Ruthless (1948): “Not a man, a way of life”

Ruthless (1948)

I am ambivalent about Ruthless. The king of B-pictures, Edgar G. Ulmer, was given a bigger-than-usual budget for this Eagle-Lion melodrama. Technically accomplished with a solid cast and a compelling story of an amorally ambitious man, the film never quite achieves an intensity of purpose that would make it truly memorable.

In a scenario reminiscent of  Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Zachary Scott plays Horace Vendig, an investment  tycoon who ruthlessly pursues wealth as some sort of revenge against a deprived early childhood. The story is told in flashback sequences triggered by events at a gala reception at his mansion, where he has invited all those he has wronged to announce a benevolent fund for peace, which may be an act of contrition but is more likely a tax dodge.  He claims his act is selfless, but his unrepentant arrogant sense of entitlement is exposed in the closing scenes, which precipitate a suitably noir finale.

Two guests are the initial catalysts for the flashbacks.  The film opens with a middle-aged man of means and a young attractive woman being driven to the reception. The guy is Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward), a childhood friend of Vendig’s who broke with him after a dispute over Vendig’s callous business practices.  The girl is Mallory Flagg, Vic’s rather mysterious and elegant fiance, who has an uncanny resemblance to a childhood sweetheart of  both men.  It is Mallory’s presence that drives the drama at the reception though she is more a bystander at the finale. Mallory is intriguing and for me upstages all the other protagonists:  you never quite understand her motivation or her loyalty until the very end. She is played with such intelligence and wit by b-actress, Diana Lynn, that she is a joy to watch, and Ulmer certainly thought so – her glittering eyes, her classic profile and elegant movement are lavishly indulged in all her scenes. Strange and sad that her career  never moved beyond b-movies and television.

Ruthless (1948)

Worth watching.

9 Comments

  1. I have yet to see this film, but this seems as good a place as any to announce the passing of Ann Savage, since she starred in what is probably Ulmer’s best-known film, Detour. She died Christmas Day at the age of 87. This has turned out to be quite a year for departures.

  2. Hi! Tony,
    What a very “interesting” and very “detailed” review of the film “Ruthless” by you as “usual!”…
    …Yes, I have watched and do own a pretty “grainy” copy of the 1948 film “Ruthless” and at best find this film to be worth watching too!…I agree it’s not a bad film, but it’s….

    Now, forgive me for my “digression,” but I feel that the “Film noir” world has lost someone who truly lived up to the description of a “horrifying femme fatale” and that was actress Ann Savage with her appearance in the most “fatalistic” of film noir the 1945 film Detour.
    My condolesence to her family and friends and may she RIP.
    I would truly be “remissed” if I didn’t thank author and the President of the Film Noir Foundation Eddie Muller, for bringing her back into the “public eye.” Thanks, Eddie, (Muller)

  3. I am saddened to hear of the passing of Ann savage, and remember her vividly from the minor classic DETOUR by Edgar G. Ulmer. She had a long run for sure, but it’s always difficult to say goodbye at any age. I saw RUTHLESS years back,, and I agree with you Tony that it’s “worth seeing.” It may well rank after the two films Ulmer is rightly best known for, DETOUR and THE BLACK CAT. I fully understand what you are saying when you say that the film “never really achieved an intensity of purpose,” but at the time I saw it I was more enthralled with the elements that you yourself not: “solid cast” and “a compelling story of an amorally ambitious man.” Perhaps too, i was willing to look beyond issues in deference to Ulmer (whom I have always thought highly of) but you are coming off a fresh viewing, and I value your insights greatly. I must look at this film again. Good choice to highlight here, and very perceptive capsule essay, as always.

  4. Although Halliwell gives the film one star and calls it “a rich melodrama with some entertaining moments” C. A. Lejune echoes some of Tony’s reservations by stating (although uncompromisingly):

    “Beginning pictures at the end is, I’m afraid, the modern trend. But i’d find RUTHLESS much more winning if it could end at the beginning.”

    LOL.

  5. Thanks Sam and Allan.

    I know how you feel Sam – perhaps I came to the movie with expectations that were too high – but there is just something missing.

    David Kehr, when he was at the Chicago Reader, was more on your side: “While not for all tastes, this is still some kind of a blasted masterpiece.”

    I think Lejune’s quip deserves to be in a book collection of classic put downs :)

  6. Slim Dundee

    The movie has a lot of good elements. I did especially like Diana Lynn’s characters. Hayward was good too, and Sydney Greenstreet is never boring although I wouldn’t consider this one of his great roles. The main problem is the main character- we don’t get much insight into what makes him tick. Early in the movie he seems like a nice guy, then he turns into a totally ruthless, impersonal money-making machine, and it never seems clear what makes him the way he is, or what there is in him that made Vic and Martha like him in the first place.

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