The movie industry has always been keen to capitalize on what is perceived to be a winning formula, one glance at the franchise-heavy roster of movies that get approved these days ought to provide ample evidence of that. When Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Laura proved successful, it should not comes as any surprise that another novel by Vera Caspary with a single word title derived from a woman’s name soon caught the attention of filmmakers. So it was that Bedelia (1946) came to the screen, not via Hollywood this time though, but through Rank in the UK. It is an interesting yet not wholly successful work, partly due to the fact that inverted mysteries such as this tend to be tricky subjects at the best of times, and partly as a result of a cast that, the leading lady excepted, feels a little lackluster.
The opening plays out over a portrait of Bedelia (Margaret Lockwood), with a narrator leading the viewer into the story, placing the opening scene in pre-WWII Monte Carlo. The narrator is a man by the name of Chaney (Barry K Barnes), ostensibly a painter but it’s clear enough that this is not his real profession. He’s a hunter of sorts, I suppose, and it is apparent that the title character is his quarry. She is on her honeymoon, having just married the older and decidedly staid Charles Carrington (Ian Hunter). Chaney quietly finagles his way into making the acquaintance of this couple of newly-weds. Carrington is a man in love, starry eyed and besotted in the myopic way that only those caught up in the romance of a late spring can be. Chaney has no such illusions to trouble or dazzle him and he, as do we the viewers, sees that Bedelia has constructed an elaborate cocoon of deceit around her, a shell of deception to hide her true motives and character. I don’t think it constitutes a major spoiler if I state outright that this woman is what we would now refer to as a serial killer, one who collects well-to-do if not explicitly wealthy husbands in order to dispose of them and cash in on the insurance. Carrington has become her latest acquisition, and by the time they return to his home in England, his fate has effectively been sealed. It only remains to be seen whether, or indeed how, her scheme will succeed, or whether Chaney, her husband or those in their social circle will manage to put paid to it.
Vera Caspary’s source novel was set in the US, but the film saw the action shifted to the UK. Like all inverted mysteries, it is essentially a tale of suspense, relying on the viewer becoming absorbed in the process of following a criminal who is planning out what they hope will be an undetectable crime. The suspense arises from our being that half step ahead, knowing what the ultimate goal is, and juggling hope and frustration as we will the would-be victim to shake the sleep from their eyes, and wonder how or if the inevitable can be sidestepped. In a sense, it is hard to avoid comparing this film to Laura, although I dislike doing so in general and on principle – I reckon if a writer or filmmaker has taken the trouble to produce a work for our entertainment, then the least we can do is try to appreciate it or assess it as a discrete entity. As I say though, the temptation is there, and I feel the film comes up a little short under the circumstances. The story is good enough, Lance Comfort’s direction is smooth and suitably stylish, and Freddie Young’s cinematography contains some attractive flourishes, although it’s not difficult to see where it’s all headed.
Margaret Lockwood was one of the biggest stars of British cinema in the 1940s, courtesy of her work for Hitchcock, Carol Reed and the Gainsborough melodramas. She is fine as the title character, a deeply disturbed woman who successfully buries her greed and duplicity beneath a poised and polished exterior. We are onto her right from the beginning, those petty lies and that odd reluctance to be photographed or even have her portrait completed sending out strong signals of the presence of a wrong ‘un. Yet she displays a kittenish charm that serves to dilute the evil we know lurks beneath the surface, and adds the kind of layering to the character that allows the viewer to care about her even as we hope to see her machinations foiled. I won’t go into details here as I think that would be straying too deep into spoiler territory, but it’s worth noting that a separate and radically different ending was shot for US audiences. I’ve only seen the British ending myself, and I feel it is both appropriate and satisfying in the context of all that went before.
Ian Hunter had a long an varied career, starring in a number of early films for Hitchcock before heading to Hollywood and working with the likes of Frank Borzage and John Ford. By the mid to late 1940s he was back in Britain and Bedelia presented him with a worthwhile role. There is a good deal of high octane melodrama in this picture and his calm, slightly wounded stoicism acts as a counterweight to Lockwood’s more highly strung central performance. He grounds it all and provides the sympathetic figure the audience needs to identify with. This is all the more important as Barry K Barnes invests the character of Chaney with a rather colorless and oddly fey quality, somewhat remote and chilly. As for the others, Anne Crawford probably has the other fairly significant part yet, as with most of the supporting players, there is a sense of someone flitting in and out of proceedings without really making a lasting impression.
Bedelia was released on DVD in a very nice print from Odeon/Screenbound a few years ago, but it looks as though it has since drifted out of print. It’s a solid mystery/melodrama with a hint of film noir about it and definitely worth checking out should the opportunity arise. The inverted structure may not work for everybody and the cast, apart from Lockwood and Hunter, feel a bit anonymous. That said, it does look good and the resolution is bleakly satisfying.