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With: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Gene Lockhart, Hillary Brooke, Rhys Williams, June Storey, Moroni Olsen, Olive Blakeney, Kathleen Lockhart, Alan Napier, Dennis Hoey
Written by: Herb Meadow, based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 100
Date: 10/25/1946

The Strange Woman (1946)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Strange' Love

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Edgar G. Ulmer's The Strange Woman (1946) is one of his few larger-budgeted pictures, and, conversely, one of his least personal. Ulmer was offered the job by producer and star Hedy Lamarr, his childhood friend, and since his regular employer PRC Studio, had recently shut its doors, he had no reason not to take it.

Based on a popular novel by Ben Ames Williams (who also wrote Leave Her to Heaven), The Strange Woman is a costume drama, and a downbeat thing, told in a fairly straightforward style. It's similar to Rossellini's Europa 51 in many ways, but whereas Rossellini seemed to have some specific underlying themes in mind, Ulmer doesn't. Usually this approach worked well in Ulmer's low-budget films, but The Strange Woman appears to have needed something a bit more -- or less.

Yet it's still a very interesting movie, thanks to a few brief Ulmer flourishes, but thanks mostly to Lamarr's astounding screen presence; many considered her the most beautiful woman ever to appear in movies. Watching her here, it's hard to think of anyone else who might deserve that title.

She plays Jenny Hager, a self-serving girl whose father is a helpless drunk. In the early 1800s in Bangor, Maine, she grows to womanhood knowing how to use her majestic beauty to influence men and get the things she wants and needs. First off, she marries a wealthy, and much older merchant, Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart). She seals the deal by showing him her bare shoulder, marked up by her father's supposed abuse. She uses this time, and his money, to become a benefactor to the town, helping others in need and bolstering her own reputation and standing.

Isaiah happens to be the father of a boy that Jenny grew up with; she bullied him, but also wants him, and he is helplessly under her power. She writes teasing letters to him as his "mother," threatening not to kiss him goodnight if he's bad. The son, Ephraim (Louis Hayward), comes home, even though he could have traveled the world. The sexual tension between Ephraim and Jenny grows until an "accident" occurs.

Unfortunately for Ephraim, Jenny's attention has already wandered elsewhere, to the strapping head of her father's lumber business, John Evered (George Sanders). Jenny arranges another accident (she causes the horses to run away), wherein she and John are stranded alone in a thunderstorm. In Ulmer's best moment, when a lightning bolt sets a tree afire, it causes their passion to likewise enflame, and they kiss.

But of course, things go badly for Jenny and John, when it turns out that Jenny can't have kids; this is extremely important to John and his family, as we hear in several lines of dialogue. Things climax when Jenny goes to church and a traveling orator wearing Davy Crockett clothes gives a speech about "The Strange Woman," a purely evil woman, and seems to be directing it at Jenny.

One of Ulmer's recurring themes, according to Michael Grost's excellent long article on Ulmer, is that characters do not often get to spend time in their own homes. This happens once, when John and Jenny spend the night in the thunderstorm, and again, later when John comments that Jenny's inherited house does not feel like "home" to him, but these seem like small moments in the larger picture.

It's hard to like this movie much, mainly since it's such an unrelenting downer about such a horrible character, but it's also hard to hate it because of Ulmer's undaunted talent, and because of Lamarr's pure, intoxicating power. In the end, I found myself more eager to press onward than I was to give up.

Even though The Strange Woman is in the public domain and can be streamed for free from just about anywhere (or purchased on cheap DVDs), Film Chest Media Group has released a new restored high-def DVD edition for 2014. The picture quality is much sharper and clearer than you might expect, although film scratches and other drops are still evident. There are no extras, other than chapter selections.

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