Sydney Greenstreet, Lucille Bremer, Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn, Zachary Scott, and Martha Vickers in Ruthless (1948)


(director: Edgar G. Ulmer; screenwriters: Alvah Bessie/Gordon Kahn/S.K.Lauren/based on a Dayton Stoddart novel “Prelude to Night”; cinematographer: Bert Glennon; editor: Francis D. Lyon; music: Werner Janssen; cast: Zachary Scott (Horace Vendig), Louis Hayward (Vic Lambdin), Martha Vickers (Susan Duane), Lucille Bremer (Christine Mansfield), Diana Lynn (Martha Burnside / Mallory Flagg), Sydney Greenstreet (Buck Mansfield), Lucille Bremer (Christa), Raymond Burr (Pete Vendig), Dennis Hoey (Mr. Burnside), Edith Barrett (Mrs. Burnside), Joyce Arling (Kate Vendig), Ann Carter (Martha as a Child), Bob Anderson (Young Horace); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Arthur S. Lyons; Olive Films (Eagle-Lion); 1948)

A masterful trashy Gothic B-film character-story melodrama directed with vigor by the noted cult filmmaker of cheapie films from Poverty Row, Edgar G. Ulmer.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A masterful trashy Gothic B-film character-story melodrama, directed with vigor by the noted cult filmmaker of cheapie films from Poverty Row, Edgar G. Ulmer(“Detour”/”Girls in Chains”/”The Black Cat”). This is the European-born Ulmer’s pedestrian version of Citizen Kane, and his critique of the American Dream. It’s filmed in a robust film noir style, employing Ulmer’s great craftsmanship. Ulmer‘s someone known for getting the most bang in his films out of his limited budget, and does so here in a film he has more money to play with than usual. It’s a well-acted and rich melodrama about a ruthless conniver from the lower-class who ruins anybody standing in his way as he works his way to the top. The repulsive part of a heel is a tailor-made role for Zachary Scott, who could do this part in his sleep.

It’s based on the novel “Prelude to Night” by Dayton Stoddart. The writers are Alvah Bessie, Gordon Kahn and S.K. Lauren, who use too many cliches. The pic awkwardly begins at the end, which means lots of flashbacks. These flashbacks are reflected on by Louis Hayward, whose character is of the betrayed childhood friend and former business partner of the titled character. He is someone anxious to tell us how the despicable tycoon rose from poverty to become one of the “big movers” on Wall Street and just as suddenly was taken down.

It opens at a philanthropic party arranged by the millionaire Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott). One of the guests, Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward), a childhood friend of Horace’s, brings to the gathering Mallory Flagg. She reminds Horace of the love of his life, Martha Burnside, and he ruins his friendship by making a pass at her. Martha’s parents took him in because his parents (Raymond Burr & Joyce Arling) mistreated him and they rewarded him for saving their daughter from drowning. She’s the virtuous girl who got away from him in his youth.

Diana Lynn is in a dual role, playing both Mallory and Martha. Lynn, as Martha, has the final word about the Scott character, and says: “He wasn’t a man; he was a way of life.” The Scott character is looked upon as someone so vile, he takes the life out of everything he touches. We are led to believe that his climb to the top might have been motivated by the lost love of Martha. We are led to believe because of his bad karma, fate caught up with the baddie. Horace was drowned by the wealthy utilities magnate (Sydney Greenstreet) whose life he ruined. Horace had an affair with the elderly Southerner’s much younger wife (Lucille Bremer). He then married her and used the marriage as a means to get control of her ex-husband’s business. Despite Horace’s tragic death and lonely life, he’s still an unsympathetic figure we don’t care about.

Though there’s nothing new about such a biopic, it was nevertheless boldly executed as a pulpy noir film as only an artist like Ulmer can elevate such trash by giving it so much energy and style.