Monday, July 19, 2010

Bedelia (1946)

Expectations of Female Behaviour in Bedelia (1946)

“I was naughty, wasn’t I?”


The British B noir film Bedelia (1946) is an examination of a female serial killer, but the story is not a thriller; instead it’s a study in the psychology of evil and how pre-conceived notions of female behaviour contribute to the destruction of Bedelia’s male victims. For just a few moments when Bedelia begins, there’s a flash of the much more famous and feted noir title Laura. Both films are based on novels from the McCarthy Era gray-listed author, one-time communist Vera Caspary, and both films begin with a glimpse of the portrait paintings of Laura and Bedelia. Laura’s detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) falls half-way in love with Laura from gazing at the painting and learning about her life, but the narrator of Bedelia expresses conflicting feelings of fascination and horror for the portrait subject. Laura is a much flashier, stylish picture--smooth and sophisticated as the story unravels of a corpse who turns out to be … someone else. Bedelia, on the other hand, with its gothic touches, examines murder as a behaviour that defies explanation. The novel is set in 1913 Connecticut, but the film is smoothly updated to 1938 Monte Carlo and Yorkshire. Caspary acted as a consultant on the script which was co-written by her then-lover Isadore Goldsmith, the man she later married. Goldsmith also produced the film. Bedelia was directed by Lance Comfort, a competent and under-appreciated noir director whose resume includes Hatter’s Castle (1942), Temptation Harbour (1947), and Rag Doll (1958).

Bedelia begins in Monte Carlo with Ben Chaney (Barry K. Barnes) painting a simple street scene. This seemingly irrelevant moment underscores the film’s central motif: truth and reality vs. deception and facsimile. Two of the film’s three main characters are not who they appear to be, and while it’s not quite clear what is going on in these opening scenes, it is apparent that there are several intriguing layers of deception. Chaney introduces himself as a “buyer of rare pearls” in an upscale jeweler’s and asks a few questions about a woman who left an exquisite, rare black pearl to be set in a ring. According to the gossipy jeweler, Bedelia, who was once a rich widow is in Monte Carlo on her honeymoon with her second husband, Charlie Carrington.

Using a rented dog (note the male/female pronoun switches), Chaney manipulates a conversation with the Carringtons, and it’s clear that Bedelia (Margaret Lockwood) is not honest with her rather staid husband, Charlie (Ian Hunter). She lies about the pearl’s worth claiming that it’s a piece of worthless costume jewelry--a “cheap little thing” she “picked up in Paris,” even though Chaney is quite aware that the jeweler offered her 100,000 francs for it just hours before. Along with this lie, it’s obvious that there’s something not quite right about Bedelia. She’s a beautiful woman who has an extreme dislike of having her photo taken. Chaney offers to paint Bedelia’s portrait, and while her reluctance is evident, she’s coerced into compliance to please her husband. Chaney seems to make Bedelia uncomfortable. Is this because Bedelia claims that her deceased husband was an impoverished artist? Or is she uncomfortable with Chaney’s lavish compliments? And what about the life insurance agent who swears that Bedelia is a dead-ringer for yet another wealthy widow he knew a few years before?

The Carringtons return to a small village in Yorkshire. Chaney shows up shortly afterwards and rents a cottage with the excuse that he wants to finish Bedelia’s portrait. The script teases out relationships between Bedelia and Chaney and Charlie and his business partner, the very reliable Ellen (Anne Crawford). Chaney makes a minor appearance in the book, but in the film, he frequently takes the psychologist role as he reflects questions back to those who try to interrogate him about his relationship with Bedelia. A delicate game of cat-and-mouse develops between Chaney and Bedelia with Charlie remaining oblivious of the undercurrents in the relationship between his wife and the persistent artist….

Most of the film concentrates on the social interactions of its three main characters--Ben, Charlie and Bedelia, and Bedelia’s past is gradually revealed against the backdrop drama of this strange triangular relationship. Her daily life with Charlie is a sleek performance of domestic serenity, but when pressured, the mask of the perfect, doting wife slips just enough to glimpse something quite terrible underneath. She plays the ‘silly little woman’ role with studied artistry, and if she slips and makes a mistake, or is caught in one of her many lies, she slickly glides in a range of giddy, girlish behavior. At one point she gushingly tells her husband “I’m not intelligent like you are” and this is a comment that’s designed to flatter Charlie and soften him up for manipulation. Of course the truth is that Charlie is pathetically out of his depth when it comes to Bedelia, and while she appears to be emotionally fragile (and has managed to convince everyone of this fact), in reality she’s a serial killer who plans her crimes methodically, racking up victims and watching the bank balance grow with each murder.


In the very first scene between Bedelia and Charlie, she pulls out a doll which she claims is the result of her shopping trip. He indulgently tells her she’s a “child,” and their relationship appears built on that disparity of authority. This allows Charlie to be the indulgent parent--as if he’s the one in control making all the decisions. Later, under pressure from Chaney, Bedelia’s behaviour disintegrates and becomes increasingly illogical and troubling to Charlie. He is so conditioned to her childish whims, he doesn’t see her through her lies. Charlie blames a great deal of Bedelia’s instability on nervous strain, and yet he fails to ask himself what on earth she has to be nervous about. It’s taken for granted by everyone in their social circle that Bedelia’s behaviour is ‘normal,’ yet Bedelia ‘suffers’ from flash headaches, petty jealousies, senseless insecurities, emotional outbursts, she plays with dolls, threatens to smuggle a cat through customs, travels around with “mild sedatives,” and wrings her hands more than Lady Macbeth. No one, except Chaney, of course, knows about the pathological lies Bedelia tells, but in spite of all the unbalanced behaviour Bedelia exhibits in a matter of weeks, she is only deemed “sensitive” by the local vicar--an opinion echoed by the fatuous doctor.


Bedelia is a remarkable film for its examination of female pathological behaviour. The film’s subversive message is that psychotic behaviour in women is ascribed by society to ‘female foibles’ such as sensitivity, nervousness, and a weakness for “pretty things.” It's further implied that these personality traits are attractive and even desirable; Charlie, after all, passes up a relationship with the obviously compatible Ellen for an extremely unsuitable Bedelia, and this is largely because Bedelia seems designed to centre her life on pleasing Charlie--whereas Ellen is an independent, thinking, professional woman. The deeper proto-feminist message is that women are compartmentalized into roles and forced to be submissive, submerging their intelligence and desires in order to gain some power in their relationships with men. Bedelia is, of course, an ultra-warped version of the female submissive ideal. Male expectations of her behaviour have created an unbreachable fissure between her dual personalities--the helpless little girl who craves indulgence and approval, and the embodiment of the evil, beautiful femme fatale who kills the men who are weak and foolish enough to fall in love with her. It takes Chaney to break it gently to Charlie that he's married a dangerous nut-job, and what does that say about the perceptions of acceptable female behaviour?

Yet in spite of the fact that Bedelia is a shape-shifting killer who reinvents herself after each crime, she’s not altogether an unsympathetic character. This miracle is due partly to Margaret Lockwood’s splendid performance as Bedelia--an elegant, almost Victorian woman whose exquisite taste seems wasted on her rather plodding, boring, but well-meaning husband. Bedelia is more appealing than the two main male characters, and there’s something distasteful in the way Chaney and Charlie corner her like some exotic butterfly and then squeeze the life out of her. Perhaps we see these two men as Bedelia sees them. Chaney is the predator who slowly hunts her; he acknowledges a strange fascination for his quarry, but ultimately she eludes him both literally and figuratively. Significantly, Charlie who treats Bedelia like a naughty child, selects and then delivers the punishment in a chilling coup de grace. The film hints at Charlie’s ambiguous motives--Bedelia is, after all, an embarrassment and a terrible encumbrance, and perhaps it’s this ambiguity that leaves a lingering sense of sadness in those final moments.

Laura is often identified as one of the all-time great noir films, but Bedelia has sadly slipped off the noir radar. Laura contains some great elements; there’s no argument here, but in many ways, Bedelia is the better, more complex, and subversive film. While the portrait of Laura segues into meeting a flesh and blood woman who is worth falling in love with, the real-life Bedelia who “radiated a curious innocence, eager to fascinate those she attracted like a poisonous flower” is a cipher. She never stops acting a role, and so her true story remains a mystery buried with lies, deception and multiple identities.



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4 comments:

  1. Is this available on DVD anywhere? Thanks in advance!

    ReplyDelete
  2. looking for hatters castle on dvd? danny d

    ReplyDelete
  3. Bedelia is available to buy at www.silversirens.co.uk along with many other rarities - a wonderful site for fans of British Cinema in the 1940s

    ReplyDelete

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