Woman of Straw (1964)

Rating: B

Dir: Basil Dearden
Star: Gina Lollobrigida, Sean Connery, Ralph Richardson. Alexander Knox

You’d expect this thriller to have stuck in the public memory considerably more than it has, given its stars. Yet I’d never heard of it, until I was looking for Lollobrigida movies on YouTube. It deserves a better fate, since it’s a deliciously black thriller, which has only become darker over time. Tony Richmond (Connery) lives with his extremely rich uncle, Charles (Richardson), who is a complete bastard to everyone, and the purest epitome of wealthy privilege. The only thing money can’t buy him is good health, and there have been a string of temporary nurses hired by Tony to take care of his uncle. None last long, due to the old man’s unrelentingly abrasive nature. 

That is, until Maria Marcello (Lollobrigida) shows up. She’s of Southern Italian stock, and made of sterner stuff – though even she leaves and has to be wooed back by Tony. Charles becomes fond of her, and Tony makes an offer: marry his sickly uncle, get him to change his will, and collect the inheritance. Thinking about this plan in hindsight, it seems questionable. Tony says he’ll give Maria a million pounds (about £16m in today’s money) from the proceeds, but wouldn’t she stand to get everything? Anyway, it all goes pear-shaped when Charles dies before the changed will is registered, leaving the couple to stage what feels very much an inspiration for Weekend at Bernie’s. Yet it turns out Tony hasn’t been straight with Maria either.

There are two distinct halves to this film. In the first, it’s held mostly by Richardson’s stellar performance. Even for the era, the treatment of his black servants, imported from his African copper mines, was harsh, e.g. making them jump over each other to show his dogs what to do. However, time certainly hasn’t helped statements like “A negro may no longer know his place here or in America. But in Africa, you can still find some who do.” His relationship with Maria is a bit like the Higgins-Doolittle one from My Fair Lady, between a geezer and a bit of lower-clsss Eurototty (Audrey Hepburn being Dutch) – if Professor Higgins had been a racist cunt.

With Charles’s welcome demise, the film shifts abruptly in tone, although I’m not sure how much the dark humour which follows is intentional. I’m going to presume that was the goal, and there were no shortage of exclamations from the viewers here, as the plot twisted and turned thereafter. From a contemporary viewpoint, it’s hard to see Connery in a tuxedo, proclaiming “Invariably,” when asked if woman always does what he wants, or slapping Maria about, without seeing him as Bond, or at least Bond’s nastier brother. It’s a bit dissonant. [Per the IMDb, the tuxedo is the same one he wore at the start of Goldfinger] Speaking of 007 though, Ken Adam’s set designs for the interior of the Richmond mansion (top) are fabulous, truly epic work. It’s the cherry on what’s a bit of a forgotten gem, I feel.