The Strange Woman (Film Chest Media Group, NR)

dvd strange womanHedy Lamarr reveals herself to be both bad to the bone and committed to capitalizing on her feminine charms for the worst possible purposes.

 

 

 

There’s only one reason to watch The Strange Woman, but it’s a very good reason: to see Hedy Lamarr at her most beautiful and most evil, encapsulating the essence of movie bad girls from Scarlett O’Hara to Rhoda Penmark.

Yes, I know that The Strange Woman (1946) predated The Bad Seed (1956) by a decade. My point is that these characters all draw on a fear of women dating back at least to 10th century BC or so, when someone penned this gem in the Book of Proverbs: “For the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is as bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.”

In case you didn’t catch the meaning of the title, that very Bible verse figures into a sermon delivered late in the film, by a traveling revivalist dressed like Daniel Boone (Ian Keith), no less. But the sermon is just the cherry on the sundae, so to speak, because from the moment we meet her, Jenny Hager (Lamarr) reveals herself to be both bad to the bone and committed to capitalizing on her feminine charms for the worst possible purposes.

The child Jenny (played by Jo Ann Marlowe, a plausible match for the adult Lamarr) must fend for herself, as her mother is dead and her father (Dennis Joey) spends most of his time at the bottom of a jug of whatever habitual drunks drank in 19th century small-town New England. She’s more than up to the challenge, nearly drowning a classmate and then pretending to save him, demonstrating her ability to hoodwink the town’s adult male population in the process.

The adult Jenny picks up where the child left off, seducing a string of men who really should know better, including a prosperous shopkeeper and lumber dealer (Gene Lockhart), his son (Louis Hayward), and a lumberjack (George Sanders, who looks much more comfortable in fancy suits than plaid shirts). At the same time, Jenny puts on the breastplate of righteousness by backing various good causes, including temperance, and acting as a regular Lady Bountiful to the town’s poor folk.

The Strange Woman was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who seems to have been working with a much greater budget than was at his disposal for, say, Detour. Besides the evident star power Ulmer had at his command, there’s a much greater care taken with the film’s visual elements than you often see in low-budget films. The chiaroscuro effects are particularly good (perhaps they explain why some classify this as a film noir, when to me it’s a pure woman’s melodrama), as is a nice transition from the child to the adult Jenny, accomplished by means of a reflection in the town lake.

The Strange Woman is in the public domain, but a quick comparison with the version available on archive.org demonstrates how much work Film Chest put into the restoration, and this is one film that needs its visual splendor to really work. | Sarah Boslaugh

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