Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Thirteen Women' (1932)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Myrna Loy gives a delightfully villainous performance in this silly but entertaining thriller about a bullied young woman who grows up to take extremely elaborate revenge on her schoolmates. Despite the title, Thirteen Women only manages to show seven of the 12 schoolmates whom Loy's Ursula Georgi is after (she herself is the 13th woman), and only one, Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne), ends up being the center of the story. Fifteen minutes were cut from the film following its initial release and remain missing, and some of the secondary characters were excised in favor of giving rising star Dunne more scenes.

It doesn't really matter, since the movie only needs a couple of tragedies to set up the revenge scheme that Ursula has devised. Apparently the women, still friends as adults, are all quite taken with horoscopes, and Ursula somehow gets them all to write to a famed astrologer in New York City. She intercepts their letters and sends back horrific predictions of death and tragedy, which end up coming true because the women believe they will. Yes, Ursula kills these women with the power of suggestion. It's preposterous but actually kind of creepy, especially a scene in which one woman struggles not to shoot herself and ends up succumbing to what she believes is inevitable.

Loy infuses Ursula with a devilish seductiveness and a bit of tragic melancholy, and the scenes in which she uses her hypnotic powers to manipulate people are nicely unsettling. She becomes more of a boringly conventional villain in the movie's second half, using bombs and poison to try to take out Laura and her young son, and the story of the blandly noble Laura and the equally bland detective investigating the case as they try to stop Ursula isn't particularly compelling.

There's also an uncomfortable racist element to Ursula's character; she's meant to be half Indian and half Japanese, although she was raised in Britain (and of course is played by a white actress), and the cops dismissively refer to her as a "half-breed type." But the climactic showdown between Ursula and Laura finds Ursula explaining how hard she tried to be accepted as white, and how Laura and the other schoolgirls constantly tormented her for her racial otherness. It brings an uncommon complexity and sympathy to the villain, so that when she meets her eventual tragic end, it's something of a hollow victory.

No comments: