May 6, 2014
The name Edgar G. Ulmer elicits images of the dusty roads of Detour and the empty pockets of its Poverty Row producers. He was a prolific purveyor of B-movie jolts, used to finding creative solutions to monetary limitations, but on occasion he was called up by the big studio boys, where the budgets were the least of his concerns. For The Strange Woman, out on a decent-looking DVD from the public domain label Film Chest, it was the leading studio gal Hedy Lamarr who gave him the opportunity. The Strange Woman was a salacious 1941 hit novel by Ben Ames Williams (who later wrote Leave Her to Heaven) about a poor, power hungry small-town beauty. Lamarr thought it provided an opportunity to, “do something other than merely be a clotheshorse or look pretty. I have always wanted to do character parts, and this gives me the chance I have been waiting for so long.” So she formed a production company, Mars Film Corp., with producer Jack Chertok, and secured distribution through United Artists. Lamarr met Ulmer on the set of The Wife of Monte Cristo (1946), when she was visiting her then-husband and lead actor John Loder. Ulmer and Lamarr had both trained with Max Reinhardt, and perhaps this slender bond led her to select him as the director. Their collaboration was combative and tense, though The Strange Woman ended up a modest box office success, with a reported $2.8 million in ticket sales. Unusually frank about how Lamarr’s character uses sex to get ahead, The Strange Woman is a nineteenth century variation on the pre-code jaw-dropper Baby Face (1933), in which Barbara Stanwyck climbs the corporate ladder on her back.
Lamarr plays Jenny Hager, the ill-bred daughter of a drunk who notices she can get away with all kinds of mischief simply by flapping her eyelids. Growing up in an abusive household in Bangor, Maine, she uses her sob story and abundant physical charms to marry the old, rich merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart). He is but the first stepping stone on her will to power, as she next swivels her hypno-eyes onto Isaiah’s son Ephraim (Louis Hayward), a shy academic she used to torture as a child. Through her canny business sense and manipulative wiles, she pits Ephraim against Isaiah, in a grab to secure the family business all for herself. The Poster family is just her bank account – for physical pleasure she is set on seducing John Evered (a miscast, aw shucks George Sanders), the strapping manager of the Poster logging operation. He is engaged to Jenny’s best, and only, friend Meg, but it’s of no concern to her. Jenny is only interested in her own immediate pleasure, regardless of the cost to those around her. She is a seductive sociopath.
Used to week-long schedules and miniscule budgets while at PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), The Strange Woman offered Ulmer a months long shooting schedule, with elaborate sets and an experienced cinematographer in Lucien Andriot (The Big Trail), who had just finished working with Jean Renoir on Diary of a Chambermaid. The movie is centered around Hedy Lamarr’s face, which exudes a feral restlessness. It is a quality Ulmer went to great lengths to elicit. In his new critical study of Ulmer, A Filmmaker at the Margins, Noah Isenberg writes that Ulmer “purportedly used his baton to lash her ankles, whenever she missed a cue, trying as best he could to make her act like a tigress.” Edgar’s wife Shirley simply stated that “He really didn’t like her.” Whatever his personal animus toward Lamarr, it pushed her towards a performance of bold animal aggression, her eyes darting about like a cat distracted by a laser pointer. Occasionally the effort becomes visible, a labored intensity, but for the most part it’s raw and carnal – the kind of “character” acting she hadn’t been allowed to do since she came to Hollywood.
Most of Ulmer’s effort seems to have gone into Lamarr’s performance, as the rest of the film is an effective but indistinguishable bit of invisible Hollywood craftsmanship. There is a concerted effort to identify Jenny with nature. In her childhood scenes she is shown playfully drowning Ephraim in a creek, her dainty foot pushing his head underwater. Later she urges Ephraim to attack his father during a whitewater rafting trip, while she secures John’s lust during a thunderstorm. These are thoughtfully laid out metaphors of her inhumanity, but they fail to convey the mad energy of her character. Instead they are distanced and coolly objective, a nature doc of a sociopath in the wild. This approach drains the film of energy, as the shoot seemed to do to Ulmer, who did not recall the film fondly, calling it “very difficult”.
Isenberg reports that there were re-shoots of the childhood Jenny scenes ordered by executive producer Hunt Stromberg, which were directed by Douglas Sirk. At PRC they only cared about the film being on time and under budget, but here he had no control. Lamarr was the driving artistic force in the film, and while The Strange Woman may not be one of Ulmer’s crowning moments, it contains one of Lamarr’s boldest and strangest performances, freed of the demands of being a clotheshorse. She is a man-devouring force of nature, and once you are in her domain, there is no escaping her.