Woman of Straw
(SPOILERS) The first fruit of Sean cashing in on his Bond status in other leading man roles – he even wears the tux he’d later sport in Goldfinger. On one level, he isn’t exactly stretching himself as a duplicitous, misogynist bastard. On the other, he is actually the bad guy; this time, you aren’t supposed to be onside his capacity for killing people. It’s interesting to see Connery in his nascent star phase, but despite an engaging set up and a very fine performance from Ralph Richardson, Woman of Straw is too much of a slow-burn, trad crime thriller/melodrama to really make a mark. All very professionally polished, but the spoiled fruits of an earlier era.
Indeed, at first sniff, Woman of Straw (a play on “man of straw”) looks quite promising. Based on Catherine Arley’s 1954 La Femme de Paille and adapted by Robert Muller (who also penned a 70s series, Man of Straw) and Stanley Mann (later to work on Connery’s bomb Meteor), it positions Richardson as despotic Charles Richmond, assisted by his nephew Tony (Connery), whom he habitually belittles. But not nearly as badly as his African servants Thomas (Johnny Sekka, Colonel Nsonga in The Avengers’ Have Guns – Will Haggle) and his brother Fenton (Danny Daniels). If Tony didn’t have a diabolical scheme in mind, you’d have no idea why he sticks around, since he’s been promised exactly £20k in Charles’ will (the rest will go to charity). Uncle Charles is worth $50m. The extent of Charles’ interests isn’t known, aside from a copper mine; at one point, Thomas is asked why he doesn’t just leave, and he replies that his hands are tied, since all his people work in the mine.
Charles believes Thomas and Fenton are perfect servants, owing to their people spending “hundreds of years waiting on the white men”; “He treats his servants like dogs, and his dogs like servants”. To prove it, Charles makes Thomas get on his hands and knees in the garden while his dogs jump over him; “They like it, I tell you. They love it!” No stone is left unturned in ensuring the wheelchair-bound Charles is depicted as entirely reprehensible and utterly loathsome. At one point, Fenton nearly drowns while Charles is recklessly out on deck during a storm. At another, Charles throws the chicken dinners served on board against the wall exclaiming “I abominate fowl!” Tony has more than sufficient grounds to hate his uncle, who saw his brother’s suicide as “just another triumph” of a stronger man over a weaker one, and who married his widow (of her death, he is attributed as saying “You gave me everything and took nothing. You were a very stupid woman”).
Richardson is utterly riveting, and it’s no wonder Connery was said to have been in awe of him, signing up partly on the basis of his involvement: Christopher Bray (in Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man) detects discomfort in Connery’s performance due to that respect, but I think Bray’s stretching it (there’s never a moment where Tony doesn’t look like he could knock Charles’ block off if he so wished). The reason Tony doesn’t translate effectively is that, like Pam Ayres' mother's flit gun, he's devoid of charm; Connery just comes across as a sociopath here, and he was similarly cast in a manner that underlined his least appealing tendencies in Marnie. For either to work, there needed to be a conflict in the viewer (like Cary Grant in Suspicion, for example). Tony deals with Gina Lollobrigida’s Maria with deplorable lack of finesse (including a jolly good slap); it comes as no surprise when the twist reveals he did the dirty on their deal. More so that he should come up with a plan so full of holes that it’s inevitable he will be found out (albeit, the actual means of doing so is risible).
More than Connery, however, the problems with Woman of Straw stem from Lollobrigida’s character; its Maria, not Tony, who is the lead, and it’s through her eyes that we see the warped family. She’s suitably sultry, even when she’s positioned as the austere nurse brought in to tend Charles at the opening. But she struggles to give her character any agency beyond recoiling in horror at Charles’ behaviour and softening towards him once they are married. She’s supposed to be sympathetic, but if she were, she’d never have agreed to Tony’s scheme in the first place (whereby she manipulates Charles into marrying her, he changes the will in her favour, and then, when he croaks as he’s destined to before long, she takes the inheritance and Tony gets a million). Throughout most of the film, Maria’s positioned as a Hitchcock heroine, tormented by the men around her, and yet in the opening passages she displays steel and resolve (and even then, her professed integrity is entirely relinquished by dint of her pact).
Basil Dearden directs with leisurely poise but little eye for dramatic tension. A modicum of suspense eventually surfaces with the attempts to move Charles’ corpse home on the basis that the new will won’t be valid unless it is registered; there are so many variables here, it’s a wonder that Tony (whom we later learn poisoned his uncle) gets as far as he did, up to the point where Maria is on trial and sentenced. The deus ex machina of Charles recording an accusation against Tony that was then secreted away by Thomas is irritatingly lazy, as is Tony falling downstairs and breaking his neck.
Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking Woman of Straw would have been a much more intriguing prospect if it had broken the mould. If, as reprehensible as he is, Tony got away with his crime. It would certainly have given the picture a memorable ending. As it is, it’s notable for Richardson’s racist and little else.