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Ruthless (1948)

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Ruthless (1948)

Postby moira finnie » July 25th, 2011, 3:16 pm

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An old friend of Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott), the financial magnate in Ruthless arrives at a gala party late, explaining that to his host that he took a mistaken route when looking for the house of his childhood companion. Miffed that his boyhood chum wasn't there from the beginning as the leonine capitalist announced that he was giving millions to charity, Vendig, played with studied ambiguity by Zachary Scott, asks, "Isn't taking the wrong road one of those mistakes that happens when you want it to, subconsciously?"

This question is examined in an oblique way in Ruthless (1948), avoiding the simplistic Freudian analysis so prevalent in American movies of the period, but nevertheless implying that the past has a way of intruding on the present even when we can't see it there. Exploring the nature of success, Ruthless, which is filled with flashbacks, some expressionistic touches, and a remarkably polished look to the film, can be seen as a critique of capitalism, class consciousness or as a character sketch of American types in the first half of the 20th century. The film gave director Edgar Ulmer a chance to make an A picture for Eagle Lion in the late '40s and to explore the duality in his characters while working with some first rate actors, including Zachary Scott, Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn (in a dual role, yet!), Lucille Bremer and Sydney Greenstreet.

The latter two actors are simply outstanding in his movie. The beautiful dancer, Lucille Bremer, in what may be her best dramatic part before she retired from films to marry later in 1948, shows flashes of youthful Bette Davis-like vulnerability and volatility. She is well matched by the much older Greenstreet, who gives a spectacular performance as Bremer's husband, a Southern utilities baron whose lust for his young wife (Bremer) proves to be his undoing. When these two actors are alone on screen, the complex electricity between the two of them is unexpected and startlingly human. They seem to relish each other's company in their scenes, with each of them enacting characters who go from a kind of erotic self-satisfaction to ruined grandeur as their characters' age over the course of the story.
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Lucille Bremer and Sydney Greenstreet as a compelling if strange married pair in Ruthless (1948).

Their games-playing and the private dialogue that seems to exist unspoken between people actually touches on something central in this movie, which demonstrates the ways that individuals play different roles in everyday life in so many ways that it finally becomes impossible to tell the authentic self from the mask a person dons to fulfill some goal. The performances all echo this, particularly that of Diana Lynn's innocent but knowing character of Martha Burnside, who senses the falseness of her fiance's emotions for her, but who plays along with the pretense of young love, hoping that her emotional ardor will compensate for his emptiness. As played by Zachary Scott, an actor whose surface glibness proved to be a blessing and a curse during his Hollywood career, the character of Vendig becomes more sympathetic as he grows more ruthless, since the actor is able to express his own puzzlement over his tangled emotions, which he keeps trying to unravel through outward actions that look like success, but hint at some deep-rooted unhappiness with himself.
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While Ruthless has often been compared to Citizen Kane in its detailed depiction of the rise and fall of an American businessman, the outlines of the story are similar to Welles' masterwork though they lack his visual and dramatic consistency, sureness and verve. Based on a novel by Dayton Stoddart and a screenplay Alvah Bessie, S.K. Lauren and Gordon Kahn, this movie could easily be interpreted as an anti-capitalist critique, but the beautiful cinematography by Bert Glennon, and the often subtle nuances of character make us sympathize with Zachary Scott's relentless drive to the top of the financial heap, even though he is revealed as a master manipulator of people and an unethical tycoon in business. While the film often threatens to become bogged down in the minutiae of financial details, it is the haunted quality hinted at in Scott's character that piques one's interest in the story.

After introducing the adult characters at the party, the film really begins with a long flashback to the story of Horace Woodruff Vendig (Robert J. Anderson as a youth, Zachary Scott as a man), a boy whose n'er do well father (Raymond Burr, effectively seedy in his one scene) neglects him and whose socially conscious mother (Joyce Arling) is physically and emotionally abusive toward the boy, until one night when he seeks the safety of the Burnsides, a well-to-do family whose kindness toward him has given him hope.

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A youthful Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott) discussing their engagement with Martha Burnside (Diana Lynn).

They take him in, allowing him to live in their carriage house and finish school until he is a young man. At that time, his childhood friend (Louis Hayward, looking wan) returns from college for a visit, calling on the girl he intends to marry, Martha Burnside, played by Diana Lynn. Wondering why Martha hasn't made her feelings clearer to him in her letters, Hayward asks his friend Horace to intercede with the girl. When he does, Martha confesses her love for Horace instead, an unexpected but felicitous event, which he readily accepts. Their subsequent engagement leads her generous father (Dennis Hoey, for once escaping from the "dumb cop" hell he had been confined to in the casting offices of Hollywood) to finance his education at Harvard. Even Hayward's character refuses to bear a grudge toward Horace.

Eventually, at Harvard and beyond, Horace's mastery of social poses, intelligence and business acumen gain him the admiration of a host of influential people, including the saucy yet patrician and avidly lustful Martha Vickers, who soon leads him astray--straight to a Wall Street career. Zachary Scott breaks off from Lynn's Martha Burnside character in a beautifully played scene in which Horace seems to be aware for the first time of his own dual nature. As the movie progresses, he leads others to their ruin, accumulating power and money himself. Finally, he invites his oldest friends (Louis Hayward, whose character is really too passive), who brings a young woman who looks remarkably like Martha Burnside, (also played by Diana Lynn, though this time she is more sure of herself as a person) enemies (Greenstreet and Bremer) and various business toadies to his Xanadu-like home where he announces that he is setting up a Peace Institute, endowing it with $25 million and sailing away on his yacht to parts unknown. The ending, which I won't spoil for you, is melodramatic, but apt.
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Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn (in a dual role), and Zachary Scott in Ruthless (1948).

Long unavailable on DVD and rarely broadcast, this film (which Dewey1960 showed at one of his recent events at the Roxie) is now streaming online at Netflix in a beautiful print and has recently been issued on DVD here. One other thing: unlike The Great Gatsby (1948) that we were discussing elsewhere on the boards recently, this film does an excellent job of recreating the hair and clothing of the '20s for both men and women. Zachary Scott and Louis Hayward, both in their '30s at the time of this production, do the best they can to convey teenage and early adulthood in their roles, but it does stretch credibility at times.
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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby JackFavell » July 25th, 2011, 3:51 pm

Looks good, Moira, thanks!

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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby ChiO » July 25th, 2011, 4:09 pm

Based on a novel by Dayton Stoddart and a screenplay Alvah Bessie, S.K. Lauren and Gordon Kahn, this movie could easily be interpreted as an anti-capitalist critique


RUTHLESS is a wonderful movie -- can't go wrong with Ulmer -- and one of Ulmer's personal favorites. In a 1970 interview with Bogdanovich, Ulmer gave full writing credit to Bessie, saying that Lauren and Kahn "were names that were made up." Maybe he meant that they were added but didn't contribute; they were screenwriters, and Kahn, too, was blacklisted. Of, course, it could be some faulty memory at play because in that same interview Ulmer blamed Joseph McCarthy for blacklisting Bessie; HUAC is the more likely cause given that Bessie was one of the Hollywood Ten.
Everyday people...that's what's wrong with the world. -- Morgan Morgan
I love movies. But don't get me wrong. I hate Hollywood. -- Orson Welles
Movies can only go forward in spite of the motion picture industry. -- Orson Welles

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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby moira finnie » July 25th, 2011, 4:20 pm

I am always leery of the plethora of names that appear attached to a movie--especially after reading Patrick McGilligan's Backstory series on screenwriters. I wasn't home when I wrote this, so I didn't have my copy of "Who the Devil Made It" to look up Mr. Ulmer's memories of the film. Thanks for adding that info to this thread, ChiO.

I really didn't think that the movie was very tough on capitalism, myself. But then, I wasn't sitting on HUAC in 1948. In an even-handed way, some of the business people in this story wore white hats (the generous people who helped Zachary Scott) and others in black hats got more comeuppance than they may have deserved (Sydney Greenstreet, who had my sympathy).
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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby Gary J. » July 25th, 2011, 5:19 pm

While Zachary Scott made quite a few interesting films in the 40's (especially at Warners) and I know many film buffs hold him in some sort of esteem, I have never been able to warm up to him. For me he projected a screen image like a dead fish - all limp and oily,,,,and quite smelly. But it's never stopped me from watching a film that he appears in. I can watch THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (44) at the drop of a hat but I'm not rushing to it because Scott is in it.
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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby Dewey1960 » July 26th, 2011, 9:04 am

Fantastic post, Moira, about a film long overdue for critical attention! For decades the only way to see this film was either on beat up 16mm prints or Vids / DVDs made from the beat up prints. Recently the UCLA Film Archives restored a gorgeous 35mm print (which we ran at the Roxie this past May) and it dazzled the packed house. Often cited as Ulmer's "Citizen Kane," RUTHLESS is one of those rare birds that now has a chance of escaping extinction! Ulmer's grandson, now living in San Francisco, attended the screening along with several other Ulmer family friends, and they were amazed (and gratified) by the audience reaction at the end of the film.
Last edited by Dewey1960 on August 25th, 2011, 12:08 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby moira finnie » July 26th, 2011, 11:35 am

I'm so glad that you had a chance to screen this film in the newly restored 35mm print, Elliot. (I think that may be the source of the beautiful print that Netflix is showing online). When they came to the screening, did Ulmer's descendants know how much this movie meant to him? I was reading some background on Ulmer recently and he described this movie with such passion, I believe that it was one of his few chances to work at such a high level of production--even though the director felt that his producer Arthur S. Lyons interfered somewhat, modifying the more anti-capitalism critiques in key scenes. If anyone is determined to see this movie, you can view it via youtube, though the print is poor, the film is still quite good:
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14sr38hkpSA[/youtube]

Gary, I know what you mean about being ambivalent about Zachary Scott, though I have begun to revise my opinion of him in the last year. I'd add The Unfaithful to The Mask of Dimitrios and The Southerner as well as this movie to a list of Scott performances worth seeing. I have yet to see The Young One (1960) directed by Luis Bunuel or the bizarre sight of Scott in a Jerry Lewis movie called It's Only Money (1962). (I would probably have to be paid or drunk to endure the latter).
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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby Gary J. » July 26th, 2011, 10:10 pm

Come on!!! Jerry gets chased by an electronic lawn mower in that one as he frantically flaps his arms and yells a lot into the camera.
What more could someone want in a Lewis film?

I never realized that was Scott playing the villain because......well, a remote controlled lawn mower was trying to cut Jerry down to size.

The movie is of interest to comedy buffs since Tashlin was behind the camera in this one. It's always interesting to watch those two work together as Tashlin struggles to rein in Lewis' excessive mugging while Lewis has to keeps reminding him who is boss.

Guess who usually wins?
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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby Dewey1960 » July 27th, 2011, 1:08 am

Hi Moira - Yes, Ulmer's grandson David (last name not Ulmer) told us that RUTHLESS was the hands down favorite Ulmer film amongst family and close friends with DETOUR running a close second. The woman accompanying David that night was a retired Hollywood script supervisor who'd been best friends with Edgar and Shirley Ulmer since the 40s! The friend's name escapes me at the moment, but this was the first time she'd seen RUTHLESS since it came out in 1948! David and other relatives make a point of attending as many retrospective screenings as they can; there's quite a bit of family pride there and it was nicely expressed. He was also proud to show us his wedding ring, which was once the wedding ring of Edgar and Shirley Ulmer!

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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby RedRiver » July 30th, 2011, 12:41 pm

Your comments really make me want to see this movie! I haven't seen much of Ulmer's work. (I'm not sure there IS much of it!) RUTHLESS sounds like a great next step.

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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby moira finnie » August 1st, 2011, 10:16 am

Hey, RedRiver, it's great to see you dropping by! Welcome to the playhouse!! I hope you will find Ruthless interesting. While his lasting reputation is based on his work as a director, I have always been interested in Ulmer's work as a production designer too, (which appears to have been a skill he used in every movie), though his work in the silent era was especially interesting, working with distinctive, visually brilliant directors such as F.W. Murnau in The Last Laugh (1924).

I'm not sure how others feel about him, but even though Edgar Ulmer's movies aren't without their limitations a few I'd recommend to anyone wanting to know more about him would be The Black Cat (1934), Detour (1945), The Strange Woman (1946) and the omnibus documentary about everyday life in Berlin, People on Sunday (1930), which he made with Billy Wilder (thanks for reminding me, JF!), Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, and Rochus Gliese.

Many people would probably add Strange Illusion (1945) a quirky psychological film based on Hamlet with Jimmy "Henry Aldrich" Lydon as the troubled youth, as one to see as well as Bluebeard ( I also like Carnegie Hall (1947), which features Marsha Hunt as a woman who has a lifelong love affair with the musical landmark in New York. This movie also features an incredible array of musical performers from Heifetz, to Lily Pons to Harry James. Though the entire movie does not appear to be on line right now, I've included a clip of Leopold Stokowski conducting Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony below. I came across a movie of Ulmer's made late in his career that is new to me, called The Amazing Transparent Man (1960), which starred B movie veterans Douglas Kennedy, Marguerite Chapman and Ivan Triesault. Maybe it's fun and interesting and others know more about it? Enjoy!

I've posted links to those films that are available for free on youtube below:

The Last Laugh (1924) - Ulmer as production designer
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpR2Nl9lWpU[/youtube]

People on Sunday (1930):
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zh60oF-XtM4[/youtube]

The Black Cat (1934):
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acH_ZIuJ-5I[/youtube]

Bluebeard (1944):
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4jZqGSLNAg[/youtube]

Detour (1945):
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=andNBU5btjQ[/youtube]

The Strange Woman (1945)
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVgwm2Sods8[/youtube]

Strange Illusion (1945)
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv-y53rOKbE[/youtube]

Carnegie Hall (1947):
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mohRnauSkdY[/youtube]

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO-fYCWctBA&feature=fvst[/youtube]
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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby JackFavell » August 1st, 2011, 10:28 am

Oh my gosh, thanks, Moira. I have only seen two of these movies, and I have been looking for People on Sunday for a long time, since I first read about it. Billy Wilder also worked on this film. Thanks thanks thanks!

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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby Rita Hayworth » August 1st, 2011, 10:33 am

moirafinnie wrote:I've included a clip of Leopold Stokowski conducting Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony below. I came across a movie of Ulmer's made late in his career that is new to me, called The Amazing Transparent Man (1960), which starred B movie veterans Douglas Kennedy, Marguerite Chapman and Ivan Triesault. Maybe it's fun and interesting and others know more about it? Enjoy!

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO-fYCWctBA&feature=fvst[/youtube]


Moira, I've seen The Amazing Transparent Man so many times from 1978 to 1981 during my College Years its laughable! Marguerite Chapman was brilliant in this movie ... and the performances of Douglas Kennedy and Ivan Triesault was good indeed! It's fun movie ... and I got a kick out of it every time I see it. It was very popular movie on campus; along with the Incredible Shrinking Man, The Man with X-Ray Eyes (Ray Millard), and others. We had B Movies showing every FRIDAY night from 6pm to Midnight and you can see many movies you want for one GEORGE WASHINGTON dollar. I had fun every FRIDAY night! I love B Movies ...

I seen this movie at least 20-30 times in my life.

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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby moira finnie » August 1st, 2011, 10:46 am

Thanks for reminding me of Billy Wilder's participation in People on Sunday, Wen! (I wouldn't want to get on the bad side of his sharp wit by neglecting to mention him.)

King, I think that your review of The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) makes it sound like a perfect summer movie! Thanks, I'll watch it before Labor Day now.
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Re: Ruthless (1948)

Postby kingrat » August 1st, 2011, 2:50 pm

The only Ulmer film I've seen is The Strange Woman, who looked badly in need of restoration. It's a variation of Leave Her to Heaven, based on a book by the same novelist, Ben Ames Williams. Not only do you get to see Hedy Lamarr, you get to see George Sanders playing a lumberjack. Yep, that's right, a lumberjack.


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