Ruthless (1948) 1:44
dir. by Edgar G. Ulmer
starring Zachary Scott, Sidney Greenstreet, Diana Lynn, Louis Hayward, Martha Vickers, Lucille Bremer, Edith Barrett, Raymond Burr
Hmmm...surprising. A bigger production than I expected, particularly from Edgar Ulmer. It didn't look like there was a huge budget, but it didn't look poverty-row either. Nice sets. I'm sure they were leftovers from some big-studio production.
So what have we got here? A Citizen Kane-ish story about a securities tycoon, how he stomped his way to the top, crushing the hearts of some perfectly nice people, and his ultimate downfall (albeit a less satisfying one than Kane's).
It's told in a series of lengthy flashbacks during a party thrown by Mr. Heartless Tycoon (Zachary Scott). It's got some good moments, enough for an entertaining movie. Unfortunately, its obvious similarities to Citizen Kanemake certain things, like the transition from present into flashback, seem clumsier than they really are. The transitions aren't bad exactly, they're the kind that most Hollywood flashbacks begin with: someone says 'Oh, doesn't she look like ________?' and the response, dreamily, 'Yes...she does...', and the image ripples and wavers and presto we're in the past. No fuss no muss. Nothing disrespectful about that. Except...you're expecting the flair and finesse of Welles' transitions a little bit, and there isn't any. Oh well.
The child actors, in the very beginning, the first flashback, are pretty hard to watch (but then, what child actor isn't?) and I was pretty glad when the characters finally grew up so they had to be played by other actors. Raymond Burr's got a small part as the Young Tycoon's gambling greaseball father who's perennially attracted to shrewish dominating psychos (i.e. the H.T.'s loony mom and Burr's heartless girlfriend) and, all his dopey faults notwithstanding, Burr's got a big heart and he gives half of his gambling winnings one night to his son. Burr's girlfriend immediately vetoes this generosity by taking the money right back. So I suppose it is she who shapes the Heartless Tycoon's later life of unmitigated avarice because he is thereafter raised by the exceedingly kind and generous family of a young girl he had earlier saved from drowning (also after the abrupt, vague and a bit perplexing abdication of his Mother from her motherly duties: she appears to be planning to run away and marry some guy who doesn't want the kid around) apparently does less than nothing to instill a shred of kindness or decency in him.
Edgar Ulmer does a good job with the actors generally although Sidney Greenstreet, while certainly physically imposing and physically repulsive enough, seems drugged. I guess he's supposed to be an investor who's life Mr. Heartless Tycoon has ruined, and whose wife Mr. Tycoon had once stolen, but still it doesn't seem he's acting so much as it seems he's actually drunker than John Wayne on St. Patrick's day and totally high off his ass on Special K. It's a pretty far cry from his Maltese Falcon performance. Here he seems like a mentally addled homeless person brought off the street and forced to perform in this movie.
Diana Lynn, who's a hot tomato indeed, playing a dual role as the former sweetheart of Hayward's that Mr. Tycoon steals, uses, and dumps her for some old-money broad with a connected papa. Lynn also plays, in the present, at the party, Hayward's new girlfriend, whom Mr. Heartless Tycoon is also on the make for. Confusingly, in this second role, it's unclear whether she's been overcome by Mr. Heartless Tycoon's (Zachary Scott as Paul Vendig, in case I forget) imperialistic sort of anti-charm charm, or if she really is committed to Hayward. I still don't know. The question of why Hayward creepily seems to date women who are virtually identical twins of one another (shades of Vertigo) is never addressed. Nor is the question of why Hayward continues to hang out with this rich playboy jerkoff when he treats him like shit and keeps stealing his girlfriends. Maybe he's just sick. I love old movies.
In the end, Diana Lynn, as the new girlfriend, says to Hayward that Mr. Tycoon holds no sway over her, but she certainly seems like there is sway involved, as she is secretly planning to go away with Mr. Heartless Tycoon on his yacht. Before the question of her fidelity can be definitively answered, before they get to the end of the pier together, Sidney Greenstreet appears and begins to throttle Mr. Heartless Tycoon. Hayward, conveniently, gets knocked out somehow, and Diana Lynn goes to see if he's all right (so I suppose we ultimately do know where her loyalties lie--but if so, what was she even doing on the pier? Slut.) and Greenstreet and Mr. Tycoon plunge into the water where, presumably, both drown. Like a Friday the 13th movie, we never see the bodies. The two guys just fall in the water and totally disappear.
That's why it's sort of unsatisfying. At the end of Kane, or the beginning rather, Welles is dying and he just feels empty inside, there's nothing there and he knows it. Mr. Tycoon never has that kind of self-awareness or, if he does, he just doesn't care. Some evil deed from his past (Greenstreet) just sort of appears and ends his life. Ehhh...big frigging deal? Guy with an upbringing equal parts crappy and loving turns into an asshole, and then gets offed because he's an asshole? So what? I think it's a bad ending.
And another thing: What the hell was Sidney Greenstreet even doing at Mr. Heartless Tycoon's dinner party? Earlier we see that both he and his ex-wife who, by then, is also the ex-wife of Mr. Heartless Tycoon as well, are at the party although there is no explanation as to why he would be there--and he was definitely invited, he's not a party-crasher. It seems he's only there to end the movie. Maybe he is.
Is he there for Mr. Heartless Tycoon to gloat over? He doesn't gloat though, when they talk, he treats him humanely and charitably, even though he doesn't appear to be particularly guilty, remorseful or sentimental about their past associations.
I wonder if I missed anything. I don't mean 'missed' as in 'not noticed' something, I mean rather that, being an Edgar G. Ulmer b-movie and all, the print was pretty rotten (although probably about as good as can be expected), and there were a few spots where, quite obviously, something had been removed or left out. In some places, it was only a few frames. In others, you could tell where a whole shot or shots had gone missing. Entire scenes? No way of knowing.
I've gotta say that I found Ulmer's compositional niceties kind of lacking here, despite the other trappings of being a 'regular' movie. I just didn't often connect to it visually. Except for one horribly depressing part where Sidney Greenstreet's wife, explaining to him why she's leaving him for Mr. Heartless Tycoon, brings him before a full-length tryptych mirror just to show him how repugnant and fat he really is. That's nice. Nothing else stands out much especially though.
Also Ulmer here uses camera movement in place of editing as often as not, and to good effect.