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.

House by the River

I know everyone won’t agree but I’ve always felt that film noir works well in a gothic setting, where the atmosphere is necessarily thick and crimes (particularly crimes of passion) are a basic ingredient. In addition, the social constraints that govern the characters’ lives and actions help to increase the feeling of pressure, while the ornately forbidding homes where many such stories are played out can be just as menacing in their own way as any rain-slicked urban sidewalk. I think the fact that noir isn’t a real genre is one of its great strengths; this lends it a flexibility allowing theme, mood and look to assume as much importance as time and place. Fritz Lang’s House by the River (1950), dripping in heavy gothic atmosphere, confined for the most part to the titular house, and exploiting the suffocating moral code of its period setting, is most definitely film noir. It’s an interesting and at times visually striking work, but not an entirely successful one. However, I’ll go into the reasons for that later.

Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) is a writer, but not an especially successful one. He is first seen seated outside his riverside home and working on a manuscript. When a neighbour comments on a foul animal carcass that the current has been carrying up and down the waterway for days, he remarks that it’s a similar story with his writing – his publisher keeps returning it. Despite the light tone of these comments, the river, and its tendency to return anything tossed into it, plays a significant (and even vaguely supernatural) part in the plot. While his professional shortcomings only serve to hint at a weakness in Stephen’s character, the sly, lustful glances he steals at his attractive housemaid make that flaw obvious. Taking advantage of his wife’s absence, he decides to try his hand at seducing the help. However, his inadequacies manifest themselves again and he botches the attempt. What’s worse is that in an effort to prevent the girl’s cries from alerting the neighbours to his philandering, he accidentally strangles her. These early scenes inside the opulent yet oppressive home, all carved furniture and flock wallpaper, are particularly well staged and shot; the extreme angles and the high contrast photography conveying a sense of claustrophobic menace and terror. Having his brother John (Lee Bowman) stumble on the killing might appear to be just one more calamity to befall this man. Nevertheless, it turns out to be something of a godsend. John, with his stiff leg and retiring manner, is the polar opposite of Stephen, a kind and considerate man whose sense of civic duty is only exceeded by his loyalty to his brother. So, when Stephen begs for his help in covering up what he claims was merely a tragic miscalculation, John agrees to bail him out. With the body of the unfortunate servant bundled into an old wood sack, the two brothers row out on the river at night and dump the evidence. But it’s from this point on that the story begins to twist and turn like the meandering river and continues to do so until the literal and metaphorical tide brings everything back home. As events unfold, the contrasting characters of the two brothers are thrown into sharp relief, John’s stoicism and honour growing as the crisis deepens while Stephen’s venal and deceitful nature gradually consumes him.

Fritz Lang’s films, by his own admission, all deal with human weakness and the criminal actions that follow. House by the River can be viewed as a meditation on moral weakness and its corrosive effects; murder, the destruction of family relationships, and the final descent into madness. The small central cast and Lang’s moody visuals ensure that the tension is never relaxed yet the film doesn’t quite satisfy. When this happens the finger of blame can often be pointed at the writing or direction. However, that’s not the case here; I can’t fault Lang’s work and the story is logical enough in context, although it has to be said the ending is both abrupt and a little too contrived for my liking. No, the problem as I see it is more of focus and characterization. It’s important for any film to have a lead who’s capable of stirring at least some sympathy or sense of identification with the audience. In House by the River the lead is Louis Hayward’s Stephen, and he is such a vile excuse for a man that it’s quite impossible to empathize in any way. In the comments on an earlier post I mentioned that Louis Hayward has never been a favourite of mine, but that’s not the issue. In all honesty, his playing of Stephen is a good piece of work – he really fleshes out the smarmy, snivelling aspect of the man. As I said, it’s a matter of focus; the story is seen primarily from Stephen’s perspective, and it’s more and more difficult as the film progresses to feel anything other than revulsion at the self-serving way he latches onto every opportunity to gain advantage at the expense of those around him. The only “hero” of the piece, although I’m not sure the word’s entirely appropriate, is Lee Bowman’s John. Even if there’s arguably too much of the martyr about him, he does present a human face, a kind of moral compass amid the depravity. However, John’s suffering at the hands of his brother is pushed for the most part to the background, and although we’re rooting for him it’s Stephen’s scheming that remains front and centre. I ought to mention Jane Wyatt’s role as Stephen’s wife as it’s the only other significant part. She does tap into a sort of soulful and vaguely bewildered vibe, but this is essentially a two-man show and she is mainly left to play the puzzled dupe before transforming into the typical damsel in distress.

Over the years I’ve bought House by the River three times on DVD before finding a copy that I consider acceptable. The US edition from Kino is a weak interlaced transfer while the French disc boasts a far stronger image but has forced subtitles that can’t be switched off easily. However, last year’s release by Sinister Films in Italy is an excellent alternative, looking as though it’s been taken from the same source as the French version. The film has been transferred progressively and the image is sharp and detailed with only very minor print damage. The Italian subtitles are optional and can be turned off via the setup menu. By way of extras, the disc also features a conversation between Lang and William Friedkin focusing on the director’s time in Germany and lasts around 45 minutes – a most welcome addition. There’s also an inlay card that folds out into a miniature reproduction of the original poster art. All in all, this is a movie that I’m quite fond of – I’ve highlighted the reasons why I don’t see it as one of Lang’s best efforts, but there’s still a lot to enjoy and admire. For those who don’t yet have the film, or others dissatisfied with the editions they already own, I recommend checking out the Italian disc.