Archive for The Wicked Lady

Forbidden Divas: The Black Widow versus The Black Pearl

Posted in FILM, literature, Fashion 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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Forbidden Divas: A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2017 by dcairns

David Wingrove’s back! With another Forbidden Diva piece, although, as he put it to me, “Perhaps it’s not really a ‘diva’ movie (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray, anyone?) but the director Leslie Arliss seems like a candidate!” Now read on ~

A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

“It might be good to have a man about the house.”

– Margaret Johnston, A Man about the House

Do you adore films where genteel Victorian ladies feel their hearts start to throb with genteel and tumultuous passions? Do you revel in swarthy Latin seducers, their dark curls aglow with Brylcreem, their bronze torsos a-glisten with spray-on studio sweat? Do you yearn, above all, to travel to exotic back-projected locales where roistering peasants stomp riotously – the strains of a wild tarantella – on vast and overflowing vats of grapes? Or where palatial villas cling precariously to a cliff-edge, while the waves pound orgasmically, over and over, on the rocks below?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, A Man about the House (1947) may well be some sort of High Camp Holy Grail.

Two demure Victorian sisters (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray) have been forced to live in ‘reduced circumstances’ and run a girls’ school in the wilds of suburban London. We experience their horror as their pupils play bum notes on the piano and, occasionally, use an incorrect form of the subjunctive! One day they receive an inheritance from their eccentric and long-vanished Uncle Ludovic, who moved to Italy and became “an artist” – and whose name cannot be mentioned in polite circles. (The exact nature of his offence is left to our imagination; perhaps not a great deal is needed.) This inheritance includes a large sum of money and a plush, if slightly dilapidated villa on a cliff-top outside Naples.

The two ladies make the journey down in inclement weather. They are still swathed in dour mourning black, not for their uncle – Heaven forbid! – but for their father, who has also recently died. Their names, by the way, are Agnes and Ellen Isit. This is pronounced EYES IT and not IS IT, which is a bit of a letdown. Personally, I can think of few things more fun than being named after an existential conundrum. The starchy and severe Agnes (Johnston) brings along her Scotch terrier; the sweet and rather fragile Ellen (Gray) brings her large and lazy tabby cat. Their train pulls into Naples as the rain pours down in torrents. Agnes is outraged to see that the stop has been marked NAPOLI. “Why can’t they call it Naples,” she sputters, “as we do?” She is the proud embodiment of a Little Englander abroad. No doubt Nigel Farage would find a use for her special talents.

But a stranger is waiting on the platform. A tall, dashing and vaguely sinister Italian named Salvatore. He was the uncle’s general factotum at the villa; he has come to welcome the ladies to their new home. Exactly what his relationship with Uncle Ludovic may have been is left, politely, to our imagination. We can hazard a guess when Ellen – on her first morning at the villa – unveils one of the late uncle’s paintings, which was shrouded in a heavy velvet curtain. It is an image of Salvatore, fully nude, in the homoerotic guise of the Great God Pan. Unusually for a portrait in movies, it is filmed strictly from the waist up. We see Salvatore’s nude and muscular chest, his impish and rather perverse smile, the twist of roses and vine-leaves in his lustrous black hair. The sisters may only have just met him, but we can tell – from the look of frozen shock on their faces – that they have got to know this man rather well.

As played by the swoonily handsome Kieron Moore, Salvatore is the one Italian in captivity who speaks in Neapolitan dialect with an Irish brogue. Moore is best remembered today for the disaster that all but destroyed his career, his pallid turn as Count Vronsky in the 1948 remake of Anna Karenina opposite an exquisite but rather bored-looking Vivien Leigh. In fairness, not a great deal can be done with a role like Vronsky – but the lovely Moore failed to do even that. Yet he was an up-and-coming heart-throb in British films of the 40s. Leslie Arliss, who wrote and directed A Man about the House, cast him a number of times. The leading auteur of bodice-ripping Gainsborough romances, Arliss had previously made a star of James Mason (The Night Has Eyes, The Wicked Lady) and Stewart Granger (The Man in Grey, Love Story). It is safe to say he was a connoisseur of dark and brooding male beauty.

It does not take long to work out that Salvatore is up to no good. His ancestors were a dynasty of feckless aristocrats; they once owned the land the villa is built on. Quite naturally, he feels the whole place is his by right. Our main element of suspense is about which of the two sisters will succumb to him first. His eye, of course, is on Agnes. She is the elder and heir presumptive to the estate. For the most part, Agnes glares at him in dour disapproval. (She has the air of Theresa May on a jaunt to Brussels – a stolid and unimaginative Englishwoman, forced against her will to have dealings with disreputable foreigners.) Yet one morning, Agnes discreetly but provocatively undoes the top button of her dress. She wanders out to meet Salvatore in the villa’s sunlit garden. There she sees him holding Ellen by the arm. Flying into a jealous rage, she promptly storms back inside. Salvatore had taken her sister’s arm only to stop the girl tripping over a stone. But in the warped eyes of Agnes, he is already guilty of betrayal.

Things come to a head at the annual grape harvest. As in any film with a pastoral Italian setting, the peasants pour them into an enormous vat and stomp on them with gay abandon. Salvatore frolics with a lusty local wench, whose bosom is in constant danger of spilling out of her blouse. He even induces Ellen to join the fun and tread some grapes herself! Agnes stays locked in her room, obsessively playing games of patience. Suddenly, she can endure no more. Flinging open the door to her balcony, she stands there like Death in a story by Edgar Allan Poe – glaring balefully down on the festivities. She shrieks out a single word: “SALVATORE!” All at once, he leaves off roistering and bounds up the marble staircase to her chamber. The soundtrack rising to a thunderous frenzy, he runs inside and the door swings slowly shut. A Man about the House may not be a Gainsborough production, but it has the same inimitable blend of depravity and coyness.

It is not long before Agnes and Salvatore are married. Every morning, he lovingly prepares her a special egg-flip. She begins to suffer from headaches, nausea and fatigue. When the Scotty dog dies after licking a spilled egg-flip off the floor, even Ellen starts to grow a tad suspicious. Having started off as a blend of Black Narcissus and A Room with a View, the film now morphs bizarrely into a Victorian remake of Suspicion. Never one to indulge in excessive displays of originality, Arliss even places a light-bulb in the drink that Salvatore carries up the stairs to his wife’s sickbed. Yet quite unlike the ending of the Hitchcock film, the finale of A Man about the House actually does make sound (if deeply disquieting) dramatic sense. Kieron Moore’s was a star career that never quite got off the ground, so a director was under no pressure to show that he was actually a nice guy.

Ultimately, A Man about the House is ‘not nice’ and all the better for it. Yet a full seventy years before Brexit, its message is alarmingly clear. It implies – and not even too subtly – that solid and respectable Britons would do well to steer clear of dodgy Continental types. It shows that any dalliance of that sort can only end in tears.

David Melville

Legs Wide Shut

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2008 by dcairns

The uncensored version contains what seems to me a near-impossibility: performing oral sex while wearing a full-face mask. Don’t try this at home!

Thanks to the ever-great DVDBeaver for these images*. I was always very very amused by the idea that the U.S. release of Kubrick’s dirty swan song EYES WIDE SHUT had been censored, by having additional figures inserted into key shots to block our view of the orgiastic activities taking place at Sidney Pollack’s Bilderburg-like exclusive shagging palace. It sounded so goofy!

(It should be noted that the U.K. version was also censored, but in this case the issue was with the soundtrack, which contained sacred Islamic texts chanted over the scenes of illicit rumpy-pumpy. The score was re-jigged to defuse religious wrath.)

Now at last I’ve seen frame comparisons of both versions. Pretty funny stuff. Fiona was particularly amused by the nude blonde sitting, her head resting on her masked and cowled beau’s shoulder, as they watch the hot boy-girl action. So sweet.

Why did the scenes have to be occluded in this way? Kubrick apparently researched the U.S. censorship system as best he could, to find out what was acceptable, but still found himself looking down the barrel of an X Certificate when he presented his film to the industry bluestockings. The principle in question was one of buttock-thrusts, and he should really have researched further, because Alan Parker had come up against the same problem with ANGEL HEART. The M.P.A.A. had strongly objected to the sight of Mickey Rourke’s heaving buttocks, arguing that more than three consecutive thrusts of the buttocks in one shot constituted obscenity. Parker, ever the street-fighting man, protested and won, but the principle that obscenity has a numerical value measured in pelvic thrusts obviously remained on the sexy statute books.

(The M.P.A.A. being the odd organisation it is, did not object to the blood pouring down the walls of the room, over Rourke and his paramour, Cosby Show graduate Lisa Bonet. In Britain, the censors for a long time maintained that any conjunction of blood and breasts was liable to act as a Rape Trigger, turning male audience members into slavering beasts. They squabbled with Michael Winner over his prurient remake of THE WICKED LADY, in which Faye Dunaway bullwhips a topless Marina Sirtis, and again, a stroppy Brit managed to overcome a censorship decision just by making a big fuss over it, aided by respected industry figures like Lindsay Anderson coming to the defense of his, er, art. Maybe Kubrick should have done the same. Happy ending — at least Marina S., who has to get nude in every one of her WICKED LADY scenes, had Star Trek: The Next Generation to look forward to.)

From Parker to Barker: the other person who could have helped Kubes out would be Clive Barker. When making his first feature, Barker had run up against a narrative problem. Clare Higgins’ character in the film is besotted with a particular lover, so much so that she raises him from the dead in order to continue enjoying his affections. At a certain point in rehearsal, it became clear to Barker and his cast that it would be necessary to spell out what, exactly, this kinky couple were into. Eventually, Higgins said, “*I* think she’s into spanking.” Barker clapped his hands together: “Great.” They shot a scene.

Barker’s American producer called the next day. “We’ve just seen yesterday’s footage. Sensational. We can’t use any of it.” Turns out there was an absolute Thou Shalt Not Spank commandment in force. Barker was frustrated: “You’ve got to come clean and tell me what the rules are, then. I can’t go on guesswork.” It turned out that there WERE rules, despite the M.P.A.A.’s insistence that each case was judged on its merits. Censors don’t like to make their rules known because it makes them look silly. Splitting pubic hairs is not an occupation with a lot of dignity. It’s similar to the way that executive producers and funding bodies often don’t like to admit that they’re looking for particular kinds of material, since it implies that they’re not creative and flexible.

Anyhow, Barker was DELIGHTED with his new set of rules. “It did wonders for my sex life,” he attested. “I now knew the exact moment when I was crossing over into obscenity.”

That fourth thrust is the one that does it, folks. Try to climax before then, to stay out of trouble.

The kinkiest touch — one girl holding the other’s wrists — is also hidden. Fiona points out that the same couple is back in this shot, having presumably darted through a side exit, scooted ahead of Tom Cruise, and assumed their seats moments before his arrival. “People in masks are not to be trusted.” ~ Fessick the Giant in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

Anyway, Stan’s difficulties with this sequence illustrate again my ground-breaking thesis re Kubrick.

*DVDBeaver is a terrific DVD review site. Not porn.