Wicked As She Comes


Gimme a movie any day that says it right off in the title:

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None of that symbolically labelled stuff.  Like From Here To Eternity or Gone With The Wind or A Streetcar Named Desire, where you gotta think about the Meaning.  No, The Wicked Lady gives it to you straight and upfront, putting it out there, no irony intended.  You know what you’re getting when you plunk down your hard-earned change at the box-office window.

A Wicked Lady is what’s promised, and by golly, a Wicked Lady is what you get.

Truth in Advertising, I call it.  How refreshing.

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Released in 1945 by Britain’s Gainsborough Pictures, The Wicked Lady was part of a noted series of melodramas the studio made during the WW2 years (other celebrated entries including The Man in Gray, Madonna of the Seven Moons, Fanny by Gaslight), geared towards female audiences who, writes Michael Brooke at BFI Online, had achieved “an unprecedented degree of financial and sexual independence” under wartime conditions.  Such films, says Brooke, were “escapist fantasies, usually set in the distant past, that offered powerful images of female independence and rebellion that resonated deeply with [these] audiences.”  Their stories, as Michael Koresky notes in a Criterion essay, “embrace[ed] the outlandish and the overwrought, tapping an audience that wanted to not only watch movies but be ravished by them.”  The result were films that blossomed with “unbridled devilishness,” zeroing in on “visceral tales of class and sexual warfare, rife with betrayals, psychosis, and murder.”

Wowsa, I say.

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The U.S. censors demanded retakes before a stateside release was allowed…two reasons why on display here…

The whole genre, though, and The Wicked Lady in particular, could be summarized in the judgment of a 1946 Time magazine article, which pruriently noted how these films—especially the title character of the latter—”mak[e] adultery look like too much fun.”

That the Lady does, and much else besides.

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Set in 17th century England, and stuffed with characters clad in a fruity mélange of feather-decked hats, lace-crowned sleeves, and bosom-revealing bodices (that last causing a censorship furor for the U.S. release), the plot centers on our title Duplicitous Dame, Barbara (Margaret Lockwood), who starts the ball rolling by seducing-and-marrying the proper aristocratic fiancé of her best friend (who, earlier gushing how Barbara makes everything “seem like an adventure!”, now finds to her chagrin how too true that is); but then, the ring barely warm on her finger (and the film barely ten minutes into its running time), Barbara promptly falls in love with a dashing young rake she meets at the ball concluding the wedding festivities and finds herself ruing her hasty choice of unadventurous mate.

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(Please note I’ve compressed all this amorous activity into one sentence—how’s that for narrative concision?)

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Alas, soon (very soon) bored with her dull husband and her conjugal duties, Barbara moves herself into a separate bedroom—which just happens to have a secret passage conveniently leading outside—and embarks on a highwayman’s career (so much more exciting than housewifing), during which she meets and mates with a real highwayman (a suavely decadent James Mason), frolicking with him in lakeside encounters and at an inn appositely named The Leaping Stag (and a great deal of leaping about does occur).  Her activities discovered by a Bible-quoting servant, Barbara poisons the pious employee; then, discovering her highwayman-lover in another doxy’s arms, she furiously betrays him to the authorities; then, re-meeting her dashing rake, who, it turns out, is now engaged to the discarded best friend (are you keeping up here?), Barbara again seduces the BFF’s fiancé; but another encounter with the betrayed and now-pissed-off highwayman leads to a dire revenge; and, of course, it all ends with Wicked Barbara suffering the consequences of her Wicked actions, and what else did you expect?  A stroll into the sunset?

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Ah, but despite her wickedness—or perhaps because of it—you simply can’t dislike, or disapprove of, Barbara.  As Koresky notes, The Wicked Lady pulls off a (sublimely) “subversive twist,” in that “we feel compelled to root for this undeniably villainous creature.”  I KNOW the nice thing is to favor the ‘nice’ people, such as the dull husband and the even duller best friend, but, really, there’s no fun in that.  It’s much more satisfying to delight in Barbara rampaging like a leaping stag through the pious hypocrisies and well-bred snobberies of her pompous, complacently well-off peers, none of whom have the teeny-tiniest tittle of Barbara’s spirit or zest.  Though Barbara may sometimes regret her errancies (although, as Wikipedia’s entry on the film dryly puts it, “Her conscience is not disturbed for long”), her default position is to exult in her Wickedness—for her, it’s all part of an Awfully Big Adventure.

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It’s hard even to think of Barbara as Wicked.  She’s clearly enjoying herself, like a child playing at Let’s Pretend.  Much of this glee is due to Lockwood’s dead-on performance as Barbara.  As I noted earlier about Lockwood in the noir film Bedelia (which you might call The Wicked Lady, Part 2—This Time in Modern Dress), never more did this actress glow onscreen than when portraying morally dubious characters.  And as Barbara, Lockwood is incandescent.  Her Barbara’s a jolly lass, her features lighting up like New Year’s Eve whether she’s planning her first robbery or her next seduction.  Lockwood doesn’t waste effort on subtlety; she telegraphs Barbara’s feelings as if taking a line through Western Union.  It’s not bad acting—it’s canny acting, conceived with a shrewd understanding of what such hokum requires, and what audiences expect.  Lockwood doesn’t mock or condescend to the material, but instead plays with it, italicizing its campier moments.  It’s like she’s enacting both sides of the role—both as the character in the story and as an observer indicating to viewers what delicious, subversive fun it all is.

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It’s not just Lockwood, however.  That ripe, rompy sense of fun pervades the film, not only in its performances (per her biography Lockwood and most of the cast had a ripping good time during filming), but in its lush photography, its over-rich costumes (per IMBD, “They [I assume the filmmakers] just grabbed what was in the warehouse,” no matter the period or styles…rather as would a heedless child), its racy (in several meanings) script, never pausing in its overflow of incidents but galloping from one Barbaraic deed to the next.  No wonder the film was such a hit during the war years; it appeals, unashamedly, to our cravings for what Koresky calls the “thrillingly escapist.”  Isn’t that what movie-watching often is?  A temporary respite for us reality-burdened adults, a return to the pretending child within?

But what else can you expect from a film called The Wicked Lady?  Sheesh—it’s right there, in the title.  For anyone to see.

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You can watch a pretty good print of The Wicked Lady on YouTube here for free (though with lots of ads).  Unbridledly devilish fun.

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