We Need To Talk About Sir Sean, Part II: Who Wrote That Heinous Racist Scene: Book into Film – “Woman of Straw” (1964)

You can blame one of the screenwriters, either Robert Muller (Contest Girl, 1964) or Stanley Mann (The Collector, 1965), for coming up with the scene in Woman of Straw where the grotesque millionaire Charles Richmond (Ralph Richardson) forces his two black servants to pretend to be dogs to show his own dogs how to jump over each other. It’s not in the book. However, in fairness to the screenwriters they must have thought this preferable to the scene in the original book by Catherine Arley where Richmond offers a gold watch to the best imitation of a dog by his servants. This includes them getting down on all fours and eating food like a dog. Disgusting though this is, it is tempered by being a competition with a more than decent reward (a gold watch) for the winner.

The offensive scene in “Woman of Straw.”

And now we get into a difficult position since one of the most highly-praised episodes of Succession involved employees of grotesque millionaire Logan Roy (Brian Cox) being forced to get down on the floor and pretend to be boars and eat sausages like a boar (Boar on the Floor, Succession, Season Two, Episode Two). This sequence has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the critical accumulation website. The episode won an Emmy for director Andrij Parekh. Scott Tobias of Vulture gave it five stars and Randall Colburn of The A.V. Club an A-minus. Various commentators referenced the Stanford Experiments, the culture of fear inherent in working with wealthy individuals, and the animalistic collapse of civilization.

So that has left me wondering if my objection to Woman of Straw was merely on racist grounds and to wonder if there would have been an outcry if the Succession episode had featured a black person grovelling on the ground.

The screenwriters made significant changes to the source novel. For a start in the book both the woman and the millionaire were German. Hildegarde Meiner in the book becomes the Italian Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) in the film. But Hildegarde is not a relatively innocent nurse as in the film. Instead, she is an out-and-out gold-digger, determined to marry a wealthy man in order to make up for a desperate life in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Back cover of the movie tie-in edition of the British paperback.

In the book the villain of the piece is also German, Korff, not British like Sean Connery. And he is simply the millionaire’s secretary not his nephew. The pivotal element of the story is the same, Tony Richmond (Connery) feeling he is owed much more of the old man’s fortune than the pittance provided for him in the will. Korff is also 60 years old and although Hildegarde makes a play for him, any romantic liaison is out of the question because the secretary wants to adopt her as his daughter.  Korff sets Hildegarde up as the nurse and instructs her to play it aloof and principled. Hildegarde does not fall into the category of beauty but, with better clothes and professional make-up, oozes class.

The rest of the story plays out much like the film except there is no rescue at sea and the millionaire does not listen to classical music. The novel narrative, while not in the first person, is told from the woman’s perspective. However, Korff is more devious than Anthony Richmond, ensuring in several ways that the nurse will take the rap.

Front over of earlier British paperback, not a movie tie-in.

The film’s ending is driven by the need for some kind of happy resolution, for the guilty to be brought to justice, the dupe exonerated to some extent. But the book belongs more to the film noir genre and the ending is quite different, the villain getting away with and Hildegarde seeing no way out but to commit suicide.

The deprivations that Hildegarde has undergone as a consequence of her Hamburg family being killed during the war and her struggle for survival thereafter and her desperation to find a wealthy white knight make her a more  sympathetic character.

The book is an excellent thriller in its own right.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

4 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Sir Sean, Part II: Who Wrote That Heinous Racist Scene: Book into Film – “Woman of Straw” (1964)”

  1. There’s something tricky here about racism vs depictions of racism. No-one would suggest deleting the former, but it’s very hard to draw the line. Was watching Larry Cohen’s Q The Winged Serpent last night, and didn’t remember the hero’s use of the n-word; problematic….

    Liked by 1 person

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