Hedy Lamarr is frequently referred to as the most beautiful movie star of her era, and I'll certainly go along with that assessment. Yet she has rarely been given enough credit for her acting ability, and is usually dismissed as a limited actress. True, Hedy can't exactly be ranked alongside Bette Davis or Ida Lupino, but she still had a magnetic screen presence and could turn in a fine performance when given the opportunity. Many claim she gave one of her finest performances in THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946). I'd go so far as to say it's her all-time best.
In this melodrama set in 19th century Maine, Hedy (with an accent that hardly sounds like anyone from Maine) plays Jenny Hager, a self-aborbed young woman whose outward beauty belies a background of poverty and abuse. Jenny uses her alluring charms to attract the attention of Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), an elderly merchant. After marrying Isaiah, Jenny seduces her weak-willed stepson Ephraim (Louis Hayward), which sets the stage for a tragic turn of events between father and son. Jenny later sets her sights on John Evered (George Sanders), who is engaged to one of Jenny's so-called close friends (Hillary Brooke). But even the cunning Jenny can't escape the cumulative effects of her past deeds.
While Hedy was excellent in films like H. M. PULHAM, ESQ. (1941), EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944), and SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949), I don't think she ever had a better showcase than THE STRANGE WOMAN. Her portrayal of Jenny Hager is more complex than a simple plot synopsis would indicate. Jenny is heartless in her manipulation of men, and ruthless in her drive to acquire wealth and prestige. And yet she can't shake the memories of her impoverished childhood; once she becomes rich, she uses her influence to help the downtrodden. Hedy often complained that the studios saddled her substandard assignments, but here she was able to exert control: she co-produced THE STRANGE WOMAN (based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams) and was responsible for hiring its director, Edgar G. Ulmer. Hedy's active participation in this production no doubt accounts for her strong, vibrant performance in the film. (Hedy wasn't always able to hide her disgust with other studio assignments; in some films, her boredom is palpable.)
THE STRANGE WOMAN is also one of the best efforts of its aforementioned director, Edgar G. Ulmer, who has attracted a cult following thanks to films like THE BLACK CAT (1934), BLUEBEARD (1944), DETOUR (1945), STRANGE ILLUSION (1945), and THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951). THE STRANGE WOMAN touches upon several Ulmer themes: lust, greed, deception, ruthless ambition, the emptiness of material gain, and the inescapable hand of fate. THE STRANGE WOMAN would make a great double-bill with RUTHLESS (1948; currently unavailable on DVD), another top-notch Ulmer film dealing with a lead character (Zachary Scott this time) who schemes his way to the top. Ulmer also knew how to squeeze the most production value out of every dollar, and brings a far glossier look to THE STRANGE WOMAN than its moderate budget would normally allow.
THE STRANGE WOMAN features a powerhouse supporting cast that includes the always-reliable George Sanders (ALL ABOUT EVE), Louis Hayward (THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER), Gene Lockhart (who was adept at playing everything from mousy clerks to oily blackmailers), and Hillary Brooke (THE WOMAN IN GREEN, THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW). Yet, with no disrespect to these fine players, it's Hedy's show all the way.
The print quality of this Alpha Video release is very good, although there's an abrupt scene change around the 81-minute mark. This is evident in other circulating copies of the film, and I don't know if this is the result of a missing transitional fade or if some footage is missing. (Most sources list the running time as 100 minutes; this print runs 99.) Nevertheless, there's no harm done to the storyline, and it shouldn't deter anyone from purchasing a copy of this disc.
If you've never seen Hedy Lamarr, THE STRANGE WOMAN will be the perfect introduction to this lovely and underrated actress. If you've seen Hedy Lamarr and haven't been terribly impressed, THE STRANGE WOMAN will be a revelation.