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'Woman of Straw' Twists Connery and Lollobrigida Around Each Other's Fingers

Everything sure looks good.

Woman of Straw

Director: Basil Dearden
Cast: Gina Lollobrigida, Sean Connery
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1964
US release date: 2015-04-14

In the sprawling lordly manor of multimillionaire Charles Richmond (Ralph Richardson, looking as he would 20 years later in Greystoke), who gets at least part of his fortune from copper mines and the exploitation of African labor therein, the wheelchair-bound tyrant barks and raves, querulously waving a stick at dogs, servants, managers, and the world. Besides abusing everybody, his only other pleasure is listening to classical music, and it pleases him that people thought Beethoven was a boor too. Everyone silently puts up with him, including his handsome errand boy Anthony (Sean Connery), who's both his nephew and stepson.

Into this world of privilege and resentment strides Maria Marcello (Gina Lollobrigida), a fiercely proud nurse of Italian peasant stock who doesn't mind quitting if she's annoyed. This makes Richmond respect and wish to acquire her, even if it means apologizing and proposing marriage. Anthony has made his own proposal: that she should marry the old coot, inherit his fortune, and kick back a million dollars to Anthony. They can also carry on together.

Such is the situation presented with high style in Woman of Straw, a British romantic suspenser whose plot includes lovely Majorcan locales and a final act of tense twists that, while not quite credible, has us too firmly in its clutches by then to let us go, just like the old buzzard Richmond. In order to avoid presenting Maria as a mere scheming, cheating mercenary, the screenplay uncovers in her a romantic-maternal-masochistic streak that gives her sympathy and concern for the way Richmond covers his vulnerabilities.

None of this would be convincing without Richardson's ace performance, which is mischievous enough to make us wonder how much he understands and approves of the wheels-within-wheelchairs going on around him. His playing becomes more diabolically restrained as Lollobrigida ratchets up to High Melodrama-mode in the last act, having so grounded her early temperament in desire and frustration that she takes us with her. Connery has the easiest role as a sexy cad.

It's one of those movies where a police inspector must show up at the end to work things out, and in this case that's Alexander Knox, who'd been nominated for an Oscar in the presidential biopic Wilson. On hand as long-suffering employees are Johnny Sekka (as one of two African brothers), Laurence Hardy, and Peter Madden. Character actor Andre Morell has one scene as the judge, and fans of the cult series The Prisoner will appreciate Georgina Cookson as a gossip at the wedding party.

This is one of the many British films from the impeccably well-heeled production team of Michael Relph and Basil Dearden, directed by Dearden and shot by Otto Heller in a seductive style where the camera glides intimately, now and then dollying forward under a magnetic pull, and all within a mouth-watering production design by Ken Adam that would arouse anyone's avarice. Heller would be known as one of the most exquisitive photographers in British cinema if he'd done only The Queen of Spades, but he also shot The Ladykillers, Richard III, Peeping Tom, Light in the Piazza, Alfie, and two other important Deardens of this era, Victim and Masquerade. Adam, of course, worked with Connery a lot on the James Bond films.

The writers are Robert Muller and Stanley Mann, working from Catherine Arley's French bestseller. Muller was at the beginning of a career spent mainly in German and British TV, while Mann moved directly to The Collector and A High Wind in Jamaica. He would later script a great romantic suspenser, Eye of the Needle, from Ken Follett's novel.

Now available on Blu-ray, this unrestored print has visual debris and moments of soundtrack noise, but overall is highly watchable in lovely Eastmancolor, with especially vibrant blues. There are no extras.


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