Forbidden Divas: The Black Widow versus The Black Pearl

David Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva, an Engish rose, but watch out for her thorns!


The Black Widow versus The Black Pearl

 “Posterity’s not worth my getting a headache every day.”

–          Margaret Lockwood, Bedelia

Perhaps the greatest British female star of the 40s, Margaret Lockwood was one of the weirdest and most anomalous figures that the staid and somewhat insular UK film industry had yet produced. Most British films prior to the 60s were populated by genteel and rather pallid young ladies who looked poised, at any moment, to give up acting and teach etiquette at a South Kensington finishing school instead. But in a string of barn-storming, bodice-ripping melodramas – The Man in Grey (1943), The Wicked Lady (1945) and Jassy (1947) are the best-known – Margaret Lockwood was a voluptuous, raven-haired temptress who robbed and swindled and schemed, fornicated with torrid passion and murdered in cold blood. She was everything that nice British ladies were not supposed to be. No wonder the (largely female) picture-going public of World War II adored her as fervently as they did.

What is also remarkable is that her career transpired entirely in Britain. Traditionally, any British star who went in for glamour did her best to escape to Hollywood as fast as possible. Think of Merle Oberon and Vivien Leigh, Joan Collins and Jacqueline Bisset and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Others who may not have fancied a life of palm trees, sprawling suburbs and year-round sunshine – Charlotte Rampling or Kristin Scott-Thomas – made do with a career in France. It is hard to think of any other star who got away with being consistently sexy and glamorous in British movies, who did so for so long and to such passionate and overwhelming popular acclaim. The critics, of course, abhorred Margaret Lockwood and her movies. But critics have never been a notably glamorous bunch. Their sniffiness about Margaret Lockwood – and the wondrously overblown melodramatics that were her stock-in-trade – carries with it a distinct smell of sour grapes.

If Margaret Lockwood never actually went to Hollywood, she made a more than creditable stab at rivalling it on her home turf. Bedelia (1946) is a lush and florid attempt at the kind of ‘women’s picture’ – half Gothic melodrama and half film noir – that flourished for a few years after World War II. Most of them centre on a gorgeous and absurdly charismatic ‘bad girl’ and their titles and stars have an iconic resonance to this day. There was Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman (1946) and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Of course, not all these girls were truly evil. Some, like Gilda, were just a tad misguided. But Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia is as spectacularly and surpassingly wicked as the very worst of them. She is a psychotic and seductive Black Widow who murders a string of wealthy husbands and lives under a multiplicity of guises and names. The opening voice-over likens her to “a poisonous flower” and Lockwood seems to have needed (and received) very little direction apart from that.

The film starts in Monte Carlo, which – then as now – was the place where well-heeled rotters went to spend their ill-gotten gains. Bedelia has just married her fourth husband, a stolid and unimaginative Yorkshire mill owner (Ian Hunter) who believes her to be an angel incarnate. He knows she has been married before; otherwise, she might have some awkward explaining to do on the wedding night. But her first husband, she says, was a penniless artist who died before he could sell so much as one painting. Speaking of artists, there is one on hand at the moment. Ben Cheney (Barry K Barnes) first spots Bedelia in a jeweller’s shop, where she is having a valuable black pearl set in a fancy ring. A few scenes later, she tells her husband it is worthless – a piece of costume jewellery, no more. Cheney overhears and knows that she is lying. Intrigued, he worms his way into the couple’s acquaintance. Soon enough, her far-too-trusting husband commissions him to paint Bedelia’s portrait.

We wonder, idly, if Cheney will try and get Bedelia into bed. This is a movie, after all – and surely it is customary for the leading man and leading lady to show at least a token sexual interest in one another. Nothing, it seems, could be further from Cheney’s mind. Indeed, he shows no discernible interest in women at any point in the film’s 90-odd minutes. He describes himself as “a hardened bachelor” and flounces about Monte Carlo in an array of suspiciously stylish white suits. He leads an Airedale on a leash and one observer says this will be a magnet for the ladies. But our sixth sense tells us those ladies are quite safe. In case we are tempted to think this is all in our warped 21st century imaginations, note that Bedelia is based on a novel by Vera Caspary who also wrote the noir classic Laura (1944). In that film, one struggles in vain to find a heterosexual anywhere in the large supporting cast.

Yet Bedelia is one of the very few films of the 40s (indeed, one of the very few commercial movies ever) to have a recognisably gay man as its protagonist. Cheney – like Bedelia – is an infiltrator, a shape-shifter, a trickster. He too is living under a false guise and the truth – or part of it, at any rate – is revealed only late in the film. He is out to catch Bedelia not because he desires her but because, on a basic level, he understands her. He and she are not potential lovers; they are unspoken alter egos. All of which is a whole lot more interesting than mere sex. Cheney uses his wiles to trap the Black Widow and unearth the secret of why she hides, but refuses to give up, her ring with its black pearl. She even tells her husband she has lost it. But her ring, her Siamese cat, her collection of musical dolls…these are the only objects in the world to which she seems to cling.

To be fair, Bedelia has most of the flaws we associate with British films of its period. Once the action shifts back to Yorkshire, there are far too many scenes where polite and well-spoken people stand about in drawing rooms and explain to one another what is happening. David Thomson described the traditional British cinema as “photographed radio” and it is true that, in Bedelia, we hear a great deal too much and see a great deal too little. Yet the director (who goes by the uninspiring name of Lance Comfort) makes frequent and inventive use of mirrors and reflections – as is only fair in a film that is all about identity and the evasions and outright lies that ‘identity’ so often involves. The cameraman, Frederick A Young, shows as much mastery of over-furnished and claustrophobic interiors as he would of panoramic and wide-open vistas in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Doctor Zhivago (1965) or Ryan’s Daughter (1970).

It is with Young’s help that Margaret Lockwood somehow contrives to look ravishing despite – and not because of – a uniquely hideous Elizabeth Haffenden wardrobe. As the film wears on, we keep a tally in our heads as to which of her outfits is the least flattering. Is it the draped Grecian-style gown with the metal-studded shoulder pads? Or the black pinafore and puffy white blouse, which make her look like a milkmaid in a church hall production of The Sound of Music? Could it be the truly grisly leopard-skin coat with the dark mink sleeves? My own choice is the velvet Italian Renaissance gown with diamanté trim and two enormous tassels dangling in front. This is clearly meant to be the last word in expensive chic. But it looks as if Scarlett O’Hara had knocked it together out of a pair of old curtains.

Now that’s what I call glamour.

David Melville

15 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: The Black Widow versus The Black Pearl”

  1. I know of Lockwood thanks to “The Wicked Lady” — which the great Raymond Durgnat also admired, and sang her praises in other parts as well. Are you familiar with the remake starring Faye Dunaway? It had multifarious production problems being Golan-Globus thingy but Faye gives it her all.

    Don’t know “Bedelia” so many thanks for the heads-up.

  2. dremble Says:

    She did briefly go to Hollywood in 1939 where she made ‘Susannah of the Mounties’ with Shirley Temple and Randolph Scott and ‘Rulers of the Sea’ with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Buit she quickly returned home.

    She was great at comedy too. Carol Reed’s ‘A Girl Must Live’ and Val Guest’s ‘Give Us the Moon’ are worth seeking out.

  3. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    I absolutely love the Faye Dunaway remake of THE WICKED LADY! It’s one of a number of interesting films that Golan-Globus financed (Franco Zeffirelli’s OTELLO, Patrick Conrad’s MASCARA, Andrei Konchalovsky’s RUNAWAY TRAIN) at a time when nobody else would.

    It is also perhaps the closest the ghastly Michael Winner ever came to making a watchable film. And you’re right about Faye giving it her all. Here and in MOMMIE DEAREST, she anticipates Meryl Streep by becoming a drag queen without first being a man.

  4. She did it under duress because apparently it was the only way G & G would back Barbet’s Bukowski passion project, “Barfly” — in which she gives one of her very greatest performances.

  5. Googie Withers was not conventionally chaste in a few films – Pink String and Sealing Wax, It Always Rains on Sundays, The Loves of Joanna Godden, for instance – in the 1940s and Joan Greenwood let rip under Robert Hamer in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

  6. Winner’s Wicked Lady channels his unpleasant personality in a very pure way: you have to feel for Marina Sirtis, who is naked in EVERY scene she’s in. She won’t talk about it.

    It’s shot by Jack Cardiff, which makes me a bit sad.

  7. Matthew Davis Says:

    Jean Kent was quite something in Gainsborough and after (I have a fondness for the Woman in Question) if a touch more declasse than Lockwood, maybe a precursor to Diana Dors and the early Joan Collins. So there is a thin tradition but barely more than one or two actresses at a time.

    Freda Jackson was no glamourpuss, but she was an absolute dynamo in “No Room at the Inn”, and if she’d be born maybe twenty years later there would have been more roles for her range. I can see her having a glorious stint as one of the monstres sacres on Coronation Street and becoming the pet of several generations of British gay men.

    Sue Harper & Vincent Porter’s “British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference” features the startling revelation that Googie Withers was very nearly the lead in “The African Queen”. To get funding the Woolf brothers went to the National Film Finance Corporation, but Michael Balcon, Honorary Adviser, recommended the loan be refused unless it starred John McCallum (no one’s replacement for Humphrey Bogart) and Googie Withers (stars from Balcon’s Ealing days), rather than Bogart and Hepburn as the Woolfs wanted. The Woolfs had to go begging to Lord Reith to overturn Balcon for the film to go ahead.

  8. Poor Balcon — he just didn’t see why a British picture should cast two Americans as a Brit and an Australian. He had a kind of point, I guess — you could say it’s all very well Americans casting Americans but it’s beneath the dignity of a British production to do so. But… really…

    Love Freda Jackson. Outside of No Room at the Inn and Brides of Dracula, what’s her best role?

  9. david wingrove Says:

    David Ehrenstein, I have only seen BARFLY once – late at night in a rather bad VHS copy. I remember being intrigued but not that much more about it. In my very hazy memories, it is Alice Krige and not Faye who stands out. Clearly it’s a film I need to revisit!

  10. All of Barbet deserves revisiting. I sincerely hope he’ll make a new film about the loathsome Alan Dershowitz, who was played by Ron Silver in Barbet’s “Reversal of Fortune” but in recent “real life” is right up there (or down there) with Jacques Verges.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    I thought Dershowitz came across as loathsome in REVERSAL OF FORTUNE. Do we really need another film about him? But I’m excited to see the new Barbet film AMNESIA.

  12. Schroder’s new film, “The Venerable W” about the fanatic Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu is about the current Rohingya ethnic-cleansing by the Myanmar government. It’s heavy stuff. What it’s mainly about is how fascism returned via social media, and how the Trump phenomenon happened globally in the same way (social media, fake news, and so on).

  13. Dershowitz might make an interesting villain, since he went from being a guy who used the letter of the law for questionable but legal ends, to being a mouthpiece for Trump whose statements are baroquely false, relying on bizarre and utterly wronheaded interpretations of the law which don’t have any basis in fact. So that’s a kind of character arc, I guess.

    I was just remarking that what Plato said about invisibility — that it would remove all moral restraints and turn men into monsters — applies irl to the internet’s offer of anonymity.

  14. Well partly. But the thing with Facebook and Twitter is that a lot of people use their real names, like I am doing now with this comment. So it’s not just invisibility or anonymity. A lot of people are openly using their names on social media and attaching it in service to risible causes for nonsensical reasons. In the case of Myanmar, you have the case of the disgraced Aung San Suu Kyi openly subscribing to the Rohingya ethnic cleansing on social media and spreading malicious racist propaganda.

    I actually do agree with Dershowitz on some points, like his critique of the Amanda Knox trial and how the American media openly took her side, and his support for dismissing the case against Polanski. In the case of Trump, his Pro-Israel views have blinded him over everything else. He started to go off-base when he opposed Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran for no reason. Well Trump gave him what he wanted, and no one’s there to stop Iran from getting nukes now, which…would eventually threaten Israel anyway.

  15. I think Dershowitz started down a contrarian path when he took Mike Tyson’s side, but being a contrarian doesn’t necessarily stop you being right occasionally. Being a Trumpite does.

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