If you wanted to look at naked ladies back in the Saran-wrapped, pre-Playboy 1950s, you went to a ''special" bookstore downtown. There, standing next to men with hats pulled down and collars pulled up, you bought magazines called Bachelor and Wink, Escapade and Whisper. If you were into the kinky stuff -- leather, whips, smiling young women in heels getting tied up -- the proprietor might bring out the extra-special material from under the counter. More likely than not, the featured model therein would be Bettie Page.
With her dark bangs and wide eyes, Page was a singular presence in post-World War II smut: She indulged depravity with the efficient cheerfulness of a woman taking out the trash. She never did hard-core; beyond pinups, her metier was the ''photo-funnies" genre that catered to various fetishes and that was raised to a back-alley art by the married photographer couple Irving and Paula Klaw. A dirty secret in the 1950s, Bettie was rediscovered in the 1980s and '90s -- long after she had turned to Christianity and retired -- and reclaimed as an outlaw hero by various alt-culture constituencies. To them, she's our national id.
And now we have the movie version, directed by the fine filmmaker Mary Harron (''I Shot Andy Warhol," ''American Psycho") and scripted with her by the actress-writer Guinevere Turner. It's a handsome, often funny piece of work with a nearly fatal inability to settle on a tone, and it suggests that what we call ''Bettie Page" was always just a blank screen on which a severely repressed society could project whatever unseemly fantasies it wanted.
Gretchen Mol, hair dyed raven, plays Bettie, and it's a pleasure to see the actress emerge from the long shadow of her status as the Next Big Thing of 1998. Not that this is a star-making performance; Mol's achievement is to make Bettie a real girl, hesitant in her ambitions and congenial rather than intelligent. Arriving in New York after a rough upbringing in the rural South -- the film hints at sexual abuse and delivers a harrowing gang-rape scene that seems to leave little impression -- Bettie hopes to be an actress and studies at a Manhattan actor's studio.
A casual friendship with a New York cop (Kevin Carroll) whose hobby is photography leads to her becoming the darling of the ''camera clubs" -- groups of men who pay models to pose as close to au naturel as they're willing to go. From there it's a short step to men's-magazine covers and on to the Klaws, whom Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor play as working stiffs who could be importing grapefruit for all they care. (Taylor, as always, is wonderful as the terse, chain-smoking Paula Klaw.) Jared Harris portrays British shutterbug John Willie as the dissolute artist of this bunch, assuring Bettie, ''I liked what you did with that riding crop."
Bettie willingly dons the 8-inch stilettos and latex bustiers, chatting blithely with fellow model Maxie (Cara Seymour) about the prim upper-class lawyer who bankrolls their work: ''He's not normal, but he's nice." The unceasing sea of men snapping away changes when Bettie travels to Florida for a photo session with the sympathetic pinup photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), and as if to underscore the change in hormonal energy, the film blossoms from creamy black-and-white into gorgeous 60s-era Technicolor.
Around this time, you may be wondering if the film has any interest in making a point. ''The Notorious Bettie Page" doesn't offer its heroine up as a victim or a sexual freedom fighter or anything in between: She's just someone who was there -- a sort of proto-feminist Little Annie Fanny. Yes, Bettie was a template for our darker urges, but there's no conflict to provide the movie with a motor, and after a while it glides alluringly to a halt.
When US Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn in a tart cameo) investigates the effect of smut on juveniles, Bettie is called as a witness, but after she waits all day, her testimony is deemed unnecessary and she's sent home. They're not really interested in her (they're after the Klaws), but you get the sense that Bettie wouldn't have had much to say anyway. Do we need our objects of desire to be empty vessels? Did Bettie pose because it was the safest way to give men what they wanted from her? As provocative as these ideas are, Harron never convincingly finds a way to dramatize them.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.