A vengeful, greedy nephew (Sean Connery) seizes the opportunity to claim his tyrannical uncle’s (Ralph Richardson) fortune by hatching a plan with his uncle’s beautiful nurse (Gina Lollobrigida).
When thinking of Bond films, what stylistic images to mind? For me, a mention of the iconic spy conjures up images of beautiful people in exciting settings wearing the most exquisite costumes – all associated with Glamour.
Its fair to say the characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic world are not far from that description either and are often involved in some form of shady business.
Usually the director has plenty of surprises a plenty in store for his eager audience. And you can bet there will be a good story to dive into with terrific acting, direction, and cinematography.
Lucky for us, Woman of Straw contains the best of both of these worlds.
Woman of Straw is based on the 1956 French novel La femme de paille by Catherine Arley. According to Imdb, the title denotes the phrase “man of straw” which means “a situation in which one person serves as a front for another in activities that may or may not be legal.”
This British film directed by Basil Dearden, produced by Michael Relph, and released through United Artists, is sumptuous and visually rich.
From the grandeur of Charles’s English estate shot at Audley End House in Essex, England, to the lush outdoor scenes shot in Majorca, Spain, every scene is a feast for the eyes. The cinematography by Otto Heller contains unforgettable images that would be at home in any Hitchcock film.
Woman of Straw not only starred 007 himself, it was filmed at the home of the Bond franchise, Pinewood Studios. Tagging along was production designer, Ken Adam, responsible for the look for the James Bond films of the 1960s and 1970s.
Fun bit of trivia: Adam also designed the production on another Ian Fleming project, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
Beatrice Dawson (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, 1951) created the costumes for Woman of Straw with special credit given to Dior for our leading lady’s wardrobe.
Lollobrigida wears quite a range of looks as her character escalates in status and wealth – from a simple nurse uniform, to sophisticated separates and bright bathing suits, to bejeweled gowns and frothy peignoirs.
Director of the early Bond films, Terence Young, commissioned his own tailor, Savile Row’s Anthony Sinclair, to transform Connery, a one-time milkman and rough-edged amateur bodybuilder, into the ultimate image of sophisticated masculinity.
If the saying is true that clothes make the man, we could say that Woman of Straw not only reaped the benefits in a big way, it also holds an integral place in Bond history.
According to Matt Spaiser of Bond Suits, several iconic outfits worn by Connery in Goldfinger first make their appearance here, in Woman of Straw.
Yes, that includes the infamous white dinner jacket which Spaiser indicates is actually ivory.
Read more on Spaiser’s excellent blog as he analyzes both films and their costumes here.
Note: Further confirmation is found in The Films of Sean Connery by Lee Pfeiffer and Philip Lisa. The authors note the white dinner jacket and elaborate: “an astute reporter on the Goldfinger set noticed that several of Sean’s suits bore the initials ‘A.R.’ His character’s name in Woman of Straw was Anthony Richmond.”
While I came for Connery, the standout performances for me were Gina Lollobrigida and Ralph Richardson, both individually and collectively.
Their characters’ relationship is poignant while somehow, their unlikely pairing makes magic on the screen.
Although Gina Lollobrigida essentially plays a “bad girl” out to cash in on her unbearable employer, she imbues her role with softness and sensitivity.
Upon observing the inhumane behavior of Charles Richmond (Richardson), Maria Marcello (Lollobrigida) is immediately repulsed, and does not hesitate telling him so; yet, there is something about the man that makes her sympathetic towards him.
In a masterclass of acting, Richardson goes from cantankerous to contemplative and back again. In that fleeting moment Maria glimpses his humanity and finds herself genuinely caring for him.
Lollobrigida brings humanity and depth to what could have easily been a stereotypical role, but also particularly towards the end of the film, she lets loose, revealing a whole new side of this actress I had yet to witness.
Her performance proves, like so many other beauties of this era, she was much more than a sex symbol – she was a performer capable of handling intense drama.
Ralph Richardson as Charles Richmond embodies all that is undesirable in a human being. He is racist, sadistic, you fill in the blank and it probably fits.
And though Richmond is the last person you’d want to meet, he elicits sympathy from the audience due to Richardson’s outstanding performance.
Woman of Straw occupies an interesting place in Sean Connery’s filmography – after his first two films as James Bond, Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963) – and before the psychological thriller Marnie (1964) directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Dr. No (1962) ushered Sean Connery into the status of icon with the launching of the James Bond franchise. Not expecting Bondmania to overtake the world, Connery agreed to a rather low salary of $16,000 for Dr. No.
Now as an international star, Woman of Straw would earn the actor his first million dollar paycheck.
“I don’t want to be Bond all the time…It rifles me when people call me Bond off the set…That’s why I’m making pictures like Woman of Straw, in the hope audiences will accept me in other parts.”
– Sean Connery
According to The Films of Sean Connery by Lee Pfeiffer and Philip Lisa, Woman of Straw also gave Connery the opportunity to work alongside a man he long considered his favorite actor, Ralph Richardson.
As Tony Richmond, Connery is very Bond-esque. He oozes charm, knows what he wants, and knows how to get it.
Where Connery shines is in the climactic scenes. When Tony’s facade starts crumbling, we then see real emotions and vulnerability appear in his once assured eyes.
This film is sure to delight fans of Hitchcock, Bond, mysteries, and any of the three leads.
Although I knew where the gist of the plot was leading, there were still numerous twists and turns that kept me on my toes. The screenwriters (Robert Muller, Stanley Mann) and actors pulled me in to the point that I found myself rooting for the schemers during the moments of nail biting suspense.
That’s when I know they have done their job.
Watch Woman of Straw for free now on YouTube.
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