Archive for David Thomson

Forbidden Divas: The Black Widow versus The Black Pearl

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2018 by dcairns

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

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

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

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Overlook

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 30, 2013 by dcairns

(L-R) Andy Serkis, David Bowie, Hugh Jackman

So, here’s the order of events —

We find out we’re screening at Telluride, but we’re sworn to secrecy. The peculiarity of this festival is that nobody knows what’s on until they get here.

Then I realise that the reason the place-name is familiar to me is from Richard Lester’s BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY DAYS, where the town is regarded as a kind of outlaw paradise.

Then, through circumstances that may be narrated one day, I get to meet Mr. Lester. Despite being sworn to secrecy, I mention Telluride to him, because, well, I figure Who’s he gonna tell? No, not that, I figure he’s trustworthy. And he tells me about filming there, and how it was one of the first towns with electric street lighting anywhere, because of the generator needed for the mine, and how they featured those streetlights in his film.

Then, looking up Telluride under “locations” on the IMDb, I realise that actual incident, the electrification of Telluride, is recreated in Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE, a film I actually like better than most Nolan movies (but what it really needs is a big wide CITIZEN KANE shot at the end to actually clarify what has been happening — thinking about it, a big wide shot in that warehouse with a few identifiable corpses floating in tanks — clear everything up beautifully).

And now I’m here. Partying in the Rockies with Francis Ford Coppola, the Coens, Philip Kaufman, Allan Arkush, Robert Redford, Salman Rushdie, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Bruce Dern and David Thomson (who has written our programme notes in typically unconventional and imaginative style) while thunder rumbles in the not-so-distance, The drive up was total SHINING credits sequence material, but my hotel is less like the Overlook and more like the Great Northern in Twin Peaks. As for altitude sickness, I’m not sleeping, I’m breathless, my head aches and I feel weak as a kitten — which is all perfectly normal for me.

The bus driver tried to give me Bruce Dern’s luggage by mistake. Maybe I should have accepted it?

A is for Amok

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2011 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, presents the first in a series on Mexican melodramas (his views, especially those on Bunuel, are entirely his own) —

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

A is for Amok

If an English-speaking film buff sees a Mexican film of the 40s or 50s, odds are it was directed by Luis Buñuel. Living out his exile from the Franco regime, the Spanish auteur was based inMexico City from 1945. He worked within the country’s commercial film industry (at the time, the largest inLatin America) and employed many of its leading stars and technicians.

You may argue that the Mexican films do not show us the best of Buñuel. It’s equally true that the Buñuel films are far from the best of Mexico. What drew an audience to Mexican cinema throughout (and beyond) the Spanish-speaking world was its indulgence in everything that Buñuel most notably lacked. Its lush visual beauty; its wallowing sentiment; its breathless worship of impossibly glamorous stars. Rather than excoriate the bourgeoisie from some dour Marxist perspective, the Mexican industry made films whose sheer visual and emotional excess was a challenge to bourgeois taste – and allowed the oppressed masses something they might actually enjoy! In the context of that industry, Buñuel looks like a stern minimalist trying (and failing) to compose a bel canto opera.

Stretching from the early 40s into the 60s, the Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama is widely available on DVD. Most of its key titles have been released in the USAwithout subtitles – aimed at a vast (and nostalgic) Spanish-speaking market. The print quality is good, in some cases, and wretched in others. Produced on a shoestring, the majority of discs are not regionally coded. If you worry that your language skills aren’t up to scratch…well, don’t. Made to be watched rather than listened to, most of these films are easy to follow. Like the icons of the silent screen, stars like María Félix, Pedro Armendáriz, Dolores delRio and Libertad Lamarque are mythic beings who transcend the spoken word.

All of which brings us nicely to the first film. Shot in 1944, Amok is the product of not one but three European exiles. Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish author who wrote the original story, committed suicide in Brazil in 1942. (The best-known film of his work is Letter from an Unknown Woman.) Max Aub, who wrote the screenplay, was a Spanish avant-garde writer of French and German parentage, who fetched up inMexico to escape the Civil War. The director, Antonio Momplet, was another runaway Spaniard who would, finally, wander back toEurope to direct low-budget gladiator movies. The clash of three such talents will be anything but dull.

The film opens on a luxurious ocean liner, with an appropriately Gothic storm brewing in the background. A drunken doctor (played by actor and director Julián Soler) staggers about the deck. Romantically gaunt and tormented, like a sort of latino Jeremy Irons. Teetering up to the window of the grand ballroom, he looks through it and spies…Mexico’s most famous diva, María Félix, her raven hair dyed a most fetching shade of blonde. If you have trouble picturing this, just think of Jeanne Moreau in La Baie des Anges. This new look is that incongruous and that effective.

What could explain this dye-job but a flashback to the Casino at Monte Carlo? Here the blonde María, a silky-smooth adventuress and serial collector of rich men, lures the promising young doctor into absconding with the funds from his clinic – which he promptly gambles away at roulette. Striving to pull his name out of the mud, Soler signs on for 10 years as a doctor in “the colonies of the Indian Ocean”. Exactly whose colonies, or where, is never spelled out…but films like Amok treat petty facts like geography with Olympian contempt.

Cut to another flashback (or is that now a flash-forward?) to Soler stranded in a straw hut – deep in a steaming, studio-built jungle – with only an exotic native concubine (Estela Inda) to keep madness at bay. Word is out of the amok, an all-consuming destructive rage that takes hold even of civilised white men when the tropic heat is at its most oppressive. Just in case we’re wondering if that’s a rumour, a dusky extra in a loincloth runs obligingly amok right outside Soler’s window. He’s about to slaughter the good doctor when the native girl shoots him dead.

Seconds later, a fancy open-topped car pulls up bearing a white lady in dark glasses and a wide-brimmed straw hat. We glimpse right away that it’s María, only with dark hair this time, cast as an outwardly prim and proper colonial wife. She has come to the depths of the jungle to seek him out because, you see, she’s pregnant by her lover and her husband (who’s been in England for six months) is due to arrive home in three days. Could the doctor help her out of this little problem? Well, yes and no. One look at Félix and her eerie resemblance to his lost love, and Soler is inflamed with lust. “You forget that I am not only a doctor, but also a man!” He demands sex as a fee – and María flees back to the city in horror. Contrite yet obsessed beyond redemption, he follows her by the very next train…

Some unkind gringo critics, notably David Thomson, have made cruel comments about María Félix and her acting. (“The drive and ambition of a Callas but without the talent.”) All I will say here is that she plays two radically different women in Amok, and is equally convincing as both. True, there is one awkward moment – at a lavish diplomatic reception – where María sits down at the piano to play the Appassionata Sonata by Beethoven. Her hands hover ineffectually above the keys, as if she were communing with a Ouija board. Still, she is exquisitely attired in a jacket of Oriental silk, and only the truly mean-spirited would hold her musical skills against her.

As the hero’s obsession with María takes hold, she even crops up in smaller roles. For one moment, as the native girl lolls lasciviously across his bed, her face morphs into that of Félix. We spot her towards the end, masked, as a nurse – as Soler languishes on an operating table, hovering between life and death. The climax of Amok – back on that storm-tossed ship – is a delirious orgy of amour fou as both Marias (the light and the dark) conspire to lure Soler closer and closer to his doom.

It’s alleged that Jean Cocteau begged Maria (Cobra Woman) Montez to play the Princess of Death in Orphée. He might just as well have asked María Félix… and she might even have said yes. One of the grandest of screen femmes fatales, she was never one to let a man get out alive. Or not, at least, with his sanity intact.

David Melville

D Cairns here — just wanted to add that Maria also plays a nurse, seen in just one close-up, as Soler lies on the verge of death, so it’s a triple role rather than double — or maybe quadruple if you count the ghost/vision. It was this touch above all that convinced me that AMOK is truly deranged.