Movie review – The Strange Woman (1946)

What did you watch: period piece drama that was billed as a noir, The Strange Woman, starring Hedy Lamarr

Ooh, does the movie explain where that Blazing Saddles joke comes from? No, but Mel Brooks does. Maybe it was funny back then? I personally thought there was some long running in-joke Hollywood types had over her name, or something that gossip magazines were focusing on at the time. Nope, Mel Brooks just thought it was funny to do a riff on her name, and even happier to do an out of court settlement.

Is it noir? Usually we wait until the end of the review, but you brought it up: no? It was based on a 1941 book that must have been much more scandalous in those days. So, strap in:

Hedy is a little miscreant in a logging town in the early 1800’s America who actually attempts to drown a fellow child before claiming to have rescued him. She vows to marry rich instead of enrolling in schoo,l and then the movie jumps to a little more grown Hedy who carouses in bars with sailors & lumberjacks, and then she comes home to an abusive father. That’s her day, I guess. She’s flirted with the wealthy owner of local industries, so when her father dies after attacking her, it only makes sense to the townsfolk that she be taken in by wealthy owner guy, and marry him. Um, okay. It’s like 1800-something but even then I want to send Gloria Steinam back in time to teach everyone a lesson.

She marries the old guy and then his son, Hedy’s age, comes home from college. Spectacles & monocles start to steam at the tension between these two, if only someone would develop electricity back then, amiright? It also happens that the son is the same kid that Hedy tried to drown way back when, and also believes that Hedy rescued him. Old guy is wary of Hedy because she committed to spending his money on the church (the preacher of which berates the rich people for NOT giving him money) and other things, and he’s old, so things look good for Hedy when he gets sick. Like, it’s a matter of time before she and his son can inherit his wealth, but then the old guy improves & it looks like it’s going to be okay.

There’s some kind of issue at one of old guy’s mills that requires him to take a canoe, which I guess was flying coach back then. Hedy demands that the son accompany him, and that the old guy doesn’t come back, wink wink. OKAY, so, we’re getting close to noir, right? He kills his dad, he comes back, feels guilt… well, that’s not what happens. See, the son’s kind of a soft college boy in a world of many violent loggers. He is also still traumatized by nearly drowning at the feet of Hedy back in the day. But there’s nothing he won’t do for Hedy, except maybe this – the first bump in the road, or rather 1 foot waterfall (?) in the river, and he panics. The canoe capsizes as a result, & he’s unable to rescue his father and almost dies himself because he can’t swim. So the movie cops out – his dad dies because of his own inability and not because he intended it to happen.

The son comes back and Hedy gives him the cold shoulder for not being man enough to save his father (or I guess not being man enough to purposely kill his father?) and the son retreats into an alcoholic stupor. Hedy has moved on because she’s got her sights on another man, a foreman who can help her run things, and steals him away from one of her high-society friends. She & the foreman get hitched, and the rich guy’s son is overwhelmed by guilt for both falling for her and for being so ineffectual to either kill or save his father that he kills himself.

Hedy & her new hubby do fun couples things but she discovers she can’t get pregnant. Other things happen, but I think there’s some salacious town gossip that might’ve had more weight in the book as this movie probably had review board standards so I’ll jump to: the foreman kinda starts hanging around with his ex-girlfriend, Hedy catches wind, and she assumes the worst. The movie takes another twist, in that it’s another copout: the foreman & the ex sneak away, only to talk about how much in love he is with Hedy and, the ex agreeing, he and Hedy should be together 4evah.

This movie is not satisfied because it gives us the denouement of Hedy storming after them in a carriage she is driving, the carriage hits a rock, she falls out and takes a lethal tumble. The foreman tells her that it was she he loves, and she’s like “okay” and then dies. And that’s it.

So, noir? I just…huh. Nothing devious was followed through unless she THOUGHT the son killed his dad, and it was all part of her plan. The drama there would be him proving it to her that he wasn’t a murderer, or that she was undone herself by her intentions if they would be found out by anyone else, in a just desserts way. She’s not left out in the cold or treated coldly by her 2nd husband and his ex, they were all “isn’t Hedy great?” at the end. So, maybe she has a full circle dessert? Is it the guilt she feels for the son killing himself, or is the screenwriter saying “I’m God and I’ve created this character and I’m dishing out this punishment without any direct reference or related comeuppance”?

That’s kind of the trouble with period pieces, and looking at them made in another period. She’s a woman who wants to be her own woman and her own person in a time when that’s not entirely possible, and behind the scenes this movie was produced by a woman at a time when the studio machine looked down on such a thing. “Here she is, planning independence and wanting love, and she can’t have both!” says the movie that honestly missed out on bigger payouts if it went the true noir path.

It’s watchable and looks pretty good. It was directed by Edward G. Ulmer whom I discussed in Detour having made some starkly wild and memorable crime films often (supposedly) in record amount of time, which have been dusted off, studied, and championed as brilliant works of cinema decades after being nearly forgotten.

What about the cast? I’ll let you look up Hedy Lamarr and be wowed about someone who was a European star but snuck out from an awful relationship with a fascist to escape to America, promote the Allied war effort, be a stunning leading lady, and also develop wi-fi (seriously) in an effort to keep American torpedos from being jammed by enemies. She was married six times (“you keep getting married”) and had mostly downs instead of ups later in life. It seemed like she had a lot of issues that she was never able to get over or make peace with, but it’s a drop in a bucket compared to her fascinating career & legacy.

We’ll follow up with Louis Hayward, the cowardly son, who plays a British agent in Walk A Crooked Mile. I guess it’d be a Kilometre.

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