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Lady Scarface (1941)

The gangster genre is traditionally male-dominated, so imagine my surprise at seeing the arrival of Lady Scarface from Warner Archive. A gangster who’s a woman?! What’s next, mixing French fries with ice cream? The concept is unique and add in acclaimed actress Judith Anderson, Mrs. Danvers herself, as the titular Lady Scarface and there’s the makings of something special. Unfortunately outside of Anderson the film seems little interested in gangsters, focused more on two couples caught up in the snare.

Lieutenant Bill Mason (Dennis O’Keefe) is on the hunt for the villainous gangster Slade (Anderson). Unfortunately no one knows what Slade looks like. All Bill knows is Slade is definitely a man! Holed up in a hotel with a plucky reporter (Frances E. Neal), Bill attempts to follow another couple mixed up with Slade’s affairs in order to bring the gangster down for good.

There’s an interesting history associated with Lady Scarface I wish I knew more about. The film is directed by the little known Frank Woodruff who only made 11 films, all within a four year period. The script was written by Arnaud d’Usseau and Richard Collins, though IMDb lists them as “original screenplay” writers only, implying that the script might have been heavily revised. The cast is certainly B-level Warners, with O’Keefe, a long-time heavy in noirs and the aforementioned Anderson leading a cast consisting of character actors and other small-time players. This could explain why Lady Scarface feels so small, taking place in about two locations and spending nearly half the runtime in a series of hotel rooms.

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The film’s highlight is of course Anderson. You’d assume the movie’s title is associated with the 1932 feature, Scarface starring Paul Muni. That’s not the case as Anderson’s Slade literally rocks a facial scar. It’s probably meant to explain why Slade has turned to a life of crime – what man would want a woman with a little scar on her face? Scandalous! – but it just makes her look like a badass. Anderson brings her regal air to the film. It’s ironic to think she starred in this right after her searing performance in Rebecca the year prior. The studio execs obviously assumed it was enough to put her in another villain role yet misunderstood what made Mrs. Danvers so frightening. Thankfully, Anderson is able to play off the manipulation of the role, even if there are large chunks of the feature where she’s just not present.

Dennis O’Keefe has never shown any nuance outside of playing a detective and he’s doing the same schtick here. He’s tough when he needs to be and soft when paired up against Neal’s Ann Rogers. Frances Neal was the true scenestealer as Ann. She’s a go-getting reporter in the vein of Glenda Farrell’s Torchy Blane. When she gets an opportunity to stop Slade she does it, only to be blocked at every turn by O’Keefe’s Bill. In one scene Ann calls Bill to the table, telling him he doesn’t want her to solve the crime because she’s a woman. In a film that could have seriously subverted the gender expectations of the time, this is the best moment where it happens. Ann forces Bill to confront why he doesn’t want her help. It has nothing to do with her competence, it’s that he literally stops her from doing it because he believes she needs protecting. If only the rest of the film was this outspoken.

Lady Scarface won’t please those looking for a gender-swapped gangster picture but it’s fun to watch Judith Anderson is a completely different genre of film. She seems a taste adrift, and the script doesn’t give her nearly enough to do, but it’s a wonderful moment in time.

Ronnie Rating:

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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