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July 11, 2013

The Wicked Lady

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Leslie Arliss - 1945
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

I had read about The Wicked Lady about thirty years ago, when Michael Winner's remake was released. I never bothered to see that version, but something about the plot, about a woman disguised as a highwayman intrigued me. And while I can't really explain it, I like to watch movies that take place in the centuries between Columbus sailing to parts unknown, through the years when France was ruled by some guys all named Napoleon.

The name in the credits that will still be meaningful to contemporary audiences is that of the editor, Terence Fisher. This was his second to last assignment as a cutter before taking up the director's chair. And in the cast is Martita Hunt, a character actress who was memorable as the well meaning Baroness Meinster in what may be Fisher's best film, The Brides of Dracula. I might be stretching things a bit here in thinking that Fisher's association with The Wicked Lady was a major influence on things to come. One of the attractions of the Hammer horror films were those comely women with their display, within the acceptable bounds of the time, of ample cleavage. The French have a word for it, decolletage, and Margaret Lockwood let's us know she's got, and knows how to use it. Thankfully, the filmmakers are historically accurate regarding women's fashions from 1683.

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It's not like I hadn't seen Margaret Lockwood before, most notably with several viewing of The Lady Vanishes. And in this film, her goody-goody rival, played be Patricia Roc, also has some low cut gowns, but it's not quite the same. The Eclipse notes mention how The Wicked Lady was reshot for American audiences, showing less of Lockwood's attributes. I'm almost certain that had stateside viewers taken a gander at Lockwood as she appears in the British release, she could possibly have given Jane Russell some stiff competition.

The other orbs of prominence are Margaret Lockwood's eyes. Just by the way she glances, you can tell she's up to no good. Faking a horseback riding accident in order to seduce and marry her best friend's fiance, to pretending to be a highwayman in order to snatch back the jewels lost in a card game, are just the beginning. Lockwood's Lady Barbara poisons and then suffocates the family's long time servant, joins forces with the real neighborhood highwayman, played by James Mason, bedding and betraying him, and mostly has a good, good time being a bad, bad girl.

Just as Lady Barbara is cheerfully amoral, the dialogue is full of brazen, for its time, double entendres. For some contemporary audiences, said dialogue might be considered too literate, but when James Mason talks about the ability to "drive a hard bargain" during his first close encounter with Lockwood, it's not difficult to figure out what he really means. According to Criterion Cast notes about the making of the film, some of the cast members did not think highly of the screenplay by director Arliss. It might not exactly be art or poetry, but there aren't too many films in which the English language is quite as colorful.

And before I forget, Margaret Lockwood flashes some leg for good measure.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 11, 2013 07:03 AM