Thirteen Women runs just under an hour. A minute under an hour. There was pre-release cutting on the studio’s part. But with those fifty-nine minutes, director Archainbaud is still able to create one heck of a creepy film. The film’s not a mystery. It’s not even a thriller. It’s all gimmick, but it’s suspenseful all gimmick.
The story’s simple–Myrna Loy is an Anglo-Indian woman whose plans to assimilate into white culture were once dashed. To get her revenge, she enlists C. Henry Gordon’s questionably insightful mystic to terrorize her victims and to push them into suicide and worse.
The film opens with a couple of the victims, using their plight for exposition. Not the Loy backstory, which comes in later. It’s relevant throughout, however, because the most peculiar thing about Thirteen Women is how reasonable Loy’s villain comes across. When Irene Dunne, who’s one of the intended victims, argues with Loy about motivation… well, it’s a little strange to hear the two talking around white privilege back in a pre-code RKO thriller. It makes me interested in the source novel. Loy and Dunne basically split the runtime, but Loy’s got a far more dynamic character and part in the story. Dunne just has an annoying kid–Wally Albright, who looks at the camera way too much–and a fetching police detective, Ricardo Cortez.
Of course, Cortez describes Loy in slurs. It’s pre-code, sure, but it’s very weird. Cortez and Dunne’s bigotry doesn’t get heroic presentation. It doesn’t get negative, not until Dunne has to acknowledge her responsibility for it. Thirteen Women knows exactly what it’s doing, at least in terms of Loy’s story. Who knows if it’s from the studio cuts or just Bartlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz’s screenplay, but the Dunne sections plod along. Dunne’s fine, but she has nothing to do. Everyone who acts opposite her gets more material. But then those characters just disappear because Thirteen Women does only run fifty-nine minutes and it features multiple action set pieces. It’s sensational and not just in its raciness. Archainbaud goes all out with the film.
Good performances from Loy and Dunne. Pretty good from Cortez. He’s lazy, but his scenes are pretty lazy too. He basically calls out for all the story’s actual detective work to be done; he’s fine at the exposition, but it’s all he’s got. Gordon’s awesome as the mystic. Jill Esmond’s fine as Dunne’s sidekick who disappears.
The film doesn’t have a natural narrative flow, except for Loy. It’s jerky with everything else. Archainbaud holds it together admirably, with nice technical support from cinematographer Leo Tover and editor Charles L. Kimball. Max Steiner’s score is outstanding.
So Thirteen Women has its problems, but it’s well-made, well-acted, reasonably charming and only fifty-nine minutes. It’s all right.