Today we reminisce about
Zachary Scott & Lucille Bremer in
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Also starring: Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn, Sydney Greenstreet, Martha Vickers
* Published specifically for the CMBA Spring Blogathon: Femmes/Hommes Fatales of Film Noir *
Sometimes the best motion pictures can be the ones that you discover completely by chance. This is how I was introduced to Ruthless; a film that made quite a favourable impression on me after I watched it for the first time. The film itself is categorised as being a part of the drama genre just like many of its recognised film noir contemporaries. Some may not consider Ruthless to be a fully qualified noir but in actuality, it contains many of the characteristics generally found in movies of this type such as: use of shadows, cutting dialogue, flashbacks, inhumanity, corruption, fatal ending, and so on. The flexibility of what can and cannot be considered a film noir has undoubtedly hindered this style of film from officially being classified as a genre. “Strictly speaking (though), film noir is not a genre, but rather the mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film.”*
Ruthless is not a well-known, big budget production that was made by an elite studio and given critical praise upon its release. In fact, it was distributed by Eagle-Lion Films which was a small British production company located on Poverty Row and owned by industrialist J. Arthur Rank. The studio existed for less than four years before salvaging itself from complete financial ruin by merging Film Classics. Most of the films made and issued by Eagle-Lion were considered B-movies at best though they did have a major success here and there. What I can say about Ruthless is that what it lacks in technical credentials is forgiven by the story and, more importantly, an exceptional cast.
Both Zachary Scott and Sydney Greenstreet started their film careers in film noir features: Scott in 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios (also with Greenstreet) and then onto 1945’s Mildred Pierce & Greenstreet in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. Ironically, the two would team up a year after Ruthless in Warner Bros.’ Flamingo Road which would be Greenstreet’s last film noir. It is no wonder why the two men worked so well together on-screen! South African born Louis Hayward had experience in drama and crime films and Martha Vickers had a variety of roles including one in the 1946 noir The Big Sleep. The two outsiders to the drama/film noir realm were Lucille Bremer and Diana Lynn, both women appearing primarily in musicals and romantic comedies. Bremer debuted in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis while Lynn’s first role was in 1939’s They Shall Have Music. A very notable supporting player in Ruthless is none other than Raymond Burr who was just then beginning in the film industry but who would later go on to attain an important status in the domain of film noir. For a so-called B-movie, the roll call of talent is quite impressive.
“Opportunity knocks once in life. Don’t let nothin’ stand in your way.” – Peter Vendig
Horace Woodruff “Woody” Vendig (Zachary Scott) is a rich businessman who made his money playing the stakes of Wall Street. If one were to judge by appearances, he would seem to be a grand humanitarian who had it all. Reality is much farther from the truth than that, revealing a man consumed by greed who has a haunting past. One evening Woody’s childhood friend Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) and girlfriend, Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn), reluctantly come to his party. Woody is immediately mesmerized by Mallory who looks strikingly like his former fiancée Martha Bernside (also Diana Lynn), prompting him to revisit his life story.
Martha (left) and Mallory (right)
A young Woody, then known as Horace and “Hoss” to friends, grew up in a single parent household where his mother struggled to pay the bills. She had a very bitter attitude and outlook on life, taking her anger out on her son for whom she had limited consideration. His father (Raymond Burr) ran out on the family and lived in the same town though saw his son very little. When his mother decides to remarry and abandon her son so that she does not have to take him along with her new husband, Horace seeks refuge with the upper middle class Bernside family. Having recently saved their daughter Martha from drowning, the family is very grateful to him and decides to raise him as their own son. As the years go by, Horace and Martha develop feelings for one another though Martha’s love is far more pronounced than his. Horace does not have a very high paying job due to only having a high school education but they decide to get married anyways. The Bernsides offer to pay for Horace to go to Harvard University despite it putting them in financial peril, considering it an investment for themselves and for their daughter’s happiness.
It does not take long for Horace, now called Woody, to make important connections at Harvard. He starts seeing the very wealthy Susan Duane (Martha Vickers) – while still engaged to Martha – and ends up getting a job as assistant manager at Sims & Co, Inc., an investment securities firm in Manhattan. He swiftly gives up Harvard for his new life in New York, neglecting the sacrifices made for him by the Bernsides. When he says his half-hearted goodbyes the family, he also breaks things off with Martha short of showing any emotion.
“I’m going far, Martha. Fast. And alone.”
Back in New York, Woody becomes interested in acquiring stock in Delta Enterprises which holds a monopoly on several utilities. The owner of Delta is Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet), a filthy rich magnate who is extremely proud of his token wife, Christa (Lucille Bremer). Buck suspects that Woody is attempting to overthrow his monopoly so he plays psychological games with him in order to thwart his attempts. What Buck does not know, however, is that Woody already has hold of the majority of Delta stock –– via Christa. So begins the ruin of Buck Mansfield and the unstoppable rise of Mr. Zendig.
The Fatale Players
Homme, Zachary Scott as H. Woodruff Zendig
“(Zendig) spoils everything he touches. He takes the life out of it and leaves it to rot.” – Vic Lambdin
Horace was a good-natured boy who made due the best he could being seen as an unnecessary hindrance to both his parents. He was polite and thoughtful, accepting all the generosity bestowed upon him. It is hard to say at which point Horace started to change his way of thinking though it is easy to pinpoint when he finally started giving in to that temptation: the night that he and Martha got engaged. Martha had first refused Vic’s offer of marriage by being honest about her feelings for Horace; sentiments that he had never reciprocated but that she was sure he harboured. The thing is that while Horace loved Martha, it was never a love that he considered could grow into something bigger. It was not until he learned that she had been wanted by Vic that he suddenly felt the urge to claim her as if she were a limited edition product. Only afterwards would Horace be able to explain his queer urge to acquire the things that other people had whether he really wanted them or not.
One would think that Woody would have grown up to be more compassionate in life considering the difficulties he faced during his childhood and how a decent, loving family miraculously spared him further depravities. Instead, he was fuelled by hostility and a cynical attitude towards the world. He wanted to be greater – richer and more successful – than anyone had ever been before him. To achieve this, he used people in any way they could to help him reach his goals and when they were no longer useful, he dumped them. He devastated the Bernsides when he left Harvard, causing such distress that they never wanted contact with him again, not even making him aware of when Mr. Bernside passed away. Martha was left heartbroken by Horace’s rejection of her and when she said her final goodbyes to him, he did not even turn around to look at her. Instead, he looked straight ahead with invisible blinders on. Buck Mansfield’s complete dilapidation was not even the culmination of his wicked ways. A banker who helped Woody obtain the money necessary to buy the Delta stocks was in dire financial straits a few years after the deal was completed. By that time, he refused to even see him and the man ended up committing suicide in Woody’s office. Woody had effectively pulled the trigger.
The entirety of Woody’s soul is corrupted by greed added with an underlying need to crush pretty much everyone in his path. He having been treated so indignantly by his own procreators no doubt caused him much psychological trauma that he soothed with his vile behaviour, ultimately numbing his own pain of rejection.
Femme, Lucille Bremer as Christa Mansfield Zendig
Buck: “Your hair was pure gold once. Now it looks like brass.”
Christa: “A man doesn’t go very far in life without leaving some rag ends behind him.”
Christa is a beautiful woman, perhaps not exactly still in the prime of her youth but she still manages to attract plenty of attention. She adorns herself with fancy clothing and as many diamonds as tastefully possible. Her language is carefully selected and her elocution refined although there is something about her delivery that is unnatural, revealing an attempt to disguise her more menial origins. Her first husband, Buck, takes pleasure in using her as a sort of sexual bait to further weaken his opponents, something which she does not seem to mind since she is drawn to men with power. Buck sometimes underestimates her intelligence but Christa listens very well, something she eventually proves to him.
A deep grudge has been growing in Christa over the years, one filled with hatred and regret which has drastically changed her from an ingénue to a femme fatale. This situation makes her behaviour vary depending on who she is linked with romantically. It is hard to say when exactly she decided to turn on Buck although it is suggested that her dissatisfaction was a mounting one which burst when Woody came on the scene.
In her exchanges with Buck, she feigns her feelings for him and milks him for his charity; a feat which is not at all difficult considering that he practically worships the ground on which she walks. She only shows slight interest in being Buck’s wife – sexual or otherwise – when someone else is around, especially Woody. In Christa’s mind, she has been cheated of her youth from having wed Buck, a marriage which came after he “bought” her as if she were another one of his acquisitions. Since getting married, she has lived a wholly isolated life in their big mansion, an experience that she likens to being in a cage for Buck’s amusement. The fact of the matter is that Buck did not want anyone tarnishing his treasure, closing off Christa as much as he could from the rest of the world and playing the role of a madman in order to protect both his personal and business interests. She figuratively puts a knife in Buck’s back the moment that Woody persuades her that it is he who will restore her youth and help her live freely again.
Her downfall as a femme fatale began the moment she laid her trust in Woody. In their relationship she reverted to acting like a silly schoolgirl being lured by sweets, willing to do anything they asked just so that they could be together. She fell for his well-crafted performance, only to find herself later used and thrown away just as Buck had been.
Bremer’s career was far too short-lived in my opinion as she had the potential of being a bigger star. She was a beautiful woman who could act well without being either too obscure or too overpowering in a scene. Honestly, she deserves a lot of credit for having been able to dance so wonderfully alongside Fred Astaire in Yolanda and the Thief. I particularly enjoyed her darker turn as a temptress and think that she could have really taken off had she been cast in more daring roles like the one of Christa.
This is a noir that is deserving of your time not only during the viewing(s) but also in reflecting on the story afterwards. As I have already mentioned, every single player in this film gives a delightful performance. Zachary Scott definitely stands out a hair above the rest for his bold and calculated portrayal, cementing his status as a leading man. Scott’s Woody makes Scott’s Monte Beragon look like a fish out of water which is saying a great deal! I think anyone would be pleasantly surprised by this hidden gem of a film. 🙂