As the master of numerous genres, the ill-fated British screen veteran Basil Dearden made an excursion into suspense territory with this little-known English thriller from 1964, based on Catherine Arley's novel La Femme de Paille. Woman begins with the most weathered premise in the history of noir. Two veritable strangers -- home nurse aide Maria Gina Lollobrigida and her charge, playboy Anthony Richmond Sean Connery -- conspire to have Maria marry Anthony's sadistic millionaire uncle, Charles (Ralph Richardson), and agree to murder him in order to collect and divide the insurance money after he writes her into his 20-million-dollar will.
The picture begins as a kind of "drama of manners," each scene meticulously, almost theatrically staged, the lines read stiffly and properly by the three European leads - mannerism atop a rising undercurrent of suspense. Yet, during the film's final act, Dearden springs an outrageous twist on the audience, recoloring everything from the previous 90 minutes and forcing us to reexamine our perceptions of the characters, violently undercutting the then-screen images established by Connery and Lollobrigida. To say more would ruin the picture for viewers, but Woman of Straw actually begins to foreshadow David Mamet by about 20 years, in his fascination with "shell games" onscreen -- and one discovers that Dearden has actually constructed Woman's narrative as a series of Chinese boxes, each hidden inside of one and enclosing another. The dramatic architecture is thus carefully calculated and complex enough to resemble a jigsaw puzzle -- a truth that drew fire from some critics who ignorantly attacked the picture as confusing, and a complexity best summed up by one of Connery's final lines: "It takes a very sane person to plan something perfect." The film's final twist is outrageous and implausible -- it would retain far greater credibility without the concluding ten minutes -- but a dourer wrap-up certainly would have incensed viewers. For some unknown reason, Woman of Straw sank into almost complete obscurity in the decades following its release. It has received no video or DVD issue and rarely appears in repertory cinemas, but crops up on American cable from time to time, where it has attained a small cult following.