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From its title onwards, Edgar Ulmer’s The Strange Woman promises an unusual Hollywood experience. Begin with the protagonist, Jenny Hager (Hedy Lamarr). Too unpredictable to describe as either “good” or “bad,” she makes for a fascinating, but also bewildering center for the action. As a child, she practically murders the young Ephraim Poster. Later in life, when she maneuvers herself into a marriage with Ephraim’s father, she seems motivated by pure greed and lust—only to prove herself an upstanding member of the community.

That community is the film’s second unusual focus. With the Western as the archetypal example, Hollywood usually deals with American history as more myth than fact. Moreover, the periods covered by those limited looks backward tend to be little more than backdrops to a handful of Major Events (the Revolution, the Civil War, etc.), with equally familiar locations. Woman, on the other hand, is set in early 19th century Maine, of all places, treated as a kind of Wild North, that reminds us that even the Eastern seaboard was largely unsettled and violent early in the country’s history.

Then there are the actors. You might wonder who thought to treat continental beauty Hedy Lamarr as a frontier Tomboy-cum siren dealing with rough-and-ready lumberjacks, but Jenny is not the only mercurial, contradictory character. George Sanders, for example, normally cast as a suave villain or urban sophisticate, plays John Evered, the head of a lumber crew who manages to squeeze out his limited observations in a smooth British accent. The mature Ephraim (Louis Hayward), seemingly positioned as both the “good guy” and the object of Jenny’s affections turns out to be the most deeply flawed and unsympathetic character. Jenny, meanwhile, repeatedly defies expectation by doing the right thing—usually for the wrong reasons. 

Put simply, The Strange Woman is not a film for audiences seeking easy identification and black-and-white moral distinctions or anyone looking for a cleanly cut story, because the unpredictable characters and situations produce a jerky, stop and start development. When you think you know what to expect, the action shifts directions and you have to play catch up to try to figure out what has happened and how things can turn out, much less any certainty of how they should. (It is never very clear, even in a masochistic sense, for example, why the adult Ephraim carries a torch for the monster who nearly killed him as a child.)

Ulmer, best known for his later, low-budget efforts, exploits these oddities and ruptures to sometimes delirious excess. For example, amidst a thunderstorm, John and Jenny share their first kiss as a lightning bolt strikes a tree behind them that bursts into flames. The metaphor may be ludicrous or wonderful or both; what it is not is ordinary. The Strange Woman proves what an imaginative filmmaker Ulmer could be, but its unstable unpredictability also demonstrates the timid, tame use to which Hollywood’s tremendous resources were usually put.