Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hi-Def Restoration of THE STRANGE WOMAN: Edgar G. Ulmer directs Hedy Lamarr in 1946 film

The reputation of Edgar G. Ulmer -- the noted B-movie director and sometimes writer who worked consistently from the 1930s (beginning in Germany with People on Sunday) through the early 60s  (The Amazing Transparent Man) and built up a resume of more than 50 films -- seems to keeping growing from year to year. I'm not sure, however, what the release-to-DVD in newly restored high-definition version of his 1946 film, THE STRANGE WOMAN, will do for that reputation. I'm guessing it will neither add nor detract much, keeping the man, his hit-and-miss movies, and his very interesting career pretty much as they already are. But it's good to have the movie back with us in this looks-pretty-terrific version.

Mr. Ulmer -- shown at right from his early days in a sloe-eyed/pretty-boy mode and later (below) with his older/lived-in look -- was a kind of "natural" as a director. He could film fast and smart and come up with movies that "worked."

Some of them -- Detour and The Black Cat -- worked so consistently and so well that they've become genuine classics. Even when the movies were so-so overall, they still worked pretty well. I think it is a rare -- maybe non-existent -- Ulmer film that's unwatchable. (I say that having not nearly seen them all; Ulmer made some 52 movies.)

The Strange Woman, I am guessing,  probably falls right in the middle of his oeuvre, for both time-line and quality.  He was working here -- unusual for him -- with a fairly big-name cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward and Hillary Brooke, among others, with a budget (though probably small by normal Hollywood standards) that was, for Ulmer, large indeed.

The result is a film more typically "Hollywood" than the usual Ulmer: a somewhat heavy-handed melodrama about Jenny (played by Ms Lamarr, below) who goes from being a power-hungry and deceitful little girl into pretty much the same kind of woman. As an adult, she's learned how to perform good deeds -- the kind that help others, sure, but that always at the same time prove a big help to her.

Some have tossed around the term film noir to describe this movie, but it is hardly that. Rather, it's a straight-ahead story of ambition, success, sleazy behavior, and of course--this is Hollywood in the 40s--comeuppance.

The characters include Jenny's drunken father (there's an interesting scene of a whipping that substitutes for incest), the town of Bangor's richest citizen (Gene Lockhart, above, left) and his weak-willed son (Mr. Hayward, above, center), the stalwart foreman of his lumber company (Mr. Sanders, below, right) and his fiancee who doubles as Jenny's best friend (Ms Brooke).

Our gal uses them all, and quite well, too. And as often happens in Ulmer's films, the bad folk have their good points and are at least intelligent while the good ones suffer from a certain lack of willpower and/or moral fiber.

The filmmaker uses a heavier hand here than he often did, and the movie occasionally veers into near-camp. Yet it generally remains enjoyable to watch, and among its several surprises is the chance to see Mr. Sanders in a good guy role (he was most often cast as villain), and to see Ms Brooke again, a popular star of B-movies in the 40s whose career moved easily to television in the 50s.

Lamarr, never a tip-top actress but certainly a beautiful one, acquits herself as well as can be expected, and Lockhart and Hayward as unhappy father and son add some luster to the performance end.

Film Chest Media Group, which has a pretty good record of restoring some lesser-known chestnuts, has done a good job with this one. Most of the footage is crisp and clear and the black-and-white cinematography (by Lucien N. Andriot) comes across quite well.

The Strange Woman (terrible title!), running 99 minutes, hits the street this Tuesday, April 29, for sale, and one hopes rental or maybe streaming soon.

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