Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

Warning: spoilers ahoy, for some things, you just have to write down!

Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce) comes to the small town of Domingo, a place of cattle ranches (which the script calls farms for some reason) and very little else, to work as a companion and occasional secretary for blind Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard). Zenobia is a charming and kindly woman, knitting many a sweater for the kids in town, and keeping on the dumb and for 40s people apparently very frightening looking Mario (good old Rondo Hatton) as her servant. Why, she’s so nice, she even insists on Jean drinking a nice, warm glass of milk before going to bed each night.

Curiously, ever since she has arrived Jean has begun sleeping very heavily. She is also plagued by nightmares and has problems getting out of bed. It is probably the good country air as Zenobia says. Or is Zenobia slowly draining Jean’s blood to feed it to a giant plant she brought with her from South America and which she uses to poison the local cattle, so the ranchers (which the film calls farmers for some reason) will leave and she can get their lands which once belonged to her family back on the cheap? You decide.

It is rather difficult to not find at least a small place in my heart for a film whose villainess has tried this hard to come up with a needlessly convoluted and ridiculous plan, and thankfully, that’s not the only point on which Arthur Lubin’s Universal production The Spider Woman Strikes Back delivers.

There’s also the sheer chutzpa of a title that tries to sell itself as a sort of sequel to the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes Spider Woman while having nothing whatsoever to do with the Universal Holmes cycle apart from Gale Sondergaard here taking on the role of a different villainess.

On a more practically and less conceptually fun level, this is simply a very entertaining little programmer, surprisingly efficiently plotted by Eric Taylor, and directed with as many flourishes of mood – for example the very nice noirish lighting of Zenobia’s mansion by night – by Arthur Lubin as time and budget permitted. On the plot level, this isn’t at all far from your typical Poverty Row movie, but there’s a pleasant degree of focus and craftsmanship on display here Monogram or PRC directors only seldom rose to, so we get a delightfully silly plot presented with the amount of energy it actually deserves.

Another pleasant surprise is how much Joyce’s Jean is actually doing on her own her. Sure, the painfully boring male lead (Hal Wentley), missing from the plot bit of this post because he’s just that uninteresting, does get to save Jean in the end, but for most of the movie, she’s figuring stuff out herself, making decent plans, and giving off the air of a young woman perfectly able to take care of herself even under difficult circumstances. It’s always particularly nice to see a female character in a 40s movie who is as perfectly capable as she is, yet no femme fatale.

Sondergaard makes a fine villain too, which should come as no surprise since Universal was trying to sell the film on her past Holmes character. She may not be going to the heights of scenery chewing you’d hope for given her bizarre plan, but she’s wonderfully able to present Zenobia’s ability to change from decidedly nice, cultured, poetry-loving woman to cold-blooded killer of secretaries and fondler (there is indeed a somewhat erotic quality in her relationship to her plant) of dangerous plants. And, of course, it’s also nice to see Rondo Hatton, even though I, not coming from the 40s and all, always think he looks like a nice, quiet guy you’d want to have a beer and a chat with, instead of a reason to screech and faint.

What more could anyone want from a cheap Universal programmer from 1946?

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