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April 02, 2015

Woman of Straw

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Basil Dearden - 1964
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

It may have been coincidental that Sean Connery, recently minted star as James Bond in Goldfinger, appeared in two other films displaying varying degrees of caddishness. For most viewers, whatever he did with or to Pussy Galore was excused because he was James Bond, and it was part of the job of saving the world from Mr. Goldfinger. Playing employer and husband in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, some have argued that Mark Rutherford raped his wife, but again one can claim mitigating circumstances, as he was trying to cure Marnie of her various psychological problems in the only way he knew.

No such excuses exist for Connery's character of Anthony Richmond. Nephew of a multi-millionaire, Anthony wants to make sure he can inherit a more substantial portion of his uncle Charles' estate. The plan involves recruiting an attractive Italian nurse, Maria Marcello, with the goal being that the old bully marries the nurse, who in turn will provide one million pounds to the nephew. And for a while, things seem to be going as planned for nephew, getting even for the wrongs committed against his father and his mother, who later became Charles' wife. Not quite Hamlet, as Anthony is hardly a prince.

Ralph Richardson has no problem conveying the nastiness of the wheel chair bound Charles Richmond, a guy who always gets his way, treating everyone like servants, and his servants even worse. Xenophobic and racist, are just the beginning. Charles seems to mellow a bit after marrying Maria, yet his pride almost kills him during a fishing expedition. Maria also finds herself developing some affection for the cantankerous old man. Charles also is humanized with his passion for classical music, especially Beethoven. In a scene following their marriage, Charles plays a tape of Beethoven's Fidelio, an opera with a plot that almost echoes what takes place in the film.

Gina Lollobrigida is top billed here, as Maria. Fifty years later, it may be forgotten that she was the original Italian bombshell, paving the way for Sophia Loren, Elsa Martinelli, and a host of others. She is first seen as a shadow on the doorway, before entering the massive living room of the Richmond home, essentially a small castle. Wearing a modest blue suit, the sexuality Lollobrigida was famed for is kept under wraps. Alone, Maria undresses wearing a low cut black slip. Dearden shows just enough to suggest that Maria is maybe not the "good girl" she presents herself to be.

After a series of social conscious films, it would seem that Basil Dearden wanted to make something that was more popular entertainment, with color cinematography and a bigger budget. Woman of Straw isn't as compelling as those earlier films, notably Victim where Dirk Bogarde virtually outs himself onscreen, or the contemporary version of Othello, All Night Long set among jazz musicians in London, and Dearden doesn't abandon previously explored themes of race and class. What makes the film work are the performances, especially the nuances among the various underlings, and a delicious, if not unexpected, serving of justice near the end.

Here's another look at Woman of Straw, mostly about Sean Connery.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 2, 2015 08:49 AM