Ruthless…

A 1948 film by Edgar G. Ulmer – more on that later – about Horace Vendig, a devilishly handsome fellow who just can’t get enough, of everything, especially if it belongs to someone else.  That includes women too.

His childhood friend Vic is  idealistic and middle-class.  Horace is poor, and harbors a secret urge to accumulate, at all costs.  He uses people, he lies, he is ruthless.  He ends up a tycoon, and his last flourish is to become a philanthropist:  When you have more money than you know what to do with and you’ve ruined your rivals, might as well rub it in by giving it all away.  Vic shows up with Mallory, who bears a striking resemblance to Martha, whom they both loved as boys, and that sets the memories rolling.  The story is dull and predictable, a melodrama of class, ambition, and Wall Street fantasizing.  But…there’s Sidney Greenstreet!

In the middle of the big party, another man-women encounter sets off a different flashback, one that recounts a crucial episode in Vendig’s rise.  Greenstreet, as the emotional mogul, Buck Mansfield, is wonderful, and saves this film from the trash bin.

Vendig ruined Mansfield and stole his wife.  (She’s played by Martha Vickers, the most interesting element in the confusing mess of a film, The Big Sleep).  Vendig likes to keep people around, so both Mansfield and his and Vendig’s ex-wife, Christa, are both at the party.  When Buck sees his old wife, whom he adored, he makes a scene, and we get the whole story.

Yep, Vendig thought he was sharp with his scheme to do in Mansfield, but Buck was ready for him and showed him the door.

Buck and Christa were just having fun with the whippersnapper from the north.

Sometimes, the fat guy gets the girl.  He really knows what a woman likes!

Man, this scene was great, because it was so totally unexpected!

But Vendig works on Christa, who, despite Buck’s considerable charms, is not as young as he used to be.  With her useful information, he gets the upper hand over Mansfield’s empire.  Christa, who fell in love with Vendig, had to be totally loyal and tell all, of course.  She drags Buck to the mirror to give him the bad news.  He can give her everything, “except youth.”  Ah, such a timeless theme…

Exit the king…

Mansfield is ruined, and shows his character as he signs over his power of attorney by knocking everything off his desk, hurling the fancy pen away and grabbing an old quill, then breaking it in two after he’s done.

Later, Vendig tires of Christa as he sets his sights on more useful women.  She returns from Paris to get her divorce papers.

One of those people Vendig ruined but likes to keep around shoots himself while waiting to beg him for a loan he has no intention of granting.  Christa and Buck just end up as hangers on at a boring party.

Vendig tries to steal Vic’s girl again, and gets his comeuppance from a financial titan he trampled along his path to glory.  As the police drag the harbor for the bodies, Mallory comforts Vic, conflicted by his love-hate relationship with Vendig, by telling him, “He wasn’t a man.  He was a way of life.”

One of the weirdest closing lines I have ever heard.

As for Ulmer, he existed at the fringes of Hollywood, after emigrating from Expressionist Europe.  He made Detour and The Black Cat, for which he is celebrated today.  He died at the Motion Pictures old age home in Woodland Hills, where I grew up.

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