Color, 1964, 122m.
Directed by Basil Dearden
Starring Gina Lollobrigida, Sean Connery, Ralph Richardson, Alexander Knox, Johnny Sekka
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Shortly after working on Alfred Hitchcock's notoriously perverse thriller/psychological drama Marnie, Sean Connery took another break from his hot streak of James Bond films to star in another fascinating suspense film, Woman of Straw. Essentially a three-character chamber drama with twisted overtones, it pairs the Scottish superstar with Italy's second-hottest acting export at the time, the gorgeous Gina Lollobrigida, and veteran stage and screen actor Ralph Richardson. Moreover, it marked a prominent studio assignment for the great, vastly underrated director Basil Dearden, an Ealing vet coming off of a stunning run of '60s films including the taboo-breaking Victim, the jazz mystery masterpiece All Night Long, and the intriguing brainwashing study The Mind Benders.
Dearden's typical visual panache is definitely in evidence here as every shot (aided by Peeping Tom cinematographer Otto Heller and expert production designer Ken Adam) captures the sumptuous but diseased lifestyle of Charles Richmond (Richardson), a very wealthy invalid with a nasty streak a mile wide and a deep aversion to dogs. It's tough for him to keep help for long thanks to his cantankerous behavior, but his new nurse, Maria (Lollobrigida), gives it her best shot. In the middle of all thi is Charles' scheming nephew, Tony (Connery), who starts making moves on Maria during her first stormy night at the estate. Charles' horrific, racist behavior starts to push her over the edge, such as when he forces his black servants to participate in cruel dog tricks ("They like it!"), and Maria finds herself amenable to Tony's suggestion that Charles' life be put to a premature end -- after she marries the old man first. Naturally, things take a few unpredictable turns and the police get involved, leading to a some mishaps with a dead body and increasing paranoia of the surviving characters.
The first half of the film is a deliberate slow burn, focusing mainly on character development and dark atmosphere to put all the pieces into place before the trap is sprung. It's an intriguing structure that pays off admirably, and the rich, sumptuous visuals go a long way to keeping the proceedings interesting even when Richardson is on his twentieth temper tantrum. A classy veneer of sorts is maintained by peppering the soundtrack with classical music (mostly Beethoven) instead of a traditional score, which parallels nicely with the antiquated decoration of the house including Greek statues and lots of wood paneling. Of course, one of the really big draws here is seeing Connery in full villain mode, something seen all too rarely (though Marnie sort of counts in a way).
Strangely underrepresented on home video despite its cast and quality, Woman of Straw was given a VHS release by MGM but never carried over to DVD. A solid HD transfer popped up around 2012 on the MGM HD channel and made occasional reappearances on the schedule, but it's really the 2015 movie-only edition from Kino Lorber that does it the most justice to date. The Blu-ray in particular looks quite satisfactory with accurate 1.66:1 framing, an appropriately dense and dark appearance, and as usual, an as-is cinematic approach with grain and occasional specks left intact instead of undergoing digital clean up. It's not demo material of course, but fans should be more than happy to finally have this one looking as sharp as it did in theaters. The DTS-HD MA mono audio is an accurate reflection of the thin, fairly flat nature of the original sound recording, with is limited to dialogue and the aforementioned classical recordings.