Ruthless


Shakespeare expressed reservations about the worth of comparisons, of course he was talking of summer days while I’m thinking of movies here. Relying on comparisons to provide a taster or sampler for those unfamiliar with a movie is often a tempting expedient. However, I’m not sure it’s a fair approach, frequently doing injustices to filmmakers and perhaps misleading audiences too. Ruthless (1948) is a title which I have heard a few commentators liken to Citizen Kane. Welles’ most talked about work is accompanied by a weighty reputation, one which some viewers reckon it struggles to live up to itself, so it feels especially unjust to thrust Edgar G Ulmer’s movie into its shadow. Aside from the matter of reputations, which ebb and flow anyway, such comparisons have the effect of distracting one from the themes to be found within each discrete work. For me, Ruthless is at heart a story of loss, which need not necessarily be as pessimistic as it sounds.

The opening features one of those glorious matte shots, the type that so often grace classic movies and immediately envelop us in the cinematic miasma of imagination and fantasy. A car is toiling up a winding grade, up from the dim depths of the valley below towards the glittering sprawl of the house perched high on the hill. And on that journey up to the light are two passengers: Mallory (Diana Lynn) is pert, bold and more than a little curious about the man she will soon encounter while Vic (Louis Hayward), who is well aware of what awaits, is in a different mood, not quite cynical but somehow haunted and weary. The story that unfolds is one where the characters confront their shared past, looking at it with a clear eye to see exactly how they all arrived at the place where they currently find themselves and, with luck, discovering a way to move on. That Vic is dogged by what went before is indicated by his choice of companion, a woman who is a literal doppelganger of a long lost love. So much of his life has been shaped by his association with Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott) that it is almost as though he is trapped in some fatalistic orbit, drawn by his gravitational pull. The evening that lies ahead will involve a series of sorties and excursions into the past, virtual pit stops for the memory related via flashback and adding up to a tale of loss told in three acts.

There are a number of early shots which have the audience looking up, which is understandable enough given the elevated social and economic levels of the characters but it is suggestive of people somehow apart from the viewer in other ways too. Vendig is seen right from the off as a chilly, remote figure, even as he hands out wealth and plays the philanthropist. Then when he is is introduced in more intimate surroundings, face to face with Vic and Mallory, there is an almost zombie-like demeanor about the man, as though he had already been emptied of everything vital. It is like watching a man devoid of the naturally arising emotions and desires, although a glimmer of humanity does shine through the polish and cool as he is struck by Mallory’s similarity to a woman now relegated to his fading memory. So we segue into that past and the first flashback, drifting back to the world of a child, to a time when Vendig was about to take his first steps on the road to what he supposed was betterment. This section deals with what I’d term the loss of Martha. Martha was Vendig’s first conquest (played as a child by Ann Carter and then later, as part of her dual role, by Diana Lynn) and we get to observe the first stirrings of that titular ruthlessness. The young Vendig learns how he can use people, or rather how he can use the hold over them he seems naturally able to acquire. It is here in his youth that he begins his apprenticeship in the ugly art of manipulation.

When I spoke of the loss of Martha I was not implying that Vendig lost her; the fact is he discarded her in his clinical and calculating fashion as her purpose had been served and the next rung of the social ladder had presented itself to him. The loss is felt more by Vic, the man who loved her first and loved her truly. His obvious effort to revive that love or make peace with it by forming a relationship with her double bears testament to the depth of his feelings. Vendig, on the other hand, has displayed that characteristic which can be said to rule him – both the character and the viewer come to realize that the things Vendig wants are chiefly desirable to him not only on account of their existing just beyond his reach but, crucially,  due to the fact that they are possessed by others.

If the events of those early years caused some reservations to spike in the mind of Vic, then what followed cemented them and drove a firm wedge between the two former friends. As such, I figure the second act is best summed as the loss of Vic. This section focuses on the affairs of two men, the first being McDonald (Charles Evans), a financier who gambles on the rising Vendig and backs him to the hilt only to see himself abandoned and doomed when he is no longer of use. Then there is Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet), the rival tycoon with both  a business empire and a ripe young wife to capture the attention of of the insatiable Vendig. What we witness is the death of McDonald and the robbery and ruin of Mansfield, Vic witnesses it too and is sickened. Vendig’s covetousness is consuming him, driving and motivating him to reach ever further, but even his wanting lacks soul. The most appalling part of the man’s character is in fact the absence of character, his essential unawareness of true value. The truth is that whenever he attains that for which he has been grasping and scheming he no longer desires or values it. This is the case with people, financial assets and material possessions alike. Vendig’s wanting is simply an illusion in that it only exists as a result of what others have. His is ambition, lust and craving without a basis, the hollow yearning of a man who exists merely as a shell. Could such a bleak vision of the human soul not be said to represent the very essence of film noir?

On to the last act then, wherein we can observe the loss of illusion, and the liberation which flows from it. This is where everyone gets to see themselves and those around them as they really are, the point at which the gloves are torn off decisively. And it is the point where the sense of loss that I feel pervades the entire movie shows itself as potentially positive. From the earliest moments we’ve been guided along by Vic and have seen him as a man who needs to shake off the all the disappointment of a past overshadowed by his connections to Vendig. Here he achieves the release he so badly needs, partly pushed along by fate, partly as a result of his own determination to see matters through to the bitter end, and partly via the steadfastness and quiet self-confidence of Mallory. In the end he loses that aura of distaste and disgust which has pursued him and threatened to infect him with misplaced guilt.

The movie gave the main cast an opportunity to play to their individual strengths. Zachary Scott frequently excelled in roles requiring emotional detachment and self-obsession so he convinces as Vendig. Louis Hayward (who made a handful of movies with Edgar G Ulmer, including the stylish The Strange Woman)  is all chilly dignity, with just the necessary hint of insecurity nicely conveyed in the climactic scene on the pier, masked by a superficial cheeriness. Sydney Greenstreet starts out bluff, gruff and domineering and then flips it all rather effectively in the moment when he fully comprehends his rejection by the woman he loves. As he looks at his reflection in the mirror and sees himself as she truly perceives him, he practically withers and deflates before our eyes. Diana Lynn deals with the dual role just fine, especially so as the assured Mallory. In support Martha Vickers and Lucille Bremer do well as women used and then cast off by Vendig. In addition, there are small yet entertaining turns by Raymond Burr and Dennis Hoey.

Edgar G Ulmer is justly praised for the visually arresting, thematically depraved and wholly unforgettable masterpiece of 1930s creepiness The Black Cat with Karloff and Lugosi. He is also lauded for Detour, arguably the most highly regarded B grade film noir. I have to confess, however, that it is a movie I’ve never warmed to, possibly due to my antipathy towards Tom Neal. If that means I have to forfeit my noir club membership, then so be it. I can only say I much prefer the broader and more ambitious canvas he tackles here in Ruthless.

The film has been released in the US by Olive and it’s a fine looking transfer. It features an attractive and well chosen cast who all produced very creditable performances.  The grim tale of the rise and fall of a heartless individual is a compelling watch, and the way it ends by extending the possibility of spiritual salvation to one of its characters makes it rewarding too.

36 thoughts on “Ruthless

  1. I just watched the documentary on Ulmer on the Criterion edition of DETOUR, a film that gobsmacked me in my teens and to which I remain devoted (not much of a Neal fan either, though he is perfect here. But it’s Ann Savage I really love it for). I remember liking this, one of his last of the great run he had at PRC, not least for its not so subtle but still surprising critique of big business (there is a rich strain of anti-Capitalist politics in Noir adjacent movies of the time of course) and a terrific cast. I think I only have an off-air of this, forgot about the Olive. Must remedy that. Great post Colin, thanks.

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    • I’ll likely give Detour another go somewhere down the line, but it’s never gelled with me.
      That anitestablishmebt undercurrent in noir isn’t really surprising is it? Its roots stretch back to the Depression era disillusionment and then was compounded by the postwar malaise.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh My Gosh!……….
    Colin forfeit his Noir Club Membership…………NEVER!!
    It’s rather like saying Hitchcock should be considered a B List Director even more reinforced by this latest epic McGuigan essay. Actually Ken Russell considered Hitchcock “Naff” and Andre De Toth stated that The Master’s films “Move Like Snails”
    I only included the following quotes to invite discussion, I might add. Colin is certainly not the only person to consider DETOUR over praised but as a piece of no budget pulp poetry it’s hard to beat. Sure, Neal is not the most appealing of actors but as stated previously, he’s perfect in the film and Savage even better. Companies like PRC and Monogram could not afford A List stars so in many of these little epics we are stuck with what we get although another Colin no no Lawrence Tierney is fine by me in what little I have seen of his shoestring flicks. Films like DETOUR and indeed other PRC and Monogram Pictures convey perfectly a time and place and mood with the most modest of resources a lack of which they work to their advantage.

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    • I knew I’d be rowing against the tide in mentioning my ambivalence towards Detour, which is understandable as we all have a point or points where we will stray from critical orthodoxy. On a purely technical level, with the incredibly sparse resources at his disposal for the production, there is no doubt Ulmer worked wonders under the circumstances.

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    • and Andre De Toth stated that The Master’s films “Move Like Snails”

      As a Hitchcock fan I hate to say this but de Toth was right. Most of Hitchcock’s movies are half an hour too long (Topaz is 143 minutes too long). That’s why I prefer Hitchcock’s early British movies. I suspect that his British producers insisted that he keep those movies down to a reasonable length.

      And Hitchcock made some real clunkers. I don’t think any truly great director made more bad films than Hitchcock.

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      • Now there’s a bold statement! Personally, I don’t feel Hitchcock made a really poor film from the original The Man Who Knew Too Much through to Marnie, sure some were weaker than others but but I still wouldn’t write off any of them. Even after that, Topaz aside, there were still passages and points of interest in the remaining films.

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  3. It’s an Edgar G. Ulmer movie that I haven’t seen so I will of course have to buy it. Even if the Blu-Ray is outrageously overpriced.

    The Strange Woman is one of my favourite 1940s movies. And IMHO Hedy Lamarr’s best performance. Why hasn’t someone released The Strange Woman on Blu-Ray?

    But then I adore Detour.

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      • I’m a total physical media guy. I can’t watch streamed movies. Do you know anything about the “Film Chest Restored Version” DVD – is it actually restored?

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          • OK, thanks for that, he’s sold me on this disc. I’m going to be forced to buy it. It’s another purchase I can’t afford but that’s never stopped me before.

            I just checked and it’s sixteen years since I watched this movie. That makes me think I’m justified in rewatching it which means I’m justified in buying it. I can always rationalise my overspending when it comes to movies. And I am very much a Hedy Lamarr fan.

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              • I’ve sent off my order for The Strange Woman. I’m really looking forward to seeing it again. I haven’t ordered Ruthless yet. I’m still living in hope of getting it for a reasonable price. But it’s a fair bet I will buy it. I’m pretty much an Edgar G. Ulmer completist. I love his later movies as well – they’re a strange bunch but they’re exceptionally interesting.

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  4. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this, but I really liked this movie. Considering it was made by Poverty Row-adjacent studio Eagle Lion, this movie had a decent budget and it shows. It looks fantastic and the cast is great.

    Zachary Scott must be one of the most underrated actors ever. Of course he excelled more than anything in his patented slithering snake-in-the-grass roles, but he was extremely effective playing against type in The Southerner and Shadow on the Wall. In Ruthless he’s simply in top form.

    Colin, I’m with you concerning Detour. I think it’s a good movie, especially considering the buck fifty budget it had, but I can’t love it, like I love other B Noirs. Neither Tom Neal nor Ann Savage are favorites.

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    • Thank you, Margot. I was beginning to fear I might be the lone voice in the noir wilderness with regard to Detour!

      Even though he could carry off more sympathetic roles, Scott had that kind of face that was perfect for venomous and villainous parts. Incidentally, I forgot about Shadow on the Wall till you reminded me of it here – it’s a pretty enjoyable little picture.

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  5. Actually, I have yet to think of a poor Eagle Lion film from the limited time they were around (someone will SURELY find one that proves me wrong!!). “RUTHLESS” leaves an unwarranted hole in my Noir collection (like dfordoom, I must have the physical disc). It is a good film and I ought to have it. Zachary Scott could over-act on occasion but he is never boring and I like him.
    Responding to John K’s earlier quotes (Hi John, good to hear from you as always), given the choice between a Hitch or a Ken Russell film there would be no contest for me. I agree more with Colin’s point of view that Hitch mostly made good entertainments and many were ‘classics’. Even things like “Under Capricorn” is not a bad film; I just don’t care for it.
    An early Hitchcock favourite of mine is “YOUNG AND INNOCENT” loosely based on Josephine Tey’s hit novel “A Shilling For Candles”. Less well-known (no big stars) but thoroughly fun.
    Incidentally has anyone else discovered the novels of Nicola Upson where she writes fictional thrillers featuring the writer Josephine Tey as her heroine? There is a lot of fact mixed in with the fiction and they are a very enjoyable read. She has written 10 Tey novels now, the 4th being particularly interesting as its backdrop is a gathering of Tey and the Hitchcocks to discuss the details of his adaptation of her hit novel mentioned above. A murder occurs etc but the whole thing is great fun.

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  6. Nice write up as always. I really need to see this one as I have only seen the first bit on a beat -up vhs. I’ll take a look and see if You-Tube has a decent print up.

    Gord

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  7. Colin, Jerry
    I finally took in Preminger’s IN HARMS WAY on the weekend. A much better film than I had been expecting. A bit jumbled in spots, but still very entertaining taken as a whole. Great cast as well!

    Gordon

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  8. Caught Louis Hayward in THE SAINT’S GIRL FRIDAY (aka The Saint Returns) Hammer Films attempt to revive the character.
    Talking Pictures TV are currently showing this film and the print while far from perfect is watchable. Hayward was fine in the title role either smoothing with babes like a very young Diana Dors or dealing with assorted villains.
    The film was fast moving,had a fine supporting cast and a twist, I for one never saw coming.
    Another Hayward oddity THE LADY IN THE IRON MASK. I saw clips of on a Cinecolor featurette on another disc. Interesting cast and a formidable crew of schlockmeisters involved in the films production. For starters there’s Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen (CAPTIVE WOMEN,MAN FROM PLANET X,PROBLEM GIRLS) Sam Zimbalist (ROBOT MONSTER,CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON). Overall producer was Walter Wanger on his upper’s. The film looks like fun with a most interesting cast. I wish someone would restore these old Cinecolor rarities. I too am a physical media guy and refuse to stream or watch online. Eagle Lion’s Noirs like T MEN or RAW DEAL had the advantage over PRC and Monogram in that they had higher budgets ($450,000) and could afford a better class of leading man;Dennis O Keefe for example. At any rate most of those most involved with the company went onto far more lucrative pastures: Anthony Mann,Howard W Koch,Aubrey Shenck, Arnold Laven,Crane Wilbur,Bryan Foy among others.

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      • Yes,Studio Canal seem to have rights to virtually every Hammer Film and TPTV also showed THE STEEL BAYONET which we have discussed before. TPTV did show it in widescreen and I enjoyed the film as it veered away from the “Stiff Upper Lip” type of 50’s Brit War Movie to something more objective-Michael Medwin’s upper class officer almost seemed like an anachronism in this movie. A set of these Hammer rarities (like BREAK IN THE CIRCLE)
        would be most welcome.

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    • Yes, it’s great to see so many hard to find movies getting decent releases at long last. I also reckon a fair few may appear via Indicator at some stage so that makes the announcement even more welcome.

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  9. Hello Colin,
    Just seen your Facebook comments regarding Kino Lorber’s
    forthcoming Noir 3 film volumes-4 sets 12 movies.
    There are many titles here we have both mentioned before
    and hopefully most,if not all will appear on Indicator’s forthcoming
    Universal Noir series.
    I’m very tempted by OUTSIDE THE WALL,UNDERTOW and
    HOLD BACK TOMORROW.
    The first two titles from Crane Wilbur and William Castle
    are excellent an it will be wonderful to finally have in high def,
    especially the Wilbur title.
    I’ve never seen any of these independently produced Hugo Haas
    films and HOLD BACK TOMORROW sounds like one of the most
    interesting ones.
    Pevney’s UNDERCOVER GIRL is also very good I’ve always longed
    for a high def version of this film.
    It surely can only be a very short while before STORY OF MOLLY X
    and UNDER THE GUN appear.
    At least Indicator eventually release stand alone versions of their
    box set titles.
    There must be a huge market for Noir with Kino releasing such a huge
    amount of titles.

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  10. I had never seen either “THE STEEL BAYONET” or “THE SAINT’S RETURN” so I very much they have been shown here on TV before. TPTV are putting on some quite rarely seen films, to their credit. I have never yet seen “COUNT THREE AND PRAY” but they have it next week. I know it is now on BluRay but it is a film I want to see but not necessarily own.
    They have just shown “THE LEGEND OF TOM DOOLEY” (1959) which I saw at the cinema on release in that year but never since – until now!

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  11. Angie Dickinson turned 90 this weekend! One of her early leading roles was in Andrew V. McLaglen’s underrated “GUN THE MAN DOWN” (1956) but she rose quite fast, especially following her charming performance opposite Duke Wayne in “RIO BRAVO” (1959).
    Happy Birthday Angie!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jerry
    The other night I watched an episode of MEET McGRAW starring Frank Lovejoy as P.I. McGraw.. The episode was from 1957 and called, “Tycoon”. The guest star is Miss Angie Dickinson.
    The episode was quite entertaining. The episode was written by actor, writer, producer and director, Blake Edwards. Edwards would hit it big with the PETER GUNN television series and the PINK PANTHER film series. Interesting to see Dickinson before she went blonde, the dark hair suits her very well.

    Gordon

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    • Angie Dickinson has appeared in so many movies and TV shows over the years it can be hard to keep track of them. She built up plenty of experience before landing bigger, showier roles. Even when her parts were small supporting efforts early in her career you had the sense that she had something about her.

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