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.

Letting the Cat out of the Bag: Ulmer’s The Black Cat and World War I

Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) possesses undeniable cult cred in the form of pickled dead wives, sexy Bauhaus sets, and, of course, Lugosi flaying Karloff alive. I cherish it for all these reasons. However, more important, I believe that it’s the first mainstream horror movie to show the link between the “nightmare picture” genre cycle of the 1930s and its aesthetic and emotional origins in World War I.

Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, adaptations of gothic novels, The Black Cat completely abandoned the Poe short story which it misleadingly claims as its source. Instead, the plot of the film revolves around Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) and his quest for revenge against his former comrade-in-arms in the Imperial and Royal Army of Austria-Hungary, Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff, who else?). The film even takes place in an old WWI-rampart-turned-evil-lair, Fort Marmorus, complete with old battle charts and gun turrets!

As Lugosi’s character travels back to the site of such historical carnage, he also undergoes a psychological transformation from civilized doctor to a man ruined by war and hate. At the risk of sounding grandiloquent (too late, but this is Universal Horror!), Werdegast’s pilgrimage is really a voyage to the heart of repressed WWI memories.

Take, for instance, the scene in which Werdegast and the newlyweds (who’ve chosen inexplicably to vacation in rural Austria) are driven from the train station. A shot, taken from the inside of the car, reveals the hood of the old-fashioned vehicle as it proceeds down a long muddy road, sparkling with streams of rain. This image conveys a documentary quality and anticipates the filth and sogginess of the following descriptions of World War I battlefields and trenches.

The driver lugubriously informs his passengers: “This road was built by the Austrian army.” In the low-key lighting and indistinctness of the rainy night, the chauffer, wearing the gaudy, gold-accented livery of the Hotel Hungaria in Gömbös, appears to wear a soldier’s uniform.

Delivering a grim monologue, the driver paints lurid word-portraits of Marmorus during the War, including such disturbing morsels as “the ravine down there was piled twelve-deep with dead and wounded” and, “the little river below was swollen, a red, raging torrent of blood.” 

Rather than cutting to the landscape or a flashback, Ulmer’s camera focuses on the reactions of the passengers. Like a couple at the cinema, slowly finding themselves drawn into the tale, the newlyweds at first hold back laughter then take on increasingly grave expressions. Werdegast, shown in a moodily lit close-up, closes his eyes as if in a trance.

Like a couple in the cinema: a parallel audience, the innocent newlyweds, the Alisons, listen to tales of WWI horrors.

The directorial decision to recount the story of Marmorus in this manner comments powerfully on the significance of such war narratives to modern life. Here, the tales and memories of no-man’s-land acquire the same kind of atmospheric cache as the prerequisite vampire lore or supernatural legends of more conventional horror films. For the Allisons, as for the moviegoers, the brutality of WWI already represents a myth, a treasury of shock-value yarns trotted out by tour guides, but still a collective inheritance of unconscious fears difficult to ignore.

The return to violence: the driver who recounts battle stories goes off the road with our characters in his cab. Note the practically vertical axis: the world of the newlyweds is about to be similarly turned upside-down by their involvement with two traumatized WWI veterans.

Towards the end of the film, the stylized, geometrical designs of the “Dark of the Moon” ceremony scene in The Black Cat echo the landscapes of a WWI no-man’s-land. Poelzig performs his black mass amidst a temple of jagged, irregular shapes, framed by two obelisks and a fan-like backdrop. His pulpit comprises a giant X-shaped complex made up of obliquely angled bars.

This altar closely resembles a “knife rest” or a cruciform barrier used by Great War soldiers in order to deter onslaughts of enemy men from attacking gaps in the trench lines. Many photographs of the WWI show such impromptu ramparts, constructed from a few planks and covered with barbed wire.

Look familiar? WWI barbed wire defenses, X-shaped “knife rests.”

The jutting, irregular trappings of Poelzig’s secret cult room also recall images of the various fences, boards, and charred trees that contributed to the blasted and disorienting appearance of no-man’s-land.

Ulmer carefully supervised the set design, so I think it’s safe to assume the resemblance isn’t gratuitous, especially in light of explicit allusions to the war throughout the film. In the context of the wicked ceremony, Ulmer uses the set to stress the evil of war itself. Blending bizarre intimations of Satanism with WWI iconography, the director underscores the destructive urges of mankind to sacrifice others in the pursuit of illusory and often ridiculous belief systems.

In war as in horror films, the bad guys tend to demand human sacrifices.

However, one scene in particular drives home the relationship between horror and war in a stunningly stylized way, so stunningly that I can hardly believe that more film historians haven’t noticed the formal innovation.

After panicking at the sight of a black cat, Werdegast fails to kill Poelzig. The wife-killing traitor, however, doesn’t retaliate, but rather begins to calmly examine their situation, from off-screen. His tone turns eerily sentimental. Meanwhile, the somber strains of Beethoven’s No. 7 Symphony on the soundtrack reinforce the import of his words.

During this disembodied, voice-over monologue, the camera first tilts upward to take in Werdegast, tense and emotionally broken, before panning and tracking to a door handle which Poelzig opens. The shot roves, continuously save for a few ethereal dissolves, through the military, through the oppressive corridors of the former fort, capturing striking diagonal light-dark contrasts and disquietingly angled beams, and then up a spiral staircase. The series of dissolves really feels like a long take and it probably wanted to be, had the time, budget, and technology made it possible.

…and we return to the two “living dead” men as though we’d been walking with them.

Interestingly, the series of shots follow the path that the audience would expect Werdegast and Poelzig to walk as they return to the less disturbing upstairs of Poelzig’s house. But they’re not in the tracking shots. It’s almost as though they dissolved or disappeared into thin air.

The camera movement in fact substitutes for the movements of the main characters, who, at the end of the sequence, are revealed entering Poelzig’s study. The floating, slow camera movements strike the viewer as following shots, but with the initiators of motion surreally removed, in a strange instance of visual metonymy.

This unorthodox stylistic choice highlights a turning point in the self-awareness of the horror genre, as Poelzig assimilates the survivors and the corpses of World War I. The traitor asks Werdegast,

“Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?” 

Here, he equates the real physical horrors of war and the trauma of veterans with the symbolism of the nightmare picture. In the context of the film, the speech makes the connection between the real broken and battered men who returned from the conflict and their screen alter-egos, the monsters and mutilated characters of the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, the pointed absence of Poelzig and Werdegast from the simultaneous tracking shots affirms the truth of these words. The characters disappear from the shots because their trauma has hollowed them out, reduced them to ghouls. Poelzig and Werdegast’s participation in the Battle of Marmorus has turned both into spiteful, inhuman phantoms, “the living dead.”

Battlefield wreckage? No, Fort Marmorus. It explodes at the end of The Black Cat, with the two veterans inside, like an exorcism of WWI demons.

Film historian David Skal asserts that a French work, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, released in 1919 and then remade by the director in 1938, was the first film to “face up” to the horror influence of the First World War. He has a point. However, Gance’s two versions were highly lauded anti-war dramas with noted horrific sequences, what would later be called “art films.”

But The Black Cat was a popular horror film, part of a genre not given enough credit then or maybe even now for its meaning-creating potential, that boldly unmasked World War I as the unconscious aesthetic and mythological focus of movie horror. Ulmer’s film alludes to the lineage of the genre, not just the evils of the war itself. Given the surprise popularity of The Black Cat, and of the horror genre during the Depression, perhaps such films allowed audiences to cope with the Great War in retrospect and to grieve subconsciously for those sacrificed to no-man’s-land, the victims of modernity, as well as for the walking wounded.

(This is adapted from a college paper which I wrote about Universal’s horror cycle. Although the thesis contained herein is my own, I did, of course, research the context and the making of the film and benefit from the analyses of others, including David J. Skal and to the documentary Universal Horror, which began to suggest the link between horror and WWI. I will provide my bibliography on request, so please leave a comment if you would like to know more about my resources. Likewise, please do not use my ideas or images without first asking me!)