Ruthless…

January 24, 2012

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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Capitalism…Greed??

December 23, 2010

What a wonderful quote from the New York Times article on the boom-bust cycle in Nevada.

Robert A. Fielden, an architect and urban planner in Henderson, said the state has been particularly hurt by real estate speculators who flipped property for profit and then just walked.   Reflecting the despair that can be heard in the voices of even Nevada’s biggest boosters, he said:

 “We have never faced anything like this before – What we are living with now is, we let the free market reign without any controls at all. We talk about the United States being built on capitalism. But this wasn’t capitalism. This was greed.” 

Happy Holidays!


Hey, Bernie!

December 20, 2008

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Am I alone if finding the Madoff  affair a bit, well…humorous?  C’mon, lots of rich people who still don’t have enough and are seduced by something too good to be true.  A modern retelling of the Goose & the Golden Egg fairy tale?  There’s a reason they’re called fairy tales!

What a character!  So low-key.  As one friend said, he’d rather spend time on the Riviera than going to society parties.  Well, so would I!  Just a nice Jewish boy who did well by doing good.  Did really well.  The New York Times has so many references to the “clubby world of Jewish philanthrophy” it might make even a Jew-hater feel sorry for those rich Hebrews who were taken!

Let’s revisit some old stereotypes:  the smart Jew – he’s smart.  What about those rich Jews he fleeced – weren’t they smart too?  And is everyone else so dumb?  Those French investigators from a major bank spent three days with Bernie’s crew and concluded that something was rotten in Madoff land – they didn’t bite!  The greedy Jew – guess he was greedy too, but who isn’t on Wall Street?  Isn’t that the biggest lie of all, that Wall Street “wizards” are smart, not just plain avaricious?  The smart, virtuous Jewish immigrant who works his way up the American ladder to fame and fortune?  Well, he was raised on Long Island, but still…

And reverberating through all the stories in the press is the unspoken refrain, “Hey Bernie, we hardly knew ya!”  How long was he doing this?  He must have started off legit or he’d never have gotten his foot in the door of those country clubs.  I guess part of the appeal of this is the story of a regular guy who made good, but was an impostor!  Don’t we all dream of faking our way to riches and fame, at least once in a while?  He did it!  A bizarre and dark twist on the old assimilation-outsider-immigrant American dream too.

And the humor?  Well, to me, a Ponzi scheme has its own intrinisic comedy.  Shovel out the money as the new money comes in, but the pile grows bigger.  It’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, can’t you see it?  Marx Brothers finance!  And then it tumbles down and everyone asks, “How could it happen?”  It’s classic.

Well, maybe it’s just schadenfreude, but I can’t suppress a chuckle.  That Bernie!  What a character, oy!