Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia

Though never a household name, Vera Caspary was once one of Hollywood’s pre-eminent female scribes. Regularly penning film stories until her left-wing sympathies became a ‘problem’ in the 1950s, Caspary also saw a number of her plays and novels adapted for the big screen, including two appearing at Pacific Film Archive on Friday, July 21 as part of the ongoing series ‘Band of Outsiders: Women Crime Writers.’

Playing at 6:30 p.m., Bedelia (1948) is rarely seen but worth a look, especially for fans of British cinema. Directed by journeyman Lance Comfort, the film stars Margaret Lockwood as the title character, a ‘black widow’ killer who’s left a trail of wealthy husbands’ corpses in her wake.

Bedelia and latest catch Charles Carrington (Ian Hunter) are honeymooning in Monte Carlo, where they meet artist Ben Chaney (Barry Barnes). Ben offers to paint the young bride’s portrait and Charles thinks it’s a marvelous idea; Bedelia, however, is oddly unenthusiastic.

It must be said that Caspary’s screenplay (adapted by herself, with assistance from Isadore Goldsmith and Herbert Victor) offers little in the way of either suspense or surprises. It’s obvious Bedelia is up to something, and equally obvious that there’s more to Chaney than meets the eye.

Nonetheless, the film is well-made, well-acted, and old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. The screenplay even offers some unusual hints of sympathy for its villainess, and the corners of your eyes may moisten ever so slightly at the final fade.

PFA’s print of Bedelia is on loan from the British Film Institute, and the film is unavailable on home video in any format. This is likely your best opportunity to see a high quality presentation of this obscure but enjoyable feature.

Clifton Webb and Dana Andrews in Laura

Laura (1944), a film with a much higher profile and more impressive pedigree, follows at 8:30 p.m. A bonafide ‘A’ picture from a major studio (20th Century Fox) and director (Otto Preminger), Laura features a star-studded cast and Oscar-winning cinematography by Joseph LaShelle.

Gene Tierney plays ad agency exec Laura Hunt, whose enthusiastic efforts to get crusty journalist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) to endorse a particular brand of pen are surprisingly successful. The normally frosty Lydecker is interested in Laura for non-professional reasons, setting in motion a competition for her hand with current beau Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price).

After Laura has a fatal encounter with a faceful of buckshot, poker-faced police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) swiftly draws up a list of suspects: Carpenter, Lydecker, and Laura’s aunt Ann (Dame Judith Anderson). Will McPherson uncover the truth – or will he, too, fall under the spell of the beguiling corpse?

Blending elements of film noir with more traditional murder mystery tropes, Laura can still surprise  viewers. Seeing Clifton Webb in a bathtub is really quite jarring, and there’s a delightfully well-staged dream sequence that turns out not to be a dream sequence at all.

Superior to Bedelia in every respect, Laura should have won additional Academy Awards – not least for Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt’s screenplay, which lost that year to the syrupy Going My Way. Webb (also Oscar-nominated) is at his best, and the film features a memorable motif from composer David Raksin.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...