Best-known for directing B-movies with lurid, fantastical, or noir subject matter, on occasion Edgar Ulmer worked with top-level studio talent, and The Strange Woman represents a career upswing, especially since two of its starts – Hedy Lamarr (who also executive produced) and George Sanders – would reteam in Paramount’s blockbuster of 1947, Samson and Delilah.
Based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams (Leave Her to Heaven [M]), Strange is a peculiar period drama in which Jenny (Lamarr), the daughter of the town drunk, grows up into a gold-digging slut, eventually marrying the town’s industrial titan Isaiah Poster (a rare co-starring role for veteran character actor Gene Lockhart) when she becomes an orphan. In puritanical Bangor, Maine, the hasty marriage to an older man of good standing preserves her dignity, but it also enables Isaiah to finally bed the hot young girl he’s been dreaming about quite rudely for a while.
Jenny’s determination to right her life and become an upstanding, philanthropic wife works, but she can’t seem to change her ways and feigns concern and generosity when her maneuvers are purely to keep hot men close to her frilly bodkin until the timing is right, and pounce. Isaiah’s son Ephraim (Louis Hayward) is her first sucker, and soon she sets her designs on her best friend’s husband John (Sanders, sporting unsuitable angular mutton chops), but not before the plot swerves into The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) in which whore convinces her ‘son’ to murder Isaiah and shore up control of his wealth and power.
What remains within Strange’s final third are sexual power struggles, jealousies, and sleazy nonsense, and the cast seems to have had fun largely playing characters with opportunistic leanings and impulses. Lamarr’s limited acting range sort of works for Jenny, a villainess who has a good streak now and then, but her Austrian accent and handful of facial expressions don’t convince viewers she’s a born & bred Bangor native (especially since an early childhood scene, reportedly directed by Douglas Sirk, has a very American actress playing the young and cruel Jenny).
Sanders has little to do in Strange, and with John being a decent fellow briefly sidelined by immoral activities, he’s a little dull; the actor tended to excel in playing English shits, and his character literally doesn’t show up until the film’s middle. Lamarr was at least surrounded by an excellent cast of character actors, especially Alan Napier (Batman), whose significant role of a judge is a welcome blip on a career generally packed with notable but brief bit roles.
Ulmer’s direction is very moody and gothic, and he made do with what was clearly a limited budget – even handling a fire, a drunken mob out for some rape-revenge, and a deadly river crossing with panache. Carmen Dragon’s score is sometimes screechingly bombastic, but there are a few effective scenes where his use of grinding low strings enhances already lurid scenes, especially a candle light tease between Jenny and Ephraim, nicely photographed by Lucien Andriot. (Although he didn't serve as cinematographer, one of the film's producers is Eugen Schufftan, the gifted German who photographed The Hustler and the special effects in Metropolis.)
Long in the public domain, this odd production and footnote in Lamarr’s career really deserves a proper DVD release from a restored print, but for now there are plenty of beat-up transfers floating around, including a rather spliced-up copy at the Internet Archive.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan