The Strange Woman (1946): Take Hold on Hell

The Strange Woman (1946Hedy Lamarr’s beauty hits me like Novocain. The word “stunning” shows up too often to modify things that are merely remarkable. But Lamarr literally stuns me, numbs my brain, and turns almost every critical bone in my body to mush. I’ll pay attention to camera angles later. Must. Look. At. Face.

I find it quite ironic that such a brilliant woman—the mother of modern telecommunications—should unintentionally exert a stupefying effect on those who gaze upon her. (She seemingly froze producers’ brains, as well, otherwise how do you explain White Cargo? Then again, that risible hokum was a box office smash, so perhaps the joke’s on us.) Lamarr is like a reverse Gorgon, paralyzing viewers with her physical perfection.

However, when I focus very hard to counteract the harmony of ratios that added up to produce Lamarr’s face, I realize that her beauty is just a piece of what makes her interesting to watch onscreen. She not only possessed a far-reaching mind, but could also summon a lot more acting talent that she’s typically given credit for.

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And, if you want to see beyond the glamour, The Strange Woman is the movie to start with. As director Edgar G. Ulmer said, “It’s the only picture where she really had to act.” Now, Ulmer was certainly exaggerating, but Lamarr’s portrayal of a conflicted seductress stands out as one of her most fascinating, layered performances. She’s not a villainess, a male fantasy, or the hero’s prize for good behavior; she’s a full-blown anti-heroine who carries the plot.

In the mid-1940s, Lamarr formed her own production company, Mars Film Corporation, a move that granted her far more control over The Strange Woman than she’d exercised over her previous studio films. Rather than choose a high-profile director to helm her first release, Lamarr personally selected fellow émigré Ulmer, who’d been displaying vast creativity on low budgets at the Poverty Row studio PRC.

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The Strange Woman adapted and sanitized a novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams (whose Leave Her to Heaven had offered a fierce, captivating role for Gene Tierney, another underrated and alarmingly beautiful actress). Set in Bangor, Maine during the early 19th century, the story follows Jenny Hagar, daughter of the town drunk, who leverages her looks and intelligence to marry well.

Shrewd Jenny wins over the townspeople with her outward piety, manipulates her husband’s son to commit patricide, and eventually builds a business empire for herself. When she marries her friend’s fiancé, her first taste of true love ultimately proves her undoing.

hedylamarrA florid example of 1940s noir-flavored costume drama, The Strange Woman cultivates the audience’s sympathy for its femme fatale protagonist. The title alludes to a Biblical proverb warning against temptresses, a verse also used in the film’s publicity campaign: “For the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil, but her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.”

Yet, whereas the Bible refers to such female sinners as almost supernatural menaces, equating adulteresses with uncanny succubi, Ulmer and Lamarr set out to humanize the “strange woman.”

Her end may be as “sharp as a two-edged sword,” but her character also cuts both ways. The whole movie hinges on Lamarr’s performance, and she makes both extremes of Jenny’s nature, from heartfelt charity to merciless greed, plausible and compelling.

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You’ll notice plenty of material in The Strange Woman that would seem more at home in a pre-Code movie, including blatant sadomasochism and strong intimations of incest. In the film’s most analyzed scene, Jenny’s father, jealous of her lovers, decides to whip the Devil out of her, threatening, “This is one beating you’ll not like.” Instead of discreetly cutting away to another scene, Ulmer delivers subversive medium shots of Lamarr wearing facial expressions closely related to her Ecstasy collection, if you catch my drift.

hedylamarr12Before you accuse the film of needless titillation, this unhealthy corporal punishment confrontation provides the key to Jenny’s psyche. It exists to show us that her upbringing has irrevocably perverted her emotions, crossing the wires for love and hate, pleasure and pain in her mind.

In fact, at the end (Spoiler Alert!), Jenny causes her own death in a carriage accident, barreling towards her husband and his ex-fiancé, furiously whipping her horses. The excitement on her face, the angry thrashing of the whip, and the context of jealousy all echo the earlier scene with her father.

Damaged by the circumstances of her childhood, Jenny cannot escape the fury that her father took out on her and is doomed to propagate dysfunction. She’s not so much a “strange woman” as an all-too-familiar tragedy: a woman unable to heal from the wounds inflicted by an abusive father.

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To make the lasting impact of Jenny’s traumatic childhood even clearer, the film begins by portraying her as a precociously vicious child, an apt liar, and a total afterthought to her irresponsible father, who spends his time bumming grog money off of more affluent townspeople. Ulmer transitions from this kind of prologue to the plot in earnest when the young Jenny peers down at her reflection in the river, insisting, “I’m going to be beautiful!”

Her nearby father thoughtlessly throws his empty liquor jug into the water, shattering Jenny’s image. After a hidden cut, the water settles to reveal a glimpse of grown-up Jenny. The camera pans upwards and there’s Hedy, brimming with savage energy and determination. The presentation of Jenny’s passage from youth to adulthood—visually triggered by the careless discarding of the bottle—highlights the destructiveness of her father’s alcoholism.

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Throughout The Strange Woman, Ulmer’s love of sinuous camera movements, Baroque shadows, reflections, and expressionistic angles partner well with Lamarr’s slinky grace and the quietly diabolical intensity that she channels. In contrast to many glossy, talky, high-key Hollywood period dramas, this one didn’t try much to smooth the edges of a rough-hewn era.

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It went a million dollars over budget, but still taps into some of the Poverty Row rawness that infuses many of Ulmer’s films. He evokes a cruder time in American history when boomtowns were dangerous places filled with dangerous people and you did whatever you had to for survival. The stakes of Jenny’s social climbing, we know, aren’t frivolous. The tough faces of the sailors and lumberjacks, the muddy streets, the blazing riot fires in the distance, and the grunts of offscreen brawls all tell us that.

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Even in a halfway decent print, the candlelit night scenes really are dark. Those nocturnal exchanges anchor the film. Jenny talks her husband’s son into murder while gazing at her own proud beauty in the mirror, as though putting herself into a trance. She creeps over to kiss him, but not before looming in the foreground as he wrestles hopelessly with his conscience. Later, the night again becomes Jenny’s accomplice when she draws her final husband towards her simply by lying inert on a bed, like a spider waiting for a fly to get caught.

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If Jenny’s calculating side chills us, flickers of genuine kindness and generosity prevent the audience from condemning her fully. Sure, she might donate to the church primarily to boost her reputation, but the compassionate ease of her interactions with the poor leaves no doubt: she likes helping people, especially children, in need.

She’s not all bad. And her own badness torments her, as indicated by the tear she sheds in close-up while a thunderous evangelist rails against wicked women.

hedylamarr3Most poignantly, she refuses to desert her battered old friend Lena, a waitress with a less-than-pure reputation. When Jenny’s second husband orders her to turn Lena out of their house, she rebukes him: “You good righteous man! You hypocrite! Telling others what they must and must not do while you live in this house with me.”

The Strange Woman’s ambiguity, hinting that a woman can be both cruel and magnanimous, good and evil, puts a decidedly feminist slant on what could’ve been a mildly sensational sermon. On a visual level, the film sets up Jenny’s face as our primary emotional frame of reference; we’re encouraged to identify with her.

We feel through her, whether she comforts a hungry child or wordlessly ponders killing off her husband. Ulmer believed that directing really consists of pulling the audience into the thoughts and struggles of a character: “I’m trying very hard to give it a viewpoint: tell it from somebody I can feel for.” He and Lamarr certainly succeeded in doing so in The Strange Woman.

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By the time a radical preacher starts spewing fire and brimstone, we’re close enough to Jenny that we perceive the contradictions at work. “You cannot hide behind your beauty,” he howls. “Your beauty has made you evil. And your evil destroys itself.”

Try again, holy man. Beauty encourages those who perceive it to press the pause button on their brains and consciences, but you can’t blame the beauty alone. As long as anyone sees a beautiful woman as a target, an object, or, worst of all, a devil and not a person, can you really blame her for cultivating her erotic power and using her allure as a weapon? I sure can’t.

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The Strange Woman has fallen into the Public Domain, so you can watch it on YouTube and download it for free from the Internet Archive.

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