An unusual film noir from director Edward G. Ulmer made in 1948, Ruthless introduces us to a wealthy man named Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott). On the outside at least, Horace would seem to have everything that he could ask for - he's fabulously wealthy and has everything that goes along with a life of privilege, he's also well regarded by many for his efforts as a philanthropist. His past, however, tells a different story. We learn through a flashback sequence that young Horace (Bob Anderson) and two friends, Vic (Arthur Stone) and Martha Burnside (Ann Carter), were out for a paddle in a canoe one day. With both boys intent on winning Martha's heart, a skirmish ensues and the canoe tips. Martha falls in and almost drowns but Horace is able to save her in time but when he gets home his mother slaps him for ruining his suit, unable or more likely unwilling to let the boy explain himself. You'd think that when Martha's mother shows up to thank Horace for saving her daughter that things would get better but instead Horace's mother becomes even more upset - previously the Burnside's would have had nothing to do with the far less affluent Vendigs, and only after this incident does Mrs. Burnside feel the need to give them the time of day. Horace is invited to Martha's party regardless, but Mrs. Vendig will not allow him to attend.
Later, Horace and Vic head into the town to visit Horace's father (Raymond Burr) at the pub he operates. The plan is to weasel a few bucks out of dad to buy himself a new suit so that he can go to Martha's party and impress her without his mother knowing, but when he arrives home before his mom expects him and catches her in the middle of a more personal encounter with another man, he's basically kicked out of his own house. He winds up at the Burnside place where Mrs. Burnside takes pity on him and lets him stay. As Horace gets older, he becomes more and more obsessed with success, with accumulating wealth and he cares not who he has to trample on in order to get it. His relationship with Martha (Diana Lynn) and Vic (Louis Hayward) changes considerably, especially once he becomes involved with a woman named Mallory Flagg (also played by Lynn).
A fairly scathing attack on capitalism and greed, this left leaning noir is more of a character study than a thriller. While there are some serious gaps in Horace's development presumably left out intentionally to let us make up our own minds about why he is the way he is, we're given enough pointers to at least give us something to chew on. His home life, before being taken in by the Burnside family, was obviously trouble. His parents split up, his father running a bar and hanging with women, his mother mistreating him and then later fooling around with another man she almost instantly places in a higher priority than her own son. It's easy to see how this might instill in a young man not so much a want but a need to climb that social ladder and prove yourself better than your peers. Horace accomplishes this by trampling others in order to get even more wealth, and we can assume his philanthropy is a way to ease his conscience and justify his actions if to nobody else but himself.
The film has some unusual gay subtext in it, and you have to wonder if the writers put this into the script intentionally - Horace is very 'hands on' whenever he has to deal with Vic as an adult, making you wonder if the jealousy arose because they both liked the same girl or because Vic liked the girl and Horace liked Vic. He also shows a trait for being drawn to women whose fathers can offer him that next step up the ladder, more interested in what the patriarchs can offer him than their generally very pretty daughters. Regardless of the writesr' intentions, it's obvious to anyone paying attention that Horace is faking it with the ladies in the film.
The movie is a little bit slow in spots but it's quite well acted. Scott is solid here in the lead, giving Horace enough obvious inner turmoil in a few key scenes to make it work. Raymond Burr is good but underused and Louis Hayward is solid in his supporting role. The most impressive member of the cast is the lovely Diana Lynn in an interesting dual role. She gives her character(s) the necessary depth we need to understand her and she looks great doing it thanks in no small part to the careful way in which she is framed consistently throughout the movie. The film is sharp looking, it makes good use of nice sets and features some interesting deep focus shots that add to the style. The film has inevitably drawn comparisons to Citizen Kane, and it's not too much of a stretch to make those connections as both films deal with similar themes. Welles' picture is the better of the two but Ulmer's take on things is definitely worthwhile in its own odd way.
For a movie made on a modest budget in 1948, Ruthless looks pretty good on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.33.1. There's a nice amount of natural looking film grain present that results in a very film like presentation without the picture ever looking deteriorated or dirty because of it. Texture is good and black levels are strong, with very nice shadow detail. There are a few spots where the contrast a tiny bit soft but this looks to be the way that the movie was shot and not a problem caused by the transfer itself. The opening credits do show considerably more wear than the rest of the movie as does a scene that takes place outside in a gazebo, but generally speaking, the movie looks quite good here despite the presence of minor print damage throughout.
The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD Mono track in the film's original English language, no alternate language or subtitle options or offered. The audio is clean and clear and easy to follow, the dialogue easily discernible and the score dramatically strong without overpowering anything. There are no issues here with hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced throughout the movie. Range is obviously limited by the age and format of the source material but the movie sounds just fine here.
Aside from a static menu and chapter selection, there are no extra features at all on this Blu-ray disc from Olive Films.
Ruthless is a strange film, sometimes a cold one but almost always an interesting one. The film features a good cast and interesting characters and despite a few moments of disconnect and a couple of minor pacing issues, it's a good movie, if not Ulmer's best. Olive Films have done a nice job with the Blu-ray presentation - if there are no extras, as is usually the case with the label - at least it looks and sounds good. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.