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Thursday, April 17, 2014

DVD Review: The Strange Woman

The Strange Woman is an excellent and unusual film with some really good performances and intriguing characters, particularly that of Jenny, who is portrayed impeccably and deliciously by Hedy Lamarr.

The film takes place in Bangor, Maine, in the eighteen hundreds. It opens with a wonderful scene in which Tim Hager, a broke drunk, tries to purchase more whiskey, while the shopkeeper tells him he should spend his money on food for his family. We learn through dialogue between the shopkeeper and another customer that Tim’s wife had left him, and that he has a daughter named Jenny. We then see Jenny playing with other children, and right away get a sense of her character. She tells one kid that she hates losers. She taunts Ephraim, a boy who can’t swim, and even pushes him into the river and tells the others she doesn’t care if he drowns. But then when the adults are approaching, she jumps in and fishes him out, pretending it was the other children that pushed him in. She has goals of being rich.

The film then cuts to Jenny now grown up. She is stunningly beautiful, and still living in Bangor, and still with the same goals of being rich. In an early scene, she goes down to the docks to meet the sailors, hoping to pick out the richest one. (By the way, early on you hear people singing “Drunken Sailor,” a song I love.)

Her father is still a drunk. He tells Jenny she’s just like her mother, saying there’s a devil in her, “And I’m going to whip him out of you.” Jenny responds, “You’re going to beat me.” He says, “This is one beating you’ll not like.” It’s an incredible scene. As he hits her repeatedly with his belt, there’s a wild look of enjoyment on her face – at least at first. Then she fights back and runs out. Her father falls over, seemingly from a heart attack, and dies.

And this is when the film begins to get even more interesting. She runs to the home of Mr. Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), a wealthy, much older man who clearly has an interest in her. He’s also the father of Ephraim. She tells him, not that her father has died, but that her father is after her, and somewhat seductively shows him the marks on her back. Mr. Poster then visits the reverend and deacon, telling them Jenny should be married, leading them to suggest that he himself be the one. It’s so interesting that he manipulates them just the way that she did him.

It works. We next see Jenny writing a letter to Ephraim, and signing it “your loving Mother.” Yes, this woman is delightfully twisted. It gets even better. She reads the letter to us in voice over, saying: “I shall demand obedience and love. And if you refuse, my dear son, I shall punish you by not kissing you good night.” She urges him to visit, though Isaiah has urged him to stay away. Jenny is such an exciting and enticing character. Even though perhaps we as the audience are supposed to think ill of her, I couldn’t help but be completely drawn to her.

And when Ephraim (Louis Hayward) does visit, he immediately says, “Hello, Mother,” without any indication that it’s odd for him, which of course makes it all the more odd for us. The tension is wonderful once Ephraim comes home. Jenny clearly enjoys playing his mother, but also touches him affectionately. There is so much going on in her face. At one point she leans in, telling Ephraim she could see how all kinds of women would be attracted to him, and then when she has him and he leans in to kiss her, she pulls back and is suddenly all business, wishing him “Good night.” And it is later revealed that Ephraim and Jenny had talked of love at some point before he had left town, adding another layer to this relationship. That of course means that Isaiah most likely knew of his son’s affections when he angled to marry Jenny himself, making his character more interesting as well.

There are also troubles in the town, as there is no police force. There is violence in the streets, which excites Jenny, even when the violence is directed at her friend Lena. She pauses before helping her, which is just incredible. It’s wild, but some of Jenny’s most powerful moments are when she is silent and still, and allowing events to play out before her.

This film had me enjoying it right from the start, but it’s one that gets better and better as it goes along. Hedy Lamarr’s performance is superb. But the rest of the cast is quite good as well, and includes George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Gene Lockhart, Hillary Brooke, Rhys Williams, June Storey and Kathleen Lockhart.

The Strange Woman was directed by Edgar Ulmer. The new DVD, in HD restoration, is scheduled to be released April 29, 2014 through Film Chest Media Group. The DVD includes no special features.

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