Combustible Celluloid
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With: Zachary Scott, Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn, Sydney Greenstreet, Lucille Bremer, Martha Vickers, Edith Barrett, Dennis Hoey, Raymond Burr, Joyce Arling, Charles Evans, Robert J. Anderson, Arthur Stone, Ann Carter, Edna Holland
Written by: Alvah Bessie, S.K. Lauren, Gordon Kahn, based on a novel by Dayton Stoddart
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 105
Date: 04/16/1948

Ruthless (1948)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Citizen Gain

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the most fascinating of filmmakers, Edgar G. Ulmer began as an uncredited set designer for many of the major German Expressionist filmmakers. Coming to Hollywood, he worked as a director in super-low-budget Poverty Row studios, but due to fate or simply supreme skill, he never really advanced to the "A" list. Still, he occasionally made something magnificent, such as The Black Cat (1934), Bluebeard (1944), and Detour (1945). Ruthless can also join that list.

Along with The Strange Woman, for which the actress Hedy Lamarr requested his services, Ruthless gave Ulmer a slightly larger budget than usual. Many have compared Ruthless to Citizen Kane, given its flashback structure, and its rise-and-fall story of a ruthless (yes) businessman, as well as its bold visual style.

Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) brings his girlfriend Mallory (Diana Lynn) to a swanky party to meet his childhood friend, the master businessman Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott). Horace makes an announcement that he's establishing a peace foundation and donating $25 million to it. In a back room, he meets Mallory and is shocked that she's a dead ringer for Martha (also played by Lynn), whom both men knew as youths.

Our first flashback takes place on the water as a trio of friends is out for a row in a boat. Young Horace and young Vic begin to tussle in the boat, sending their friend Martha flying into the water. Martha can't swim. Both boys attempt to rescue her, but Horace is the stronger swimmer and gets there first. (Young Horace is played by Bob Anderson, who also played young George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.)

Horace is something of an outcast. He lives with his mean mother, and can't even afford a nice suit of clothes to accept a dinner invitation at Martha's house (payback for his saving her life). Horace decides to skip town, but first stops by to apologize to Martha's mother. He breaks down in tears, and she invites him to live with them.

Horace grows up. Even though Martha and Vic were dating, she confesses that she is in love with Horace. Horace and Martha become engaged, and Horace uses the situation to get Martha's dad to pay for an education at Harvard. There, Horace meets a wealthy student, begins romancing the student's sister, and begins trying to impress their wealthy father; this results in a lucrative job for him on Wall Street.

Later, Horace seduces yet another woman, the mistress (Lucille Bremer) of Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet), another wealthy businessman, and uses his leverage to take over. There is yet more conniving and back-stabbing, and everything ends with a drunken Mansfield reproaching Horace at the party, as well as Horace trying to steal the pretty Mallory from his old pal Vic.

The plot is as complex as Citizen Kane, and Ulmer handles it, as usual, with astounding economy; you just can't believe that this much detail has been packed into so seemingly simple a movie. I think this is because Ulmer cares about plot less than he cares about other things, i.e. energy and emotions. His sets and compositions count for a great deal. The sets usually burst with some kind of subtle, visual intensity, either an ultra-modern décor or its exact opposite, as in the tattered restaurant where Horace encounters his drunken father (Raymond Burr). Ulmer also uses water to great effect.

Then there's the Horace character; many have pointed out that Horace is never very interested in women for reasons of love, only what they can do for him. He's often shown in passive situations with women. He's not a seducer for sexual reasons. He positions the women between himself and their fathers, or their sugar daddies. The young Horace even yells out, "I don't want to be a man! Never! I wish there weren't any men in the whole world!" Some have suggested that the character is gay, and that perhaps the character is merely channeling his sexual energy into something else.

It's not Citizen Kane, but Ruthless is something close to a masterpiece for Ulmer, mainly for how he was able to sneak so many themes and ideas and feelings into the complex plot, and present it so cleanly and powerfully. It's an example of this underground director at his finest. Olive Films released it on DVD and Blu-ray in 2013, which is the best way to see it, even though it's free to see in the public domain. The new releases contain no extras.

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