a career, more subterranean than most, which be signature of a genuine artist.” ((All Sarris quotes come from Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema: Directors and Direction. 1929-1968.”))
Writing in the Village Voice, Sarris’ criticism had developed Truffaut’s “auteur” theory, which holds that a film is the personal vision of the director. The director, therefore, is the primary author, the “auteur.” Sarris’ adherence to this theory inspired ridicule from Pauline Kael, who argued that film, being a collaborative medium, is multi-authored. While Kael respected Sarris, she found the theory absurd.
Sarris often used Ulmer as an example of this theory: “Most of Ulmer’s films are of interest only to unthinking audiences. Yet, anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll. Ulmer’s camera never falters, even when his characters disintegrate. When his material is less impossible, his reflexes are still sharp. That a personal style could emerge form the depths of poverty row is a tribute to a director without alibis.”
Strange Woman (1946) was a rarity in Ulmer’s oeuvre: he had a worthwhile budget, a script based off a best-selling novel. an accomplished cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), and a topnotch cast, headed by a star actor (Hedy Lamarr, who also produced). The result was a hit upon its release, yet it has become one of the more obscure Ulmer films; perhaps, because it is typical of the 1940s femme fatale melodramas and cannot compare to the likes of the better known Gilda, which was released the same year.
Lamarr, who had been a childhood friend of Ulmer’s, personally chose him to direct. Ulmer repaid the favor with sensual close-ups of the beautiful actress. Her performance as Jenny ranks with similar evil gal performances by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. Strange Woman is, easily, Lamarr’s best screen work, since she was normally used as mere decor. Lamarr would have been a bigger star if she had continued in similar projects, but her later life was, literally, scarred. Six failed marriages, numerous horribly botched plastic surgeries, and several arrests for shoplifting transformed her into a eccentric recluse in the years before her death in 2000.
In 19th century Maine, Jenny is the “strange woman” whose ambitions know no limits. The title moniker comes from a Bible passage; the Good Book can always be depended upon for supplying misogynistic categorization. Jenny becomes an Eve-like temptress by the time she can skip and, one occasion, almost drowns her childhood playmate Ephram (foreshadowing there). As an adult, Jenny is a hunk magnet, much to the chagrin of her abusive, alcoholic father (Dennis Hoey), who desires to give her a lashing lesson. There is a pronounced hint of incest when Daddy screams, “This is one beating you will NOT like!” But, Daddy’s heart can’t take it and he dies in the process. What is the town going to do with an Eve loose amongst them? A well-to-do middle aged business man, Isiah (Gene Lockhart) will take Jenny off the town’s hands. Isiah is the father of Ephram. After Jenny marries Isiah, the now grown Ephraim (Louise Hayward) is lured into a love triangle.
Ulmer brilliantly coats the seduction in a noir sheen. Jenny slowly dims the lights, until only she is seen, literally seducing Ephram into an act of patricide. Daddy meet lake. Now enters the debonair John Evered (George Sanders). Ephram meet rope.
Oddly, Sanders, high on just about everyone’s list of favorite character actors, is predominantly wasted, but he was allowed to swoon over Heddy again in Samson and Delilah (1949). Despite manipulating Ephram into murder/suicide, Jenny is complex and sympathetic. She responsibly uses her wealth and status to white out her guilt. This was a theme that Ulmer was consistently attracted to. Despite her charitable acts, Jenny, of course, has to have her comeuppance.
Although a period costume drama, Strange Woman bristles with Ulmer-infused noir moments. Unfortunately, the script has a plodding pace, giving credence to both Sarris’ enthusiastically espoused auteur theory, along with Kael’s equally impassioned criticism of it.
Next week, we will look at Ulmer’s defining film: Detour.