The 1948 film Ruthless is often compared to Citizen Kane (1941), and with good reason. Both movies examine the lives of manipulative, megalomaniac businessmen whose Midas touch in monetary matters is paired with a limitless inability to forge enduring or meaningful relationships with fellow humans. Even the opening shot of Ruthless recalls the first few minutes of Kane, as we see a huge manor towering over a road that winds its way up to the portals of Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott). While it is undeniable that Citizen Kane is by far the greater film of the two, Ruthless offers considerable pleasures of its own; it never lingers too long on any of the various episodes in Vendig`s life, and thus manages to introduce a large cast of very interesting characters. Although the film is largely plot-driven, the plot is loose enough that the characters manage to form the film`s center.
Structurally, Ruthless also bears some resemblance to its possible Wellesian predecessor. The movie opens as Vic (Louis Hayward, who looks like Desi Arnaz and talks with a British accent) and Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn) are driving to a large charity event given by the self-made Wall Street millionaire Horace Vendig. Vic, who has known Vendig from childhood onwards, has not seen Vendig since a quarrel years ago; when they meet again, Vendig takes an immediate fancy to Mallory due to her resemblance to Martha, his first love. As the evening unfolds and Vendig encounters other people from his troubled past, the film cuts between scenes from the party and lengthy chronological flashbacks which detail Vendig`s life from his poverty-stricken childhood to his present eminent position.
A pattern emerges through these flashbacks–Vendig is prey to a devouring ambition, using his personal charm and romantic appeal to first attract, then use, and finally discard a string of women whose connections and social position lead the way to fame, power, and wealth. We see him in his sordid, poverty-ridden childhood, before he is adopted by the kind-hearted Burnsides; their daughter Martha (Diana Lynn) is his first fiancee as well as his first meal ticket, but he soon throws her over for Susan Duane (Martha Vickers) and enters the world of finance. There he meets the elderly power magnate Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet in a memorable performance) and his young wife Christa (an especially beautiful and effective Lucille Bremer).
Each of the performances in this relatively obscure film is good in its own way. Vendig`s parents, who each give him cause for considerable childhood trauma, are played by Raymond Burr and Joyce Arling. Zachary Scott, who portrayed a far greater number of villains and weaklings than upright citizens, brings to his portrayal of Vendig the same mixture of unconventional, almost dubious good looks and slight moral ambiguity which often makes him so convincing a cad in other, more famous roles. But here that weakness is overlaid with cruelty and ambition, although Vendig`s evolution from fundamentally good-natured opportunist to callous success could have used more development. Fairly early on, he begs Martha to help him fight against “something inside him“ which makes him choose the wrong things, and he expresses an almost childlike need for Vic`s friendship when Vic confronts him with his inhumane attitude toward those he has used for his own ends, but there seems to be a missing link between the Vendig who knows he is doing wrong and the Vendig who confuses himself with the Supreme Deity. Or perhaps such a tension has always been present in Vendig; still, this is one aspect of the film which could have been elaborated.
Another question which arises concerns Martha. Her last scene with Vendig seems to lend itself to an interesting interpretation of her later life which is never investigated–unless the viewer wishes to connect it with the character of Mallory, which opens up further possibilities never directly addressed by the film. This is one of the cases when the film`s original source becomes valuable, but there is very little information to be found at the moment on Prelude to Night by Dayton Stockard, the novel on which this picture is based.
The film is beautifully shot, with some evocative photography and a few unusual visual touches here and there. Although many films from the Classic Hollywood era paid no attention to historical accuracy, Ruthless is an exception to the rule and helps to recreate the 1910s and 1920s through often beautiful costumes. Furthermore, its director, Edgar G. Ulmer, made horror films early in his career, including the Lugosi and Karloff vehicle The Black Cat (1934), and it may be this experience which informs the slightly chilling, foreboding, noirish nighttime sequences which bookend the film and form the bulk of the early flashback scenes.
The film also presents a few intriguing parallels to Vertigo, particularly through the introduction of Mallory Flagg, whose astounding resemblance to Martha inspires in Vendig a desire to reclaim (or deny) his past by marrying her. But it is also worth noting that Vic`s involvement with Mallory was probably based on or was at least instigated by the same resemblance. Thus it is that Ruthless covers all the bases of the American Dream`s darker side, showing not only the greed for wealth and power which resorts to inhumanity and financial trickery to gain its end, but also the surprising sentimentality and nostalgia for a dead past which haunt those who gain what they once believed they wanted. Vendig recalls both Gatsby and Kane, without the romance of the former or the flawed grandeur of the latter.
Furthermore, the very last thirty seconds or so of the movie are undeniably bizarre. Mallory`s summation of Vendig`s fate (probably Production Code-mandated and considerably unsatisfactory), and the subsequent embrace she shares with Vic have something of the mysterious semi-irrelevance, the subtly disturbing tone which the last thirty seconds of Vertigo also have. Yet her words also suggest an almost allegorical understanding of Vendig`s character which could be applied to the film itself were it not so grounded in its reality through its large cast and historical detail. It`s little oddities such as these, as well as the strength of its performances, which redeem Ruthless from the simple category of melodrama and place it on the list of films worth rewatching and pondering.