Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Ulmer’s “Ruthless”–The Way It Was

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The least predictable and most wide-ranging of DVD outfits, Chicago-based Olive sneaks an obscure auteurist touchstone onto the market with a clean and crisp Blu-Ray copy of the UCLA-restored, 104-minute version of Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1947 “Ruthless.”

A kind of low-rent “Citizen Kane”, told largely in flashbacks, “Ruthless” stars Zachary Scott (fresh from his arch cad turn in “Mildred Pierce”) as a self-made multi-millionaire who exploits and trashes all manner of personal relations to amass his fortune. That the movie is a sort of allegory with Scott as the amoral embodiment of capital is evident in the final line: “He was not a man, he was a way of life.” Hardly meant as a complement, Ulmer’s partisans used this epitaph to express the pragmatic Poverty Row maestro’s supposed credo. Indeed, as frugal as it is, “Ruthless” is likely the most lavish Hollywood movie Ulmer ever directed, at least since his first, Universal’s 1934 “Black Cat”. “Ruthless” was made for the short-lived Eagle-Lion studio, an outfit created in 1946 when railroad baron Robert Young purchased Ulmer’s base, the sub B movie purveyor Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) and struck a deal to become the American distributor for British producer J. Arthur Rank.

“Ruthless” is also a cult item for students of the Hollywood Blacklist. Comrade Robert Rossen developed the project for an independent producer in 1946, bringing in Comrade Alvah Bessie to adapt Dayton Stoddard’s novel “Prelude to Night.” In his memoirs, Bessie claims that the producers decided his script was “too radical” and imported two new writers, S.K. Lauren and Gordon Kahn, leftists both, who “promptly wrote me out of the screenplay.” Be that as it may, the premise remained. Ulmer, who incorrectly remembered Lauren and Kahn as fictitious names, referred to it as “a dangerous script.”

Still rabidly anti-capitalist, “Ruthless “was shot during the summer of 1947, even as the House Un-American Activities Committee was preparing its first klieg-lit hearing into Hollywood subversion with Bessie among the subpoenaed screenwriters; it was released, without fanfare, the following year, with the Red Scare in full flower. The New York Times got the point and didn’t care for it: “The authors build a financial pirate of titanic proportions, a man so possessed by avarice and so cruelly cold and inhuman that he assumes a degree of monstrousness unrelated to reality.” It surely didn’t help that when the movie begins Scott’s character is evidently scamming to donate part of his fortune to the cause of “world peace.” The movie struck reviewer T.H.P. as totally unrestrained in making its political point: “Never a trace of guilt or remorse shows through the character, either in the writing or in the performance of Zachary Scott.”

“Ruthless” was cut some 20 minutes after its first release. Bessie’s name had long since disappeared. (His credit, restored by the WGA in 1999, may be found on the IMDB, if not the Olive Blu-Ray). In any case, Lauren and Kahn, who published his first-hand account of 1947 hearings, “Hollywood on Trial,” even while “Ruthless” in theaters, were blacklisted as well.

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Comments

  1. Don’t forget Lucille Bremer — who a love-struck Arthur Freed promoted to no avail. Bremer was lovely in “Meet Me in St. Louis” and oher Metro musicals, but after the failure of “Yolanda and The Thief” her contract was sold off to Eagle-Lion.” “Ruthless” gave her precisely the dramatic part she’d always longed for.

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