Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Movie Review: The Wicked Lady

The Wicked Lady (1945)
directed by Leslie Arliss, starring Margaret Lockwood, Patricia Roc, James Mason

We open upon the sweet, chaste, 17th-century courtship of Caroline (Patricia Roc) and Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones) as they ride through his estates, singing and laughing. Caroline is especially eager for Ralph to meet her exciting and beautiful cousin Barbara (Margaret Lockwood), who's coming to visit before their wedding. When Barbara arrives, however, she quickly proves to be a far more exciting guest than Caroline expected. In short order, Barbara seduces Ralph away from her cousin, forcing the heartbroken Caroline to be her maid of honor.

But Barbara can't enjoy her victory for long. On her wedding night, she meets the dashing Kit Locksby (Michael Rennie) and it's love at first sight--right before Barbara is dragged off to her waiting husband. Her nighttime duties aside, Barbara has no interest in all the boring responsibility that comes with being Lady Skelton. She leaves all the housekeeping to the ever-masochistic Caroline, while she sighs and frets and dreams of London.

One night, while playing cards with Sir Ralph's catty sister Henrietta (Enid Stamp-Taylor), Barbara impulsively bets it all and loses her dead mother's brooch. Determined to get it back, Barbara poses as the notorious highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson and robs Henrietta on the road. The adrenaline rush of robbery turns out to be just what Barbara was craving and she takes to the roads again. Only this time, Barbara meets the real Jerry Jackson (James Mason). Jackson is taken aback, but is quickly won over her beauty, spirit and black little heart. They become partners in crime...and in the bedroom. Finally, it seems like Barbara has found her true place in life.

But, as wicked and wily as Barbara is, she soon becomes reckless. She wants more gold, more thrills and even Jackson thinks she's taking it too far. Then one night, a high-stakes robbery turns into murder. And that murder soon necessitates another murder. Barbara's schemes spiral out of control and she finds herself in a fight, not for money or a man, but for her very life.

Imagine those tired British audiences of 1945,  piling into movie theaters to escape from the horrors they had lived through and the long rebuilding that would follow. Life was harsh and they wanted something to help them through it. But what?

Well, if the runaway box-office success of The Wicked Lady is any indication, what they wanted was kinky sex. Lots of kink. They wanted to see Margaret Lockwood in corsets so tight they had to be censored for U.S. audiences. They wanted to watch her do wicked, awful things like shooting people and poisoning them and sleeping with James Mason outside on the grass. They wanted to see Patricia Roc and Margaret Lockwood get into a slap-fight. They wanted to see cross-dressing and secret passages and noblewomen seducing robbers. The Wicked Lady was the box-office smash of 1946, outdoing its more serious competition by a mile. Critics hated it, audiences loved it. And looking at it now, over 60 years later, I have to side with the audiences. This movie is pure fun from start to finish.

The Wicked Lady was based on a novel called The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton. (You have to wonder why the author didn't just go all the way and call it "The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy"). The novel was itself inspired by an old English legend about a noblewoman who secretly spent her nights as a highway robber. That was the hook of the story; from there, it spiraled into a melodrama about a treacherous woman, her outlaw lover, and their bloody romance. Considering its plot elements, The Wicked Lady should play as pure camp. And yet, thanks to the deft hand of the Gainsborough studios and a talented cast, the film somehow avoids this. It's sharp, funny, fast-paced, and not above winking at its own silliness.

A strong share of the credit must be given to Leslie Arliss, who both wrote and directed the film. In 1943, he had directed the smash hit The Man in Grey, cited as the first of the Gainsborough melodramas. For The Wicked Lady, Arliss repeated many of the same elements that had made The Man in Grey a success: period setting, a sexy and violent plot, alluring costumes, and a witty, unpretentious screenplay. It was a critic-proof, audience-friendly formula. And to cap it all off, he had the benefit of two great stars, both of whom had seen their careers skyrocket after The Man in Grey: James Mason and Margaret Lockwood.

Margaret Lockwood delivers a knockout performance here as the evil but irresistible Barbara. It's all but impossible to watch her sailing through this film, merrily breaking hearts and bodies and bank accounts and not root for her to get away with it. Just watch her in the scene where she convinces her cousin Caroline to give up the man she's engaged to so that he can marry Barbara instead. Barbara plays on her cousin's sense of honor until the tearful girl has promised, not just to give up Ralph, but to be Barbara's maid of honor. "And you can have my wedding dress, too, if you like," Caroline tells her, fleeing the scene in tears. At this, Barbara's back straightens and her eyes twinkle. "Wear that? I wouldn't be be buried in it."

Barbara may not be the most threatening or subtle of 40's femme fatales, but few actresses seemed to take so much sheer sensual pleasure out of their own wickedness as Margaret Lockwood does here. She devours each scene with such glee you half expect her to be licking her fingers after each take. And she isn't shy about playing up the sexual nature of the character either. In a scene where Barbara must convince a suspicious old man that she has found religion, Lockwood kneels and looks up at him through her lashes in a way that suggests, not repentance, but bedroom roleplay. And in the scenes when Lockwood struts around in male attire, brandishing a pistol, it's hard not to look at her and think that Barbara is indulging her inner dominatrix.

With the exception of James Mason, the other actors have the unenviable task of playing clueless pawns in Barbara's schemes. And considering just how obvious Barbara's bad intentions are, that's really clueless. Griffith Jones, as the unhappy Sir Ralph and Michael Rennie, as the dashing Kit, are both effective in their small roles as men who are all too easily enraptured by Barbara (At times, Jones looks like a nervous schoolboy who got caught sneaking a peek down a girl's blouse). But it's Patricia Roc, as the requisite good girl Caroline, who gets the best moments.

Like Margaret Lockwood and Jameson Mason, Patricia Roc was one of the stalwarts of the Gainsborough studios. In spite of her own sensual beauty, Roc has to play the good girl here and she does some interesting things with it. Even though her character is written as sweet and innocent, Roc projects a kind of brisk intelligence and discomfort . She understands what's happening pretty early on, but keeps trying to pretend that everything is fine.  And in the scene where Caroline, as Barbara's maid of honor, has to invite the man she loves into another woman's bed, Roc's heartbreak is utterly convincing. For a moment, Barbara's cruelty doesn't seem so fun.

However, the machinations of the plot mean that Roc has to act pretty spineless for a good part of the movie and sympathy shifts back to Lockwood. Still, at least Roc gets one good scene where she gets to slap the husband-stealing bitch right across the face (a moment that no doubt thrilled the 1940s audiences). In real life, Roc and Lockwood were great friends. And, as often happens, cinema inverted reality as it was Lockwood who was the reclusive, maternal teetotaler and Roc who was the sexually voracious good-time girl (her numerous affairs with married men earned her the nickname "Bed Roc").

The major scene-stealer to watch out for here is James Mason as the roguish bandit Jerry Jackson. Well, perhaps scene-stealing isn't the correct word as it's fairly clear that Gainsborough Studios were counting on Mason being the prime attraction for female moviegoers. Mason was fresh off his success in The Man in Grey as a cruel but dashing gentleman; a scene in which he beat Margaret Lockwood with a horsewhip had electrified audiences. His dark and brooding appeal had made him the most popular male star in Britain. The Wicked Lady even pokes fun at Mason's image with his character here. The female aristocrats gossip excitedly about what it would be like to be Jerry Jackson's next "victim." ("Is he very dashing? Did he make any ungentlemanly advances?" they ask one woman eagerly ) When Jackson is sentenced to hang, he's surrounded, not by jeering crowds, but by adoring female fans.

It's a shame that Mason's only around for part of the movie because he's got crackling chemistry with Lockwood, far better than any of the other characters. His character Jackson is the only one who truly understands Barbara. He knows she's no good and will probably ruin him, but hell, at least they'll have a good time while it lasts. The headlong sexual relationship between Lady Barbara and Jackson was pretty risque by 1940s standards. "Do you always take women by the throat?" Barbara asks him, after one rough encounter. "No, I just take 'em," Mason replies, deadpan.

Halfway through this film, I had an epiphany: "Great shades of Scarlett O'Hara, I'm watching Gone with the Wind!" Well, Gone with the Wind if you kicked it back two hundred years and smushed it together with "The Highwayman." You have the bitchy, green-eyed brunette (Scarlett/Barbara), who loathes her sweet, smiling friend (Melanie/Caroline) and angles to steal her man (Ashley/Sir Ralph). The man is weak and even though he loves the good girl, still helplessly lusts after the bad one. But the bad girl is the one we root for and the more outrageously she acts, the more enjoyable she becomes. However, The Wicked Lady splits up the Rhett role between Michael Rennie as Barbara's true love and James Mason as the one who truly understands her. Which was a mistake since Michael Rennie has less screentime with Margaret Lockwood than anybody else and yet the film would keep insisting that he and Lockwood were star-crossed lovers, that he was the only one who could change her nature. Very strange.

In one sense though, Gone with the Wind and The Wicked Lady are polar opposites. Because while Gone with the Wind's characters are intractable, stubbornly clinging to their ideas until the final reel, The Wicked Lady cast seems to change motivations with every breeze. Oh, Barbara saw Jackson with another woman so she betrays him. Whoops, five minutes later, she realizes he will now go after her so she is sorry. Oh, Ralph and Caroline have confessed their love. Wait, they can't be together. So Caroline's going to marry Kit. Oh no, she's going to marry Ralph after he divorces Barbara. Which is weird because five minutes ago Ralph was telling Kit he would kill him if he ran off with Barbara. Whew. See what I mean? It's the one glaring weakness of The Wicked Lady; it rounds the plot twists so quickly that sometimes things like character and common sense are left by the wayside. And yet, the film is so witty and fun that you have to forgive it.

I've heard some reviewers argue that The Wicked Lady is in fact a a hidden social commentary on the roles of British women. After all, we have a strong female character who merrily breaks every rule of the male-dominated society which tries (and fails) to control her. But for me, the social commentary of The Wicked Lady, especially when compared to films like Jezebel and Leave Her to Heaven, is about as incisive as an Archie comic. That's not a criticism. The Wicked Lady is smart because it knows what kind of story it is and it works to make that story as entertaining as possible. And it doesn't feel like a movie made by bored, indifferent people. Watching this film, you just know the cast and crew were having a blast.

Some films are so bad, they're good. But in this case, the lady is so very wicked that the film is very good indeed.

Favorite Quote:

"He's very lucky with the weather. Must be depressing to be hanged on a damp day."

Favorite Scene:

In a film with so many outsized dramatic moments, it's odd that my favorite scene is relatively normal. But I absolutely love the card game between Barbara Skelton and her most hated rival, Sir Ralph's sister Henrietta. These two are a delight in every scene they share, because they can't resist throwing jibes at each other, all the while keeping up the sweetest-possible smiles. It's like watching two Bengal tigers at a tea party. Example below:

Henrietta: "It’s hard to believe that six months could have changed you so much. You know, I used to quite envy you. You used to look so young and lovely.”
Barbara: “Oh, is it only six months? Then it must be the journey that tired you out. Traveling makes one look so bedraggled.”

And back and forth. But Henrietta's cleverest and darkest moment comes when she plays Barbara at cards. The impulsive Barbara is fast losing everything to her rival and, true to her nature, bets her most prized possession on a single turn of the cards. She loses and Henrietta smiles at her softly, with an expression a cat might give to the canary between its claws. She picks up her prize, a ruby brooch, and asks Barbara, "Your mother's wasn't it?" Barbara stiffens and you can see the light going out of her eyes. And right then and there, you know that Barbara will turn completely to evil. It's that look in her eyes. She would murder that woman for a brooch. Nothing Barbara does later, whether it's robbery or shooting or slow, cold-blooded poisoning, comes as a surprise after that moment.

Final Six Words:

A wicked, rollicking ride to hell


  1. A British highway robbery Gone With the Wind? With Margaret Lockwood? James Mason? You've sold me. Gotta see this.

  2. I think you'd like it. Although now that I've brought up Gone with the Wind, I'm sort of pondering what it would be like to watch Vivien Leigh storm it up as a cross-dressing highway robber.

  3. Wickedly good review Rachel, pardon the bad pun. But I am so anxious to see this film. I love Margaret Lockwood as she was terrific in The Lady Vanishes. Your review was in depth and a joy to read. I will share my thoughts once I watch it myself.

  4. Monty: Bad puns are welcome. :) I loved Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes, too. And she does a real 180 here, going from sprightly 30s-style amateur sleuth to bosomy lady of sin.

  5. Very much enjoyed your post! I've enjoyed THE MAN IN GREY -- where I felt that Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert were channeling Scarlett and Melanie! -- and also liked Lockwood and Roc very much in LOVE STORY. Looking forward to checking this one out as I become more familiar with the Gainsborough films.

    Best wishes,

  6. Laura: Thanks so much for the review. I'm planning a Gainsborough expedition myself. I do find it interesting that the popular British actresses of the time, Lockwood, Calvert, and Roc, didn't transplant to Hollywood while the male leads (Stewart Granger and James Mason) crossed over to great success.

  7. Wow, you got a good plug over at the Self-Styled Siren. I hope it translates to traffic. I've always been shocked at how few followers you have.

    As for the movie: I haven't seen it! Now I have to go out and find a copy. James Mason? Corsets? I'm totally sold.

  8. Vulnavia: It made my day, I can tell you. I can always use the free advertising.

    You just gave me the mental image of James Mason in a corset. I hope you're happy.

  9. ...and once a thing is seen, it cannot be unseen. My work here is done.

  10. Definitely one of the most enjoyable historical melodramas! I love the bit about the story being a social commentary on womens' role in society. Phooey - it's a cracking good story that made lots of money. To paraphrase the Freud cliché, sometimes a movie is just a movie. James Mason is *so* enjoyable in all the Gainsborough films. Did they ever make a film where Steweart Granger was the villain and Mason the hero?

  11. Panavia: Welcome! Yeah, normally I would be in favor of deep analysis, but here, not so much ;). Take a look at the ball scene in Jezebel if you're looking for lacerating social commentary. I think that role reversal would work pretty well. I guess Mason was too valuable as the knave.

  12. I happened to pick up a copy of Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton at our local recycling center a few weeks ago. It was free! I had no idea it was the source material for this movie. It's next on my to-read list.