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Edgar G. Ulmer
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Horace Vendig shows himself to the world as a rich philanthropist. In fact, the history of his rise from his unhappy broken home shows this to be far from the case. After being taken in by richer neighbours he started to exhibit an obsessive and selfish urge to make more and more money, loving and leaving women at will to further this end. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <email@example.com>
Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-72) may be best remembered for the pessimistic 1945 film noir Detour, but that is only one of his several directing credits, many of which have fallen out of fame over the past decades. One of Ulmer's lesser known works is his 1948 drama Ruthless, a character study of a superficially successful but inwardly broken man, in some ways evoking memories of the themes in Orson Welles' legendary debut feature Citizen Kane (1941).
Like many noirs, Ruthless utilizes extensive flashbacks in its narrative. The frame story takes place in a high society party where Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) and his lady friend Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn) have arrived to meet Vic's old friend Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott), a millionaire philanthropist. Upon meeting Mallory, Vendig is startled by her resemblance to a girl called Martha Burnside, Vic and Vendig's common friend who was once engaged to marry the latter. Several flashbacks then cast light on what has happened between Vendig, Vic, Martha and other figures from the past, some of whom are present at the party. In spite of his generous donations to charitable organizations, in his personal life Vendig is revealed to be far from perfect.
Vendig's personality is seen stemming from his childhood trauma of feeling unwanted by his parents. Perhaps this is why he never really allows anyone get close to him, always handling his relationships in a cold and calculating manner. Even though the premise sounds fairly interesting, the execution is not without its problems. Namely, a lot of the lengthy flashbacks feel too long and seem to merely present the actions of Vendig rather than providing insight on his inner world. He mentions that he is aware of his irresistible urge to strive for success which causes him to knowingly hurt his loved ones by dumping them in favour of business opportunities, but the scenes of him going through numerous financial negotiations and meetings start feeling tiresome soon. How does he feel about what he does? I don't think we, the audience, ever get to know him very well, but he does not really carry an aura of mystery around him either because the writing leaves his traits too scarce. Some might call this lack of clearness subtlety, but I would have wanted to see more clues about Vendig's thoughts and how he became what he is at the dramatic ending.
Regardless of my complaints above, I enjoyed many aspects of the film. For one thing, the acting is generally good throughout; especially the women are at home in their roles, from the beautiful Diana Lynn in a double role as Martha and Mallory to Lucille Bremer as the frustrated Christa Mansfield and Martha Vickers as Vendig's fiancée Susan. Sydney Greenstreet also delivers a great performance as Bremer's on-screen husband Buck Mansfield, an aging businessman who has to face his limitations due to Vendig's schemes. On the other hand though, the kid actors in the first flashback are not as impressive as the adults, but Ruthless is hardly the first (or last) movie with kids as the weakest link. Zachary Scott's "old" makeup could have been more convincing too; a small moustache is hardly enough to convey the feel of an older man. Other than that, the melancholic-looking Scott suits the lead role somewhat comfortably.
Some of the shadowy photography in the exterior scenes and low camera angles looks pretty nice, even though the visuals are not really as starkly contrasted as in many proper noirs. It is probably best to see Ruthless as a withdrawn character study instead of expecting anything very 'hard-boiled' to ever step into the picture. In the end, with more fleshed out character development Ruthless could have been a very enjoyable film, but I think it is easily watchable as it is now as well, flawed or not.
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