When She’s Bad, She’s Better

A YouTube commenter on the 1946 British noir Bedelia wrote that this was the only film she had seen that had an opening title credit for shoes. And so it does:

Such a credit is new to me, too. I’ve see credits for gowns, of course, as well as for jewels, furs, paintings, and even a tail. So I suppose credited shoes are not too weird. The unfortunate consequence, however, is that throughout the viewing I’m dimly aware, if only to justify that credit need, of seeking glimpses of the heroine’s footwear. What does she have on her feet, I kept wondering. Film, though, is not a foot-oriented medium. Unless you’re watching The Red Shoes or a Carmen Miranda number, most shots of an actress aim to display her face or frocks. Feet tend to disappear under the covers or below the knee line.

It wasn’t until 23 minutes into the film that I actually got a good look at a pair of Margaret Lockwood’s designed shoes, unhidden by skirts, robes, furniture, or the film frame. And that was only in extreme long shot, of what looked like a pair of simple black pumps. They were nice pumps but not what I was expecting. I don’t know what that was exactly, but something a little more out of the ordinary. Maybe with frills or silver buckles or fur trim. Perhaps a startling bright red, like the Ruby Slippers, or equipped with wings, like Mercury’s sandals.

However, the rest of Margaret Lockwood, pre-ankle, looks pretty damn good in Bedelia. She’s made up in a kind of Joan Bennett Noir Glamour phase: massy waves of dark, lush hair, spellbindingly dark eyes, heavily lipsticked mouth, cheekbones high enough to need a ski lift to reach. Plus a wardrobe to kill for, with lots of flared and padded shoulders and plunging necklines and hip-hugging skirts, garnished with frills, buckles, bows, buttons, and tubular trimming. Along with a variety of veiled, floppy, tilted, turbaned, feathered, and furred hats. (Why not a credit for the hats? At least they show up in the film frame.)

You might say that the title character of Bedelia herself really does kill for that wardrobe. There’s something a little too smooth about this lady; she’s as slick as spit on a waxed floor. Starting out by neglecting to tell her husband (Ian Hunter) of her acquisition of a humongous pearl ring, she then demurely lies when he discovers it, claiming it’s just a cheap little thing, worth only 40 francs or thereabouts, don’t bother your dear, big, bony head about it, trust me. She also can’t abide to be photographed; every time a camera points her way she flings up her hands with alarm as if she’s got something to hide. Are we suspicious yet? When hubby informs her that he’s increasing his life insurance, she actually gasps with pleasure. “Darling!”, she cries with too-genuine rapture. Are we still not suspicious?

But poor Hunter is too besotted with lovely, loving Bedelia to notice such aberrations. Not even when he’s bedridden with strange stomach pains does he cotton to what’s going on. And with the arrival of a convenient blizzard, Bedelia manages to dismiss the nurse, dispatch the housekeeper, and then isolate her husband, alone, with only her devious little self for company. She plays him as expertly as Stern on the strings, his thick skull never penetrated by the slightest of doubts. After all, Bedelia is gorgeous, sweet, well-mannered, and the perfect hostess—but aren’t all murderesses? You might establish a rule of thumb here: the more your wife knows about abstruse items of dining lore such as the depth of water in the finger bowls and where to place the fish fork, the more likely she’s planning to do you in. Take my advice and settle for the gal who’s willing to do take-out.

I’m not giving anything away by noting that Bedelia’s a scheming serial poisoner, who’s been sending a long line of husbands to their heavenly rewards both for their insurance money and because (as she vehemently declares) she hates men. But she decides she loves her current and soon-to-be-former husband because he’s nice to her. “Oh, why didn’t I meet you before,” she sighs. However, a nosy detective blows the gaff to Hunter and he, no longer besotted, leaves a bottle of poison on Bedelia’s nightstand and exits the bedroom. It’s like those stiff-upper-lip scenes when the gun is placed on the clubroom’s card table and all the clubmen leave while the cheater is left with only the pistol and his thoughts. “You know what to do,” says the last man exiting. Cut to the boys waiting outside the door. A shot is heard and they look quietly at each other. Only gentlemanly thing to do, you know, what, what. And like a gentleman Bedelia gamely swallows the poison rather than be hauled off in the paddy wagon and create a fuss. Jolly decent of her and all that. What, what.

The film is mildly entertaining, if rather slow; the pace lingers like the last clueless party guest who has to be shoved out the door. It lacks the crackle of American noir, where the dicks talk fast and the dames talk faster. Hints drop like gluey dollops of batter onto a griddle, and you wait eons for the explanation to come, which you knew all along. It’s noir made proper and clean, bloodless, loose ends tied up decorously like a dinner napkin; Bedelia even gives the housekeeper orders for the lunch menu before swigging down her fatal dose. Near the end the detective fills in the blank spots with a series of flashbacks highlighting Bedelia’s, shall we say, varied career, in which all the survivors recall her fondly. That’s a neatly subversive touch in a rather twee film, and may even point to a moral—it really does pay to have good manners. If only for the good press.

However, the most fun thing about Bedelia is Margaret Lockwood herself. Lockwood wasn’t the greatest talent, nor the greatest beauty, but she was extraordinarily popular in Britain in the 1940s, among the country’s top film stars. I’m curious about what there was in her to account for such box-office clout. Maybe because, no matter how refined the role, Lockwood had at her core a hard, guttersnipe quality onscreen. Even flouncing around in crinolines and tight-laced bodices in such frou-frou as The Man in Gray or Jassy or The Wicked Lady, she’s accessible and common. Beneath the lace and corsets there lives a toughie, a survivor. One out to get what she wants and who’ll make damn sure she gets it.

I think that’s why Lockwood is so good in villain roles. She played many kinds of parts during her heyday, both good girls and bad girls, but the baddies did something for her; as an actress she thrived on turpitude. Playing a good girl, Lockwood assumed an aspect of pious suffering, like a saint affected with toothache. But give Lockwood a character with the morals of Genghis Khan and she lets it rip. She gives us Villainy writ large. It’s the Western Union style of acting, every feeling telegraphed with the Furrowed Brow, the Bitten Lip, the Sliding or Widening Eye; a veritable gamut on the Indication scale.

You can follow Lockwood’s performances like a parodic silent film, watching her strike poses in Joy, Sorrow, Distress, Annoyance, Panic, and Terror. I love it—who does such emotional cabling anymore? When, in Bedelia, her character lies, Lockwood pitches it big: she bites her lips, turns down her mouth, widens her eyes, and makes a moue. It this isn’t Lying for the Ages, then I don’t know what is. It’s grand enough to be carved on Mount Rushmore.

But Lockwood’s at her villainous best when she plays Happy. That’s when you know something really dirty is going down. When, in The Wicked Lady, Lockwood goes for the nasty, she lights up and literally grins with joy. In Bedelia, she’s a little more subtle, her lips curling slowly as she contemplates a victim with the beatific calm of a lion observing a lamb. But she gives off the same effect: her eyes gleam, her smile broadens, her whole demeanor glows. Never have I seen anyone enjoy perfidy so much; it’s like a refined orgasm. Her very flesh seems to shine. Bravo, Margaret. Wickedness does such wonders for the skin.

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