I fell in love with Edgar G. Ulmer over the weekend. Lately I discovered the endless b-movie and public-domain film choices available on Youtube, and this past weekend I ended up watching Ulmer's 1946 drama-thriller The Strange Woman. The movie narrates the story of insanely manipulative, part-psychopath, evil seductress Jenny Hager--played marvelously by Hedy Lamarr. This is actually my first Hedy Lamarr movie, and I've come to truly respect an actress that is bold and confident enough to play an unlovable and unsympathetic character. Jenny is both those things. I fell asleep half-way through my first viewing, because it was late, and because I didn't really take the movie seriously--but Jenny's personality stayed in my head, so I went back to it the next day and watched it a second time. As much of a sensational-thriller as it is (and the sensationalism is hard to take seriously) I realized that the movie was an interesting character study. Jenny is bad to the bone, and rather unashamed about it too.
The movie is set in the 1800s in Maine. It begins with Jenny's early childhood, where we see her taunt and bully a young boy. I loved the whole childhood sequence--the dreamy studio-set forest and pond. Young Jenny is a cheeky, curly haired girl, with a mischievous nature. She throws a young boy into the pond, then pretends to save him (that should give you a clue into her twisted personality).
I really love the shot where young Jenny looks down at her reflection in the water. There's a sort of fairy tale-like aesthetic to the world of the story, with the trees, ponds, and hills; yet, if we were in a fairy tale, Jenny would probably be the evil witch that the pure and humble heroine has to defeat. What makes this story interesting is that Jenny is portrayed as the heroine (beautiful, graceful, naive), but on the inside, she's the witch.
The story transitions to adult Jenny, a beautiful and carefree young woman whose only concern is to marry a rich man... and eventually she does. After a series of events, she marries an old rich baron. She enjoys the high life and enchants all the townsfolk by acting like the most upstanding, selfless, and caring woman in town. When the baron's son returns, things start taking a dark twist. Jenny is attracted to the baron's son (who is also the same boy she threw into the pond as a little girl). She blatantly flirts with him, and eventually seduces him.
I loved Jenny's look (which is probably just a Hedy Lamarr thing), but at times she reminds me of a farm-girl or a Danish milk maid--except with the evil personality, which adds to the innocent/evil dichotomy of her character. The innocent and virginal look creates such an interesting contrast against her true nature. Lamarr portrayed both sides of Jenny's personality with such ease, sometimes remaining on ambiguous ground, making me wonder whether I was looking at the good Jenny or the bad Jenny.
Jenny eventually gets bored of her boy-toy and moves on to another man: a businessman names Evered that also happens to be her best friend's fiancee. She rejects the baron's son, which drives him to drink and sink into depression, and proceeds to successfully seduce her Evered. He breaks up his previous engagement and marries Jenny, unaware of her evil past.
Again, more dreamy landscapes. There's a poetic aesthetic to Ulmer's 18th century Maine, made up of cloudy skies, wild vegetation, and creepy trees. We're introduced to this fairy tale landscape during her childhood, and brought back to it whenever she is in love with a man (once with the baron's son, and again with Evered). I have a fascination for dreamy Old Hollywood landscapes, and despite their obvious lack of realism, that's probably what draws me to them--that sense of being in a surreal and ethereal world.
After her marriage to Evered, a character conflict pops up, which is Jenny's inability to have children. Then, one of the best parts in the movie: the travelling preacher.
Aside from Jenny, the second most interesting character is Lincoln Pettridge, the travelling preacher that comes to town to bring high-voltage sermons and a fringe-shirt that looks like Roger Daltrey's Woodstock outfit. He preaches fervently and instills fear in everyone--even Jenny. He is the first person to make her question her evilness, and she starts to believe that the cause of her infertility is a punishment for her past actions.
And we come to the end, although there's really no mystery to what happens to an evil female character in a 1940s Hollywood movie: they die a tragic death.
The fatal ending probably serves to remind women not to be like that! The ending was inevitable and predictable, and although I'd love to see an old Hollywood movie in which an evil woman is not punished for her evilness, the chances are slim. Yet, Hedy Lamarr plays an exciting and fascinating bad girl, and Ulmer offers an interesting narrative behind her motivations, which is more than is offered for most film noir femme fatales.