Director Edgar G Ulmer Stars Zachary Scott, Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn USA 1948 Language English 1hr 45 Black & white
Classic American saga with a leftist edge
I’ve read and seen a lot about the horrible saga of Hollywood’s encounters with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Most of it focuses on the drama of the hearings themselves or else the aftermath - the films by banned writers using friends’ or acquaintances’ names, the work in exile of filmmakers like Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin, and the eventual breaking of the blacklist in 1960 when two industry power players, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas, both revealed that Dalton Trumbo, off the radar for over a decade, had written movie scripts (Exodus and Spartacus) for them. And of course, the controversy that never left those who had named names, leading to several Academy members not applauding when Elia Kazan was given a lifetime achievement Oscar - and that was 1999, half a century on.
But what about the films they made before the crackdown? Was there anything about them that could have really scared anyone who hadn’t already scared themselves? What got me thinking about this was watching Ruthless, which was released in 1948, as the anti-Communist hysteria was starting to bite. I thought, ‘I bet some of the people involved with this got into trouble.’
I was right. The early work on the script was done by Alvah Bessie, one of the Hollywood Ten who went to prison for their noncooperation. His credit for the film was only restored in 1999. Ironically, Gordon Kahn and SK Lauren, thought in 1947 to be less dangerous than Bessie and whose names did appear on the film, also ended up getting blacklisted.*
Together, along with Edgar G Ulmer – one of the greatest B-movie directors – they came up with the story of a man whose rise to the top comes at the expense of everyone he encounters along the way, told using flashbacks and a framing device. Because of that it’s been referred as a ‘low-rent Citizen Kane’.
It starts with a couple on the way to a party. He’s Vic (Louis Hayward), she’s his younger girlfriend Mallory (Diana Lynn) and they are heading for the home of his oldest friend, Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott). The occasion: multimillionaire Vendig is donating his home and much of his fortune to a foundation for world peace – at the end of the night he plans to slip away on his boat. But before he goes, he is having this massive bash to which he has invited both global leaders and some key figures from his past, including enemies – his encounters with them triggering the extended flashbacks.
He starts off as the son of a broken home – his father (Raymond Burr! I didn’t recognise him) runs a dive by the docks, his brittle, proud mother scrapes a living as a music teacher. He has two better-off friends: Vic and, crucially, Martha. Because during Vendig’s rapid rise through American society and business, he will use women as his way in at every stage.
Like a lot of seducers in films of this period, Vendig reads now as slightly effeminate, but I guess that was the point (which is to say the fear), in those days – never trust a man who can talk to women.
Ruthless’ ideological clarity might be the cause of its weakness as a drama. Vendig is unambiguously the villain of the piece, rather than its antihero. There’s no sense that any of the writers fell in love with him, had the overwhelming experience in front of the keyboard that meant that Oliver Stone-the-writer created charismatic heroes out of Tony Montana and Gordon Gekko, figures who Oliver Stone-the-political-man would have disapproved of if they had been dreamt up by anyone else. Vendig is not an idealist-gone-wrong like Willie Stark in All The King’s Men or an amoral man who tried to do the right thing like the title character in The Great McGinty, not a man driven by the fury to create art like Jonathan Shields in The Bad And The Beautiful, not a truly complex figure like Charles Foster Kane, or even a witty and charming outsider with a grudge like Louis in Kind Hearts And Coronets.
In line with ideas that are currently fashionable, there is a suggestion that Vendig is a psychopath. Here is the discussion during which he dismisses the only woman he might have had feelings for from his life:
He: ‘Now you hate me.’
She: ‘When you can’t help yourself? No, I can’t hate you for that. Any more than if you were terribly ill. Perhaps you are.’
The film takes a properly Marxist view that the social mobility of any given individual is nothing to celebrate. Equally, Vendig’s rise is not stifled along the way by those further up the conventional social ladder. From Harvard classmates to fearsome aunts and banking tycoons, they all welcome him in. In Marxist terms, capitalism’s insatiable hunger for talent trumps an individual’s instinct to be a snob.
There is, by the standards of the time, a lot of financial jargon in the film, lots of stuff about share prices, controlling stakes in corporations and complicated trades of chunks of equity for other chunks of equity. What there isn’t, however, is any real suggestion of an alternative, either with hints that other countries may do things differently or any depiction of the workers or consumers who suffer from Wall Street operators’ refusal to factor in the human cost of their schemes. The on-screen victims of Vendig are all people who had more money and power than he did when they met. That tempers the notion that this is purely a propaganda film.
The weirdest and best section of the film comes when Vendig encounters Southern utilities mogul Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet) and his needy trophy wife Christa (Lucille Bremer). For once, he seems out of his depth and out of his comfort zone – in the steamy, stifling South, different rules apply.
The dialogue is terrific (‘Bourbon - the name given to kings and whiskey… the kings have gone but the whiskey remains’). Greenstreet is also let loose on a couple of well-chosen passages from the Bible.
The ending is an abrupt reminder that this is a B-movie, something that isn’t obvious much of the rest of the time (there are some big sets) except in terms of the shortage of star names (Greenstreet apart) in the cast.
It’s not a great film - the plotting is a bit uneven and Vendig himself isn’t interesting enough. But it is hugely enjoyable as well as historically fascinating. It was never likely to contribute to the fall of American capital - the country’s guardians should have had more faith.
*What HUAC did was both contrary to the spirit of a free society and the US constitution. What Elia Kazan and Edward Dmytryk did (and over here, George Orwell – in his case, under no compulsion) by naming names was cowardly and vindictive and in no way should be considered whistle-blowing. But some of the victims were people who were still following the Moscow line long into Stalin’s murderous rule, and who therefore sacrifice a lot of sympathy.