Hedy Lamarr has never been accused of acting with too much depth.
Take her performance in The Strange Woman (1946), where she plays a desperately poor woman who desires to be rich.
Because the film is set in the 1820s, her character’s options for financial independence are limited, especially considering her father is a violent drunk. But, when her father unexpectedly dies, Opportunity presents itself.
That opportunity comes in the form of Gene Lockhart, a leading member of Society. Lockhart is an older, affluent entrepreneur who doesn’t do anything that doesn’t make him money.
Except when it comes to Lamarr. He’s in love with her, and when her father dies, he arranges a meeting with town leaders to determine where the newly-orphaned Lamarr should live. He finagles them into suggesting he marry her, then “reluctantly” agrees to the marriage – only because he’s a civic-minded person, after all.
As clever as he is, though, Lockhart is no match for Lamarr. Now that she’s acquired all this wealth, she ain’t parting with it. She begins to safeguard her new lifestyle by:
- Winning the sympathy and admiration of women in the community by being the first to pledge money for the construction of a new church.
- Cementing her place in Society by helping the poor.
- Seducing Louis Hayward, Lockhart’s son, because if Lockhart dies – heaven forbid! – she can’t have Hayward marrying Someone Else.
Lamarr’s character seems to have genuine pity for those less fortunate than herself, but she’s also quick to remind them of her many resources.
As for those whom Lamarr regards as Social Equals, they (and their men) are fair game for her ambitions.
Yet, her future depends on two things: (1) Lockhart’s untimely end; and (2) an attractive man who’s almost as smart and amoral as herself.
The Strange Woman is the study of a person twisted by greed. You’d expect such a role to involve nuance and subtlety, but we don’t see that in Lamarr’s performance.
Don’t get us wrong: Lamarr has enough haughtiness and ambition to go around, but we don’t get a sense of what she’s thinking. She’s pleased, she’s annoyed, she’s angry. There’s not a lot of in-between.
However, this makes her character an enigma, and that is compelling. Because you can’t read her, you never see what’s coming.
For example, Lamarr insinuates Hayward should kill his father. Hayward obeys, but is clumsy about it, and Lamarr sees her chance to grab her fortune without having to marry the oaf. She starts by publicly banning him from his own house. “You can’t come into this house, you wretched coward,” she sneers. “You killed your father.”
Whoa! We did not expect that.
When a revival comes to town, the preacher delivers a sermon that seems directed at Lamarr. “The lips of a strange woman [read: adulteress] drip honey,” he says and presents a list of unsavoury accusations. This upsets her, but we can’t tell if her remorse is heartfelt.
Lamarr ensures we’re continually blindsided. Like the men in her life, she keeps us guessing.
The Strange Woman is based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams; Lamarr bought the film rights to the story after her contract with MGM ended in 1945.
According to World Cinema Paradise, Lamarr was dissatisfied with her time at MGM, “where she was wasted in glamorous but unsubstantial roles. [MGM also] refused to loan Lamarr to Warner Bros. when she was the first choice for…Ilsa Lund in Casablanca.”¹
Lamarr hired Edgar G. Ulmer to direct The Strange Woman. Ulmer worked for the least glamorous studio in Hollywood, Producers Releasing Corporation, so he was used to working with, er, limited resources.
The Strange Woman doesn’t look like a small-budget film, with its luscious costumes and impressive cast. Moreover, it stars a woman who had box office clout; TCM says this film earned approx. $2.8M US² (about $36M US today).
If you haven’t seen a Hedy Lamarr film, we suggest The Strange Woman. You can see it on The Film Detective as part of NoirNovember.
Disclosure: The Film Detective gave us access to stream this film in exchange for an unbiased review.
The Strange Woman: starring Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Written by Herb Meadow. Paramount Publix Corporation, 1946, B&W, 100 mins.