“Thirteen Women” (1932)
by A.J. Hakari
As I expounded while recalling The Hypnotic Eye‘s nap-inspiring narrative, I don’t put much stock into mesmerism as a storytelling device. It’s hard enough to buy one using the powers of the mind to make people at corporate retreats act like Austin Powers in real life, to say nothing of a plot that completely hinges on similar practices. How strange, then, that the 1932 thriller Thirteen Women cleverly use hypnotism as a cover for psychological manipulation some of the time, while treating the dark arts as the God’s honest truth the rest of the time. It’s a movie that alternates between the sleek and the silly, the mysterious and the muddled; nearly every scene that envelopes viewers in a blanket of strange suspense is soon followed by one that will send their “Yeah, sure…”-o-Meters off the charts.
The twelve former members of a finishing school sorority are about to rue the day they first heard of a horoscope. As teens, Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne), Jo Turner (Jill Esmond), and their friends became interested in astrology, eventually writing a renowned swami (C. Henry Gordon) to have their fortunes personally predicted. But not only did their replies carry news of terrible fates for the girls, said prophecies came true, with various members of the twelve having either gone insane or to the grave. While the other surviving ladies are worrying themselves into fits over whether or not they’ll be next, only Laura remains positive that what’s happening to her pals has nothing to do with the supernatural. As it turns out, she’s not far from the truth, as the exotic Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy) has been slinking behind the scenes this whole time, orchestrating these acts of madness and murder as revenge for a past wrong she’ll never forgive.
Thirteen Women falls short of being an uncommonly deep and daring thriller for its time. It feels a touch incomplete, which may or may not have to do with the fourteen minutes that were removed before its release. The film gets just under an hour to tell a story with a number of complex angles, and while I’ve no clue what the excised footage contains, the final product is a hotbed of shortcuts taken and ideas partially developed. It might not have been that glaring of an issue, were it not for the uncomfortable connotations Thirteen Women suffers from as a result. Long story short, Loy’s character is both the movie’s greatest asset and the elephant in the room, simultaneously a villain with a tragic backstory and an embodiment of early Hollywood’s fear of those foreigners with their mystical superpowers. Loy delivers a commanding performance that puts the fear into you and even makes you feel sorry for her, but with so little of her motivations explored and what is touched upon only done so in the film’s final minutes, she comes dangerously close to becoming a one-dimensional baddie, be that the intention or not.
On top of that, Thirteen Women can’t seem to make up its mind on just what sort of influence Loy’s Ursula actually wields. The movie is at its most interesting when it shows her taking revenge by letting superstition do the work for her, allowing her victims to drive themselves into delusional panics and bring about their own demises. It really is a pleasure watching Loy’s diabolical scheming at work, but the mood is spoiled when the script demands that she shift into “You’re getting sleeeeeepy!” mode. While Ursula may have a killer stare and everything, believing in her ability to send people to their doom via trance is asking just a bit too much of the audience here. Otherwise, Thirteen Women is suspenseful stuff when it can be, brimming with briskly-directed action and jarring thrills. From bombs hidden in children’s toys to runaway car chases, there’s no shortage of opportunities for one to occupy the edge of their seat, especially as Ursula gets closer to wearing down the strong-willed Laura’s resolve.
Thirteen Women had me on the fence for a while, unsure of whether or not I could forgive its more dated shortcomings because of how firmly the film gripped my interest in other areas. Ultimately, an abrupt end to Ursula’s calculating ways steered my thoughts away from the positive, although what works about it still holds up. As far-fetched as it can become, Thirteen Women has the capacity to be sensuous, enigmatic, and pulse-pounding just as often.
(Thirteen Women is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)