The Wicked Lady
Michael Winner - 1983
Scorpion Releasing / Kino Lorber BD Region A
With the DVD release of Leslie Arliss' original version of The Wicked Lady, it is now easy to compare it with Michael Winner's remake. Winner must have thought that taking advantage of what could be shown onscreen instead of merely suggested would bring in an audience that might have at least heard of the first version. Winner was never known for being subtle, and the sex and violence are generously served, but really do not help make her version more entertaining. The casting of Faye Dunaway was also a bad decision, lacking the charm and sauciness of Margaret Lockwood, and being at least a decade too old for the part.
For those unfamiliar with either version, the story is about a young woman, Barbara Skelton, in 17th Century England, who connives to marry for money, finds herself bored living away from the social hubbub of London, and impersonates a highwayman initially to regain jewelry lost in a card game, and finds a thrill in stalking unwary coach passengers. She meets the real highwayman, Jerry Jackson, that she has pretended to be, and the two become lovers and partners, temporarily.
Leslie Arliss is credited along with Winner for the screenplay, and for very good reason, most of the dialogue is from the original film. Winner, with cinematographer Jack Cardiff, also duplicates several of the shots, especially the iconic shot of a highwayman in black, silhouette against the sky. What Winner lacks, though, is the light touch of the original, where the décolletage of Lockwood and Patricia Roc, and the brief glimpse of Margaret Lockwood's leg are enough, and were actually more than enough for American censors in 1945. Rather than tease the viewer, Winner literally opens the doors wide enough to reveal various couplings. More troubling, in addition to unnecessary is a scene with Barbara and Jackson's mistress whipping each other as part of an extended fight scene.
Not that Winner's version is a total wash. There are plentiful scenes of celebration, dancing around the Maypole, to give some idea of life for the common townspeople. Winner probably presents a truer vision of 17th Century life with the hanged men seen in various states of decomposition along what then passed for a highway. The rats certainly were healthy looking.
The main difference is that Margaret Lockwood appeared not only to conspire to get what ever she wanted, but did so with the viewer. When Barbara appears to have lost control of a galloping horse as a means of attracting the attention of her best friend's fiancé, she also makes her horse a partner in crime, letting it know when she is ready to fall to the ground. In comparison, Faye Dunaway, in Winner's version, is less spontaneous appearing in her fall, which is on a relatively comfortable bed of leaves. Arliss allowed Lockwood to charm the audience, while Winner relies on the shorthand that we would be on the side of Faye Dunaway simply because she is the star of his film.
LIkewise, for Jerry Jackson, under Arliss, James Mason gives a modulated performance. He is filmed in medium close-up for most of the scene where Jackson is to be hanged, given a hero's welcome on his way to the gallows, and giving a speech about love and betrayal. Winner undercuts Alan Bates, like Dunaway, too old for his role, by filming him in long shots or completely cutting away from Bates altogether, while reciting the same lines used by Mason.
If Leslie Arliss saw the remake, his impressions of that film have gone with him. There is a small connection in the casting, with Maggie Rennie, the former wife of the original's Michael Rennie, as an unlucky coach passenger.