May 6, 2014

Annex - Lamarr, Hedy (Strange Woman, The)_02

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.


September 29, 2009

experiment perilous

The Warner Archive is murdering my bank account. The latest culprits are Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944) and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951). After my first purchase, documented here, I’ve tried to stay away from the service, what with its un-restored prints and overpriced DVDs ($20 is a lot for a burned disc), but they are pumping out an endless array of rare goodies that would tempt even the cheapest cinephile. I couldn’t stay away for long.

I was drawn to Experiment Perilous because of the praise of Chris Fujiwara, who in his definitive study of the director, The Cinema of Nightfall, described it as “one of Tourneur’s most personal and beautiful films.” It’s also one of his most unknown, at least from my perspective, having not heard of it until it popped up on WB’s release schedule. It’s most famous, perhaps, for containing a mesmerizing performance from Hedy Lamarr, her own favorite, as she relays in her decadently titled autobiography, Ecstasy and Me.The print used on the DVD contains adequate sharpness, but has suffered a decent amount of wear and tear over the years. There is a consistent amount of scratches and dust marks, but nothing terribly distracting. It’s watchable, if nowhere near pristine.

In 1944, Tourneur was coming off the lower budgeted success of his Val Lewton horror films, having churned out the remarkable duo I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man the year before. Handed an A-picture budget from RKO, he delivered Experiment Perilous, a Victorian age psychological thriller often compared to Gaslight, which was released the same year. It’s an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Carpenter, which screenwriter Warren Duff altered by moving the setting from the present day to the turn of the century. It was rumored that Hedy Lamarr’s request to wear period costumes necessitated the change, but Fujiwara reports that it was more of  narrative decision:

Executive producer Robert Fellows offered a more reasonable explanation: ‘It was felt that the slightly archaic quality of the heroine, who appears in the book as a cloistered and frustrated orchid, would lend itself to a clearer expression on the screen if presented against a less realistic background.’

Hedy Lamarr’s Allida is not just a “cloistered and frustrated orchid”, but is quite possibly mad. Or at least her older husband Nick Bedereaux (Paul Lukas) seems to think so. He employs Doctor Bailey (George Brent) to look into her curious peccadilloes, which include sending herself daisies and then denying doing so, and hallucinating that she is being followed.

Tourneur opens the film with a train ride, in which Bailey is introduced to Nick’s bird-like spinster sister Cissie. In a voice-over, he opines that Cissie herself might be insane, as she clucks at him about her home and family like he was an old friend. Tourneur frames him against a mud-spattered window, and then captures their mottled shadows on his suit jacket (see right). This minor contact with the Bedereaux family has soiled him, and this mark dooms him to further entanglement in their sordid story.

Once home, he joins a fashionable dinner party, admiring a snake-haired female statue his pal Clagg unveiled. Tourneur emphasizes Bailey’s connection to this image of the Medusa, joining him first in medium-shot, then pushing into a close-up. Clagg’s attempt to demonize womanhood through his art speaks to Nick’s impotent attempt to harness Allida’s sexuality, and Bailey’s low-key Perseus is here to slay that demonization.


Tourneur lavishes most of his attention on the Bedereaux home, in the stunning set design of Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. This vision is of an accumulation of knickknacks and rooms within rooms, a gilded prison to keep Allida busy and away from the prying eyes and more virile bodies of possible pursuers. Fujiwara notes:

The incredible profusion of bric-a-brac in the Bedereaux house not only makes us aware that Allida is merely another piece – albeit the centerpiece – in Nick’s collection but also creates a stifling atmosphere that correlates with Allida’s panic.

Just inspect the image I started the piece with. Allida is in the right foreground, arguing with Alec, a young poet-admirer, who stands askance at the fireplace. Nick is reflected in the far left-hand side of the mirror, blurred and indistinct. Alec, paired with Nick by the mirror, is simply another man trying to impose his vision of Allida onto her. Alec’s vision is romantic, but it is still controlling and allows Allida no voice of her own. Shunted off into the far corner of the frame, Allida is alone and increasingly fragile, the painting in the background a subtle rhyme to the mens’ artistic, almost directorial designs on her.

It’s a densely visual film – any frame I grabbed would be rich with symbolic significance. Tourneur’s narrative strategies are as oblique as his images are direct, as he obscures motivations and elides major events (the two murders which drive the plot are never shown), repressing them into Hedy Lamarr’s dewy-eyed stare and Paul Lukas’ skittish motormouth. It all adds up to a dreamlike reverie on sexual obsession and death, richly upholstered.


The Tall Target will always have a special place in my memory as the first (and so far only) film I saw at the Cinematheque Francaise. There was an Anthony Mann series running during my (only) trip to Paris, and viewing this historical noir in a the finely appointed theater (not the same place as the New Wavers sat, but the recent Frank Gehry-designed space) was a damn near transcendent experience. The inky blacks of Paul C. Vogel’s Alton-esque cinematography seemed to melt out of the frame (the Warner Archive disc captures these deep blacks remarkably well.

This counterfactual bit of history has Inspector John Kennedy (Dick Powell) attempting to thwart an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration, on a train ride from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. The pacing is unnaturally taut, the performances, from Adolphe Menjou’s sickly sweet Colonel to Ruby Dee’s resolute slave, are stellar across the board, and Mann wrings incredible tension out of a scenario we already know the conclusion to (spoiler: Lincoln doesn’t get assassinated). Utilizing low-angles to convey a sense of cramped intimacy, he often frames the figures against the ceiling of the train.

This strategy leads to an astonishingly subtle tracking shot that turns Powell from predator to prey in the brief flash of his pupils. Entering a train car, Powell is in search of a gun, as he’d already been targeted by a Confederate goon. In a long shot, he waltzes in, keeping his eye on the pockets of the passengers. He espies a revolver in the pocket of a passed out schlub, and he casually sits down on the adjacent armrest. Mann cuts in to a medium shot of Powell, and then a close-up of the gun. The man rolls over onto it, making it impossible for Powell to grab it.  He winces, stands up, and continues on his way.

Mann then pushes in to an extreme low angle close-up, framing Powell’s head tightly against the lamps above his head. It is a smoothly disorienting shot, eliminating the passengers and focusing on Powell’s increasingly strained and wrinkled forehead. Then, in a flicker of his eye to the left of the screen, almost indecipherable upon first viewing, Powell registers fear. The camera arcs around him to the left, settling onto a close-up of a gun pushing into his back, ending the sequence on a note of symmetrically grim irony. It’s a 1 minute sequence of incredible grace and narrative economy, introducing Kennedy’s ruthlessness and the motif of exchanging guns, which leads to perilous consequences later on. This minor Mann would be a major work for any other artist.