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Excellent drama about a poor boy who is adopted by a rich family after saving their daughter from drowning. Given all the benefits of wealth and society, he uses the people who care about him and give him his breaks, especially the women he meets. Zachery Scott is chilling in his mentally perverse portrayal of a tycoon that is more in league with Norman Bates than William Randall Hurst. Diana Lynn (the Sandra Bullock of her day) is wonderful as the woman he had saved as a girl and who's heart he would break in his rise to success. There is a twist in the plot mid-way that will be a treat to Lynn fans, though I would have liked to seen more of her in the second half. The entire cast is compelling and the soundtrack is appropriately eerie. Very rare to find this on VHS or TV, so if you find it anywhere, get it, rent it, buy it, tape it, watch it.
This may be Edgar G. Ulmer's masterpiece. RUTHLESS is a terrific
noir/melodrama - sharply written (by the to-be-blacklisted Alvah Bessie
and Gordon Kahn), consistently beautifully photographed (by the
underrated Bert Glennon), and truly adventurous in its editing and
flash forward-flash backward construction.
Zachary Scott is the "ruthless" title character, but the title is more a cheap shot than anything else; Scott's Vendig is more an emotionally bankrupt, pathological character than a villain per se. The narrative takes pains to reveal - gradually - the series of events from childhood through adulthood which affected his perverse makeup, making for a fascinating character study. Subtle revelations and plot twists come about every fifteen minutes, but they're deliberately ambiguous when they hit the screen, forcing the viewer to pay close attention as the truth of the situation is revealed. This technique alone puts RUTHLESS way ahead of any other Poverty Row melodrama of the period and cements Ulmer's reputation as a thoughtful stylist.
Louis Hayward plays a sort of Greek chorus, an often acquiescent voice of conscience/best friend/nemesis who keeps the episodic story moving along. Diana Lynn (in two roles), Martha Vickers and Lucille Bremer each give terrific performances as the various women who appear, disappear, and reappear in the lives of both men. All are sharply drawn, a testament to the determination of Bessie, Kahn and other blacklisted writers to put strong female characters on screen in defiance of the Production Code, which seemed to encourage either submissive or predatory roles for women.
And as if all that isn't enough, Sidney Greenstreet drops in and sets the screen on fire in every sequence he appears in. A classic coiled spring, his portrayal of a similarly greedy corporate boss is perfectly slimy, and provides a genuine shock when he suddenly grabs Lucille Bremer by the hair and jerks her backwards for a kiss. Likewise, a later sequence where Bremer drags him in front of the mirror so she can brutally compare him to her new, younger lover is unforgettably painful.
RUTHLESS sits comfortably alongside DETOUR, THE MAN FROM PLANET X and THE STRANGE WOMAN, other Ulmer gems of note. A great movie.
I just returned from an American Cinemateque screening of a UCLA restored print of this movie. Here is ample evidence that Ulmer, the King of the B's, given bigger budgets might well have had a much bigger career. Detour may be his most famous movie, but this is his best. The Alvah Bessie screenplay about greed and the relentless pursuit of success has dated not at all. The cinematography is excellent, with strong noirish elements. The sets and costumes are very good. Zachary Scott, one of the screen's great cads, is somewhat toned down here if still fairly nasty. There is strong work by Diana Lynn, Lucille Bremer, and Martha Vickers as women who get used and discarded along the way. Sidney Greenstreet shows up mid film as an equally greedy and grasping character, dominating all his scenes. But the standout, unexpectedly, is Louis Hayward as a sympathetic boyhood friend and link to the entire storyline. Ulmer brings out more warmth in this actor that was usually seen. Raymond Burr has a small part early in his career when he seemed to be copying Laird Cregar as Scott's father seen in flashback. Ulmer's daughter this evening explained that the studio Eagle-Lion/Paramount cut some scenes just before release with a particularly anti-capitalist tone. I hope the footage still exists somewhere. That aside, it is thoroughly accomplished film that needs no explanation or apologies. The current recession gives it renewed meaning. Hopefully a DVD release will soon follow.
While in a philanthropic meeting promoted by the millionaire Horace
Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott), the guest Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward)
tells the history of the beginning and end of his friendship with the
host to his date Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn). When they are boys, Horace
is a poor boy from a dysfunctional family and Vic's best friend that
saves the wealthy girl Martha Burnside from drowning in a river. Horace
is adopted by the rich Burnside family and later sent to Havard and
gets engaged to Martha, for whom Vic has a crush. When the ambitious
Horace meets the wealthier Susan Duane (Martha Vickers) that belongs to
a more influent family, he calls off his engagement with Martha and
moves to New York with Susan continuing his social raise. Later he
meets the shark Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet) and seduces his
young wife Christa (Lucille Bremer) to profit in business, leading to
I was zapping the cable TV this raining Sunday morning in Rio and I found this rare film-noir by chance, which has never been released on VHS or DVD in Brazil. Edgar G. Ulmer made a magnificent movie with a timeless plot of merciless ambition of a poor and selfish boy that wishes to climb financially and socially using and disposing wealthy women and friendships. The screenplay uses flashback to perfectly develop the lead character and his acquaintances, supported by awesome black and white cinematography and camera work. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "O Insaciável" ("Ruthless")
Apparently a brief exchange between the adolescent boy (Bobby Anderson) and his father (Raymond Burr) in which the father tells him that opportunity only comes around once, is the reason why Anderson morphs into the social climbing and ruthless business tycoon played by Zachary Scott. It hardly seems like enough of an influence to change a nice kid into a prototypical (and stereotypical) greedy capitalist millionaire. Though it's difficult to establish a connection between the two, Scott makes a believable social climber, and the story has a pretty good trajectory from his adolescence through dark mansions and well furnished offices with New York skyline views, to a finale gala event where Scott is organizing a philanthropy to unload some of his millions and ease his conscience. Ulmer doles out the action in bits and pieces, but delivers a pretty memorable ending.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With a name like "Vendig" and an actor like Zachary Scott, you know
who's ruthless without seeing the movie. Actually, the character here
is an allegorical one, standing for the barracuda side of capitalism.
Old Vendig doesn't give a darn who he steps on or how many "little
people" he ruins in his relentless drive for power and riches. It's a
heckuva climb up the proverbial ladder, told in occasional flashback
that fills in the personal stories and motivations.
It's also a great cast, Scott at his most arrogant, Lynn at her sweetest, Hayward at his most likable, and of course Greenstreet at his most Greenstreet. Too bad we don't get a scene between him and the equally corpulent Raymond Burr with its interesting possibilities. This is the impressive Greenstreet's most emotional and perhaps most pitiable role, especially when he looks forlornly into the mirror. Then too, in that last scene, he's almost like a berserk rhino and just as scary.
The message here has been sharpened, I expect, by uncredited leftist writer Alvah Bessie. Except I don't take it as an attack on capitalism per-se after all, Hayward's Lambdin wants to build things like the symbolism of bridges, but is undercut by his power-mad partner Vendig. Instead, I take Vendig as a 40's version of 1987's Wall Street where Gordon Gekko's barracuda claims that "greed is good". Likely, the movie's message would resonate with today's audiences who've also been taught a lesson by Wall Street's destructive side.
Anyway, it's a darkly riveting morality tale that gets the most out of its modest budget thanks to a shrewd cast and expert direction from cult director Edgar Ulmer. My only complaint echoes that of another reviewer the gap between nice boy Vendig and the power-mad adult is not properly filled in; then again, maybe it's because of poor editing.
Nonetheless, what a nice bit of irony in the ending. Bad adult Vendig drowns where good boy from years earlier survived. In short, the ruthless adult has misused the opportunities earned by his earlier heroic act, and so, must return full circle to the water to right the wrongs. At the same time, the deserving Lambdin finally ends up with his beloved Martha, even if it's through her look-alike Mallory (which is why Lynn plays both parts). So things straighten out after all. All in all, it's a fine, under-rated movie, even if a rather bitter brew.
That's the lesson learned too late by all the good souls who help ruthless Zachry Scott in this movie. Scott is appropriately hard and tough in the unsympathetic lead role, and Diana Lynn, Sydney Greenstreet, and Raymond Burr head up a marvelous supporting cast. Still, there's an element missing here, although I cannot put my finger on precisely what it is, that would have made this movie truly memorable instead of merely interesting.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Ruthless" is a movie whose positives and negatives are easy to spot.
How one weights them determines one's evaluation of the movie. I find
it an enjoyable watch, quite a good movie, and overall above average. I
watched the 104 minute version released by Olive. The Netflix version,
if they still show it, was 86 minutes. This is the third time I've
watched this film.
Is this film noir? Yes, it crosses the line into noir. This is not by virtue of noir photography, which is neither abundant nor flaunted. The cinematographer, Bert Glennon, was not given to deeply shadowed lighting or the other noir techniques that immediately signal noirs made in the classic era. His work has typically been in the more mainstream Hollywood lighter look. It's mainly the story and character played by Scott that are noir, but additionally the talents of Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet, Louis Hayward and Lucille Bremer bring out the failings of the other characters who are trapped by their natures or by Scott's deviousness and machinations.
Although the story spends considerable time showing Scott's early life as a boy and college-goer, we are not hit over the head with facile explanations of how the young man turns away from his love of Diana Lynn and a comfortable existence and moves instead into a highly ambitious program of becoming wealthy on Wall Street. Yet, these motivations are shown us in the movie. Scott is taken in by the kindly Dennis Hoey and Edith Barrett, and he manages to get into Harvard and pay for it. Yet he remains the outsider among the preppies and upper class. He cannot be accepted by them as an equal, but because of his ambition to top them he also cannot be confined in a trudging middle-class marriage and existence with Diana Lynn. He can't be held back by her morality. He must seize the opportunity to make a lot of money when it arises, even if it means ruthless financial deals and doings, and it does. Ultimately, his jealousy of the rich and his own initial humble background create an ambition that overpowers his feelings of love.
It also means that Scott, after spurning Lynn, will use women as a means of advancing himself. He's an homme fatale, betraying Martha Vickers, who got him the upper class contacts that started him out, and Lucille Bremer, who provided him with the stock voting power to undermine her husband's (Sydney Greenstreet's) utility empire, placing it under control of Scott.
The story does an excellent job of introducing details of how Scott climbs the financial ladder to wealth. Information, block stock ownership, rumor, and stock price manipulation all play a role. He plays and wins the game of gaining control of companies and then milking them.
Greenstreet does a fantastic job as the baron of a stock empire who will be brought down as Scott exploits the man's vulnerability: the unhappiness of his wife, Bremer, who, like Vickers, is taken in by Scott's charm. Ms. Bremer does a standout portrayal of a woman who hates her life as another item collected by Greenstreet, and subsequently marries Scott only to be awakened to his using her. Her dreams are shattered, as are Greenstreet's.
Louis Hayward's dreams are shattered too. Long in the shadow of Scott, believing his lies and attracted by his success, Hayward can hardly shake loose of Scott. Only with the help of a new girl friend of his, an independent woman, a pianist, also played by Diana Lynn, does he have a chance of escaping Scott's influence.
Scott's dreams are likewise shattered. Having achieved success, he is making attempts to paper over his deeds by funding a peace foundation. But when he sees the lookalike Lynn, he wants her too. He still wants it all, but he cannot have her. But his self-seeking quests are ended once and for all by the great leveler. His past catches up with him.
A movie like this is really classic Hollywood. The genre is melodrama. The character study of a tycoon is nowhere near as detailed as in "Caught" from the following year. But the depth of talent available to play in a movie like this made by a b-movie production company is remarkable, and these talents helped create the final result which so often was very worthy art paid for and supported by a movie-going public.
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.
RUTHLESS seems to be Edgar G. Ulmers attempt to film a story similar to CITIZEN KANE. Like CITIZEN KANE, RUTHLESS is the story of the rise and fall of man from a humble background who rises to the top, destroying several people along the way, only to end up having his past catch up with him at the end. RUTHLESS also has CITIZEN KANE's flashback structure and both characters come from quaint small towns. Unlike Charles Kane, Horace Wooddruff Vendig is a far more ruthless character and- unlike Charles Kane- evokes little sympathy. He destroys his first love, first by stealing her from his best friend, then dumping her for another woman when he meets another girl whose family can provide him with better connections to move the economic ladder. The women he uses, with the exception of his first love Martha, evoke little sympathy. In a way they are just as ruthless as Vendig. The women are solely attracted to him by his power and wealth, and when they are discarded, the viewer can't help feel they had it coming. Don't complain when you play with vipers and then get bitten would be my advice to these women.
RUTHLESS doesn't quite deserve the praise some viewers have recently heaped upon it. The pacing is sometimes off and the film is a bit overlong. The cast is good, with Sydney Greenstreet giving as usual (if at times over the top) attention grabbing performance. Director Ulmer handles the direction with confidence and style. Overall, RUTHLESS is a not bad imitation of a much better film, but when viewing it, the viewer can't help think something is lacking.
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