Despite its noirish title and the presence of cult-director Edgar G. Ulmer (DETOUR), RUTHLESS is not a film noir but a compelling gothic melodrama that charts in flashback the life and career of a hard-hearted tycoon, played to the hilt by perennial screen-heel Zachary Scott.
Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) brings his fiancee Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn) to the home of Vic's former friend and business partner, the multi-millionaire Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott), for a charity benefit. When Vic introduces Mallory to Horace, he's struck by her uncanny resemblance to a woman
named Martha whom he used to know. Horace recounts how, as a boy, he had saved Martha's life when she fell from a fishing boat which he and Vic were in. In gratitude, her parents (Dennis Hoey, Edith Barrett) take in Horace after he's abandoned by his father (Raymond Burr) and his cruel mother
remarries and moves away without him. As they grow up, Martha (Diana Lynn) and Horace fall in love, despite Vic's affection for her as well, and her father scrimps and saves to send Horace to Harvard after the two become engaged. While at school, Horace falls for a socialite named Susan (Martha
Vickers) and takes a job at her uncle's brokerage firm, then breaks up with Martha. Unaware of what Horace has done to Martha, Vic, now an engineer, becomes his partner.
Later, Horace dumps Susan in order to seduce Christa Mansfield (Lucille Bremer), the young wife of elderly Southern utilities magnate Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet). Christa leaves Buck; Horace then marries her in order to wrest control of Mansfield's company. This accomplished, he becomes
completely obsessed with making money and ignores Christa, and they eventually divorce. After Horace denies a loan to an imperiled banker named McDonald (Charles Evans), who had invested millions in Horace's company, McDonald commits suicide and Vic resigns. Back at the charity benefit, Horace
tries to lure Mallory away from Vic and onto his yacht, but he's attacked by the drunken Buck Mansfield, who's also attending, and they both fall into the water and are drowned. Vic walks away with Mallory, finally free from Horace's grips.
Working with a very strong cast and a much bigger budget than what he was normally used to at such Poverty Row studios as PRC and Monogram, Ulmer demonstrates that he was capable of making as polished and entertaining an A-level production as anyone. He handles the film's multi-flashback structure
(framed by the charity party and returning to it at various junctures in the story) with stylish verve, and invests the melodramatic narrative with believable performances and enough psychological depth to keep it from lapsing into campiness. Horace Vendig is a fascinating character because he's
not just a cardboard villain, but a twisted soul whose problems, as we're shown in some surprisingly brutal scenes, can be traced back to his abusive treatment as a child. Because of this (and the fact that he's played as a boy by the likable Robert Anderson who was the young "George Bailey" in
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), Horace actually engenders sympathy and the film becomes an unusually honest and resonant character study.
The film may not be a noir, but Ulmer essentially treats it as one, substituting verbal and mental violence for physical punishment, and hostile takeovers for machine guns. Visually, the film is firmly in the noir tradition, featuring outstanding cinematography by Bert Glennon (STAGECOACH), and
Ulmer's trademark use of lowering camera angles, sinuous long takes, and dark shadows of fate closing in on the characters. The film is also notable for its excellent performances, with a hammy Sydney Greenstreet simply marvelous as the scripture-quoting Mansfield, and Diana Lynn also good in a
dual role, while veteran character actor Zachary Scott, who made a career out of playing "morality-challenged" cads, makes the most of the biggest showcase he ever had, justifying the film's famous closing line: "He wasn't a man. He was a way of life." (Violence.)
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