Dark Crimes: The Strange Woman (1946)
One of my many resolutions for 2015 was to get off my “rusty dusty” and start converting some of my many blog post ideas from concept to actuality. Here, then, is my first post in my new series, which is to watch and write about every film in the “Dark Crimes” DVD compilation. A few of the movies in this 50-film set are noir standards, like D.O.A. (1949) with Edmond O’Brien, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin, but most of them are new to me, and I’m looking forward to diving in!!
For my Dark Crimes inaugural entry, I’m taking a look at The Strange Woman, directed by Edgar Ulmer – of Detour (1945) fame – based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams (who also wrote Leave Her to Heaven), and starring Hedy Lamarr and George Sanders. And let me just say from the outset – the title of this picture is more than apt; it’s one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. And that’s putting it mildly. (Watch your step – this entire post is one big spoiler!)
The film opens in 1824, in Bangor, Maine – a place with which I’m familiar primarily because horror author Stephen King lives there. We’re introduced to dry goods store owner Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), town drunkard Tim Hager (Dennis Hoey), and Hager’s cruel and conscienceless young daughter, Jenny (played as a child in the opening scenes by Jo Ann Marlowe as such a nasty little cretin that I can hardly bring myself to believe this is the same actress who played that sweet little Kay in Mildred Pierce). And when I say cruel and conscienceless, I mean it. Playing with a group of children on a wooden bridge over a river, Jenny pushes a boy in the water after he fearfully insists that he cannot swim, repeatedly shoves his head under water with her foot (“Who cares?” she rejoins when one of the children expresses fears that she will drown the boy), and then, when the local judge rides by, heroically jumps into the water to “save” him.
Jenny as an adult is played by Hedy Lamarr – and she’s just as vain as she was when she was a child (except now, for some inexplicable reason, she has a slight Austrian accent). She’s also as shallow as a kiddie pool – when her pal, Lena (June Storey) assures her that her looks are certain to attract the youngest and the best looking sailors at the dock, Jenny responds, “I don’t want the youngest – I want the richest.” She expresses a similar sentiment during an argument with her father: “This isn’t the life I was born for. Men like me. And it’s the men who have the money in this world. . . . I know you don’t want any man ever to look at me. But they do!” Incidentally, not long after this argument (during which Dad Hager beats Jenny with a strap while she stares into his eyes with a weird smirky smile), Jenny winds up married to Isaiah Poster – who ostensibly weds her to protect her from her abusive father, but who’s actually had his eye on her for years. (Let me say here that I never really knew for sure what happened to Jenny’s father. I thought he died from a slip and fall on his front porch, but the film never made any reference to his death. He just kinda disappeared.) Anyway, unfortunately for the practically senior citizen Mr. Poster, he’s got a son, Ephraim (Louis Hayward), who also has an eye for Jenny. By the way, it was Ephraim Poster that Jenny pushed into the river years before – even though she still insists that it was the other children who were responsible. “I pulled you out – didn’t we always stick together? Ephraim and Jenny: side by side against the world,” she reminisces. “Oh, we had good times here, didn’t we?” Aaaand it’s at this point that I start to question Jenny’s mental stability.
It’s also right about this time that the film completely goes off the rails, as far as I’m concerned. Mr. Poster develops some mysterious ailment, Jenny and Ephraim are practically exploding with sexual tension, lumberjacks come into town and start a seemingly endless drunken riot, Jenny saves her friend Lena from being attacked in the streets and then, for purposes that I never could figure out, allows her to move into her old house – and then George Sanders comes into the picture! He’s John Evered, the boyfriend of Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke), who’s the daughter of the town’s judge (who was killed in the riot – did I mention that?) and a friend (as much as any woman can be) of Jenny’s. With John suddenly on the scene, Ephraim Poster doesn’t look quite so attractive to Jenny and she refocuses her energies in John’s direction.
But first – Jenny decides she’s tired of having a husband and that Ephraim would be the perfect person to get him out of the way. “How long must he live, Ephraim?” she asks. “I want you to do something for us. You’re afraid. I could promise you so many things, and yet, you’re afraid. . . . Why does everything frighten you? You’re going to make me very angry. And if I get angry and go on wanting you the way I do, I might tell him what happened between us.” And, of course, like the weak-willed sap that he is, Ephraim KILLS. HIS. OWN. FATHER. And when his DUMB ASS goes back to Jenny, you know what she says? She tells him: “You can’t come into this house, you wretched coward. You killed your father.” OMG!!!!!
Okay, I’m not going to drag this thing out any longer. This is what happens in the rest of the film. Ephraim turns into a hopeless drunk and winds up hanging himself. Jenny seduces John and he promptly dumps Meg and marries Jenny. Jenny learns that she can’t have children (again, a plot point that seems to go nowhere). A traveling spiritual evangelist, Lincoln Pittridge (Ian Keith) comes to town, holds a revival and, by great coincidence, preaches a sermon entitled “The Strange Woman” that seems to be speaking directly to Jenny (“What woman has put away a husband? Which of you has taken a man from her sister? You cannot hide behind your beauty. Your beauty has made you evil, and evil destroys itself! There will be no sons to mourn for you. No daughters to weep.”). (Wow, he’s like, a mind reader or something!) Jenny goes completely bananas, admits to John that she coerced Ephraim into killing his father, and then abruptly recants – but it’s too late. John leaves her. Jenny tracks him down to a cabin in the woods – but his ex-girlfriend Meg Saladine has gotten there first. What Jenny doesn’t know is that John has told Meg that he still loves Jenny and is returning to her – when she sees them standing outside the cabin together, she tries to run them over with her horse and carriage and winds up tumbling over a cliff to her death. Before she takes her final breath, though, she tells John, “I wanted so many things. I wanted the whole world. But it was really only you.”
I don’t know – maybe it’s just me. Maybe I was predisposed not to like this movie because I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Hedy Lamarr fan. (And, again, that’s putting it mildly.) Or maybe my expectations were too high – I’d skimmed a few reviews before I popped this film in the DVD player, and they all seemed to be far more impressed with this film than I turned out to be. Or maybe I just didn’t appreciate the film’s so-called “noirish” touches – to me, they were just so much hokum. Let me give you an example. Just one. It’s late in the film (which, incidentally, at 100 minutes seems twice as long), and Jenny has set her sights firmly on John – even though he seems too dense to have any idea. Anyway, in the middle of a huge rainstorm, Jenny goes with John to a shack 10 miles from town to see Ephraim. They both get more than they bargained for when they find Ephraim hanging around – literally. So Jenny goes into a brief freak-out where she’s blaming herself for his death and blah blah blah, but just minutes later, she accidentally on purpose lets the horses run off with the carriage so she and John can be stranded there together. Later, while her clothes are drying by the fire, Jenny shoots a series of longing, lustful, come hither looks in John’s general direction, and before he self-combusts, he goes outside in the rain to remove himself from temptation. But Jenny’s no quitter, and she gets a big boost from Mother Nature when a tree in the distance is struck by lightning and actually bursts into flames (symbolism, much?) – providing the perfect backdrop for Jenny to sidle up to John wearing little more than a blanket, and plant a big wet one on him. And that’s the end of John and his fiancée.
Oh! And let me tell you about just one other scene. You know when I mentioned earlier about the traveling evangelist and his sermon? Well, he was preaching to a full house, mostly comprised of Bangor’s women folk. And as he offered up his fiery rhetoric, the women in the pews started literally falling to their knees, they were so convicted by his speechifyin’. And as they packed the aisles, their guilty, sin-racked sobs filled the air like a chorus. It was nuts!
You seriously have to see this movie to believe it. It’s on YouTube – check it out if you get the chance. I know I’ve told you practically the whole story, but I just couldn’t help myself. But I promise you – it won’t ruin the movie for you.
(The movie will do that by itself.)