Archive for Margaret Lockwood

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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In Possession

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2013 by dcairns

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A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN — the genteel title suggests that this ghost story is going to be more DEAD OF NIGHT than THE FRIGHTENERS — in fact, it’s even more restrained than that. Made in 1945, the same year as Ealing’s scarifying ghost omnibus, it’s the product of the notoriously racy (for their day) Gainsborough Pictures, yet the supposedly sedate Ealing made by far the more overt, shamelessly terrifying film. But the lesser-known one does have its points of interest.

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The film gathers together several of the studio’s top stars — Margaret Lockwood, the Wicked Lady herself, a very young and skinny Dennis Price, and James Mason, who plays way older than his real age in a slightly comical wig and whiskers, for no reason other than it’s the best role and it allows him to use a version of his native Yorkshire accent for once (Mason could be very good with accents — Paul Duane tells me his Irish one in THE RECKLESS MOMENT is pitch-perfect). Retired businessman Mason and his wife Barbara Mullen, who lost both their children in infancy, move to the country and buy one of those suspiciously cheap houses one is always coming across in ghost stories. Then they engage Lockwood as a lady’s companion. And then the haunting begins, and Lockwood is possessed by the spirit of a dead, possibly murdered, former inhabitant…

The film, from a novel by Osbert Sitwell, is a little inert in its narrative — people are always saying “We must do something!” and the ghost, reportedly manifesting via the servant’s speaking tube, says “Fetch Doctor Marsham,” in act one but it’s act three before anybody thinks to attempt this — but director Bernard Knowles, a former director of photography for Hitchcock (THE 39 STEPS, SABOTAGE, etc) works hard to compensate for this with complex, fluid and dynamic camera movement, taking frequent advantage of the large mansion set, with its staircase and surrounding gallery. The tracking shots and crane shots, the whip pans and elaborate blocking of the performers, is quite dazzling. Sadly, I get the impression Knowles abandoned this approach pretty quickly — I recall nothing of interest in the other Gainsborough picture of his I’ve looked at, JASSY.

Knowles is doing a Scorsese before there was a Scorsese to do!

Marsham, when he shows up, is impersonated by Ernest Thesiger, which is very good news, but his appearance is practically subliminal — a minute of screen time with not a single closeup and most of his lines delivered with back to camera. And the pay-off is something that would probably work better in a compendium short story rather than a feature. One might also regret that Ms. Lockwood’s possession falls rather short of the gold standard set by Linda Blair with the active collusion of Mercedes McCambridge. MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS, another Gainsborough flick that year, used split personality to allow demure Phyllis Calvert to unleash the kind of pent-up passions the studio delighted in unleashing, and offered the British public what was likely their first cinematic glimpse of what could be taken for a female orgasm. Whereas here, Lockwood falls deathly ill, and under the influence of the ghost, who is also deathly ill (or, rather, is reliving her own mortal illness), resulting in one layer of wanness being overlaid upon another — a shame, with such a vibrant performer to hand.

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Interestingly, both Knowles and MADONNA helmer Arthur Crabtree went rather psychotronic in their late careers, with Crabtree bringing us FIEND WITHOUT A FACE and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, which neither Ealing nor Gainsborough ever dreamt of, and Knowles taking charge of FROZEN ALIVE (cryogenics) and SPACEFLIGHT IC-1 (see yesterday’s posting).

Blind Tuesday: Where is love and who turned out the lights?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2011 by dcairns

An obscure one — I’d never heard of MADNESS OF THE HEART until I stumbled across it. It has no reputation, but it does have points of interest: it’s written and directed by Charles Bennett, who collaborated on a half-dozen or so key Hitchcocks between BLACKMAIL and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (including most of the late-thirties espionage cycle, all reviewed elsewhere on this site as part of Hitchcock Year) and also adapted NIGHT OF THE DEMON for Jacques Tourneur, incorporating a number of Hitchcockian ideas, including the master-villain with the sweet, doddering mum.

And then there’s Kathleen Byron, reprising her mad love act from BLACK NARCISSUS, only with a cod French accent. Powell told her that Sister Ruth was a great part, the only problem being she’d never get a better one, and he was right. So basically repeating the role here seems a reasonable option: it beats Freddie Francis’s CRAZE.

In brief: plucky doctor’s receptionist Margaret Lockwood meets and falls for French aristo Paul (Who He?) Dupuis. Then she’s struck blind, and the best medical minds, including the one she works for (yay! Maurice Denham!) conclude there’s no hope. After an unsuccessful turn as a nun (blind AND a nun? doesn’t Audrey Hepburn have automatic dibs on that?) narrating the story so far in flashback (the structure’s a mess but so’s this sentence) she hooks up with Dupuis again and he marries her, blindness and all. FINALLY we arrive at the family château in the South of France where Kathleen Byron plays an old flame of Dupuis, determined to destroy Lockwood so she can have him for herself… Now things can get going, and going is precisely what they get…

Spoiler alert! The next paragraph contains plot details written in invisible ink: highlight to read.

A daft plot twist allows Lockwood to cure her blindness and return, faking it, in order to entrap her unseen enemy. This frustrates one of the best tropes of the blind person in jeopardy thriller, which is the disabled character triumphing over both unspeakable evil and their own disability. In fairness, this convention isn’t set in stone and hadn’t really been established at this time: WAIT UNTIL DARK really fixed the template. But when you see it done decently, it’s satisfying in obvious ways that alternatives, like the boyfriend barging to the rescue in SEE NO EVIL, really aren’t.

End spoiler.

Oddly, Bennett directs this one better than he writes it, but he’s dealing with a cheap novelette as source material (ugh! that title!) and struggles to inject real humanity into it. On the other hand, his filming is often stylish, aided by Desmond Dickinson’s moody photography.

Listening to Fiona’s extremely zestful reactions to Byron’s acts of wickedness against her sightless rival (from repositioning a wine glass to attempting to arrange a drowning), I was struck by how films like this encourage a complicity with the bad guy. At times, Fiona was virtually egging the madwoman on. This wasn’t due to any dislike of Lockwood, who embodies pluck, but simply because in a film like this, nothing entertaining can happen unless the villain is plotting villainy. If the supporting cast were full of amusing bit players, there might be some welcome distraction from the main event, but asides from Thora Hird as a no-nonsense maid, there’s nothing doing. So we require constant perfidy from la Byron or the thing is going to just lie there.

Kathleen in a saucy two-piece, something I never thought to see.

Fortunately, K.B. does not disappoint, seizing one of her last chances to be interesting in a dull film. No act of spite is too petty for the ironically named “Verity”, who amusingly goes from leaving sharp objects near the maid’s baby so Lockwood will get the blame, straight to murder attempts, then back to faking love letters (to a blind woman?), and back to murder again. In this she’s aided by the château’s offscreen architect, who for some reason has supplied the building with a door opening onto a fifty foot drop. Perhaps the castle was assembled from a kit, like the Keaton homestead in ONE WEEK?

Why didn’t Kathleen Byron go from strength to strength? Simply because the British cinema of the ‘fifties was too weedy to contain her, I think. There weren’t enough psycho-bitch roles to typecast her successfully, and nobody was bold or imaginative enough to see her in more varied parts, despite the proof offered by THE SMALL BACK ROOM that she could be really excellent in a less extreme characterisation. (The reason David Farrar’s so uncharacteristically strong in that film is that she lends him fire. And he’s strongest in BLACK NARCISSUS when she’s around.)

There’s also the sad fact that she was apparently a little difficult, as talented people often are.  With the supremely difficult Michael Powell around to help her, that didn’t matter so much, but when they were no longer an item and his career was on the slide, that impetus was gone. (BTW, she always said Powell’s description of her, in his memoir Million Dollar Movie, standing naked and threatening him with a revolver, was sheer confabulation.) And nobody else owed her sufficient goodwill to help.

That was stupid: with the Rank Organisation embracing sappy bourgeois mediocrity in the ‘fifties, British cinema really needed a fierce talent who could heat up a moribund flick with a dash of hellfire.