5 June 2021

The Wicked Lady (1945)

Directed by: Leslie Arliss
Margaret Lockwood, James Mason,
Patricia Roc, Griffith Jones,
Enid Stamp-Taylor, Francis Lister,
Felix Alymer, Michael Rennie

We have been steadily going through Criterion’s collection of old British films, many of which we hadn’t even heard of, let alone watched. So, when scrolling through the list brought up The Wicked Lady, the synopsis: “Margaret Lockwood devours the screen as a tightly wound seventeenth-century beauty with loose morals, who steals her best friend’s wealthy fiancĂ© on the eve of their wedding. And that’s only the beginning of this piece of pulp from director Leslie Arliss—there are no depths to which this sinful woman won’t sink. James Mason costars, and nearly steals the movie, as a highwayman with whom our antiheroine becomes entangled. This nasty, subversive treat was the most commercially successful of all the Gainsborough melodramas.” – was deliciously tantalising, and we knew we had to watch it.

In England in 1683, young Caroline (Patricia Roc), who had come to stay with some distant relatives after her father’s death, is engaged to be married to Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones), the local magistrate. She is deliriously happy even though she knows that he is merely very fond of her.

So happy, in fact, that she invites Barbara Worth, a cousin and dear friend, to be her maid-of-honour. When beautiful, green-eyed Barbara realizes that Ralph is extremely rich, she sets out to captivate him, and within no time at all, Ralph is besotted by her. 

Playing her cards extremely well, she not only replaces Caroline as the bride, but convinces her to be her maid-of-honour so as to avoid any semblance of scandal. Alas for Barbara, it is at the wedding reception that she meets Kit (Michael Rennie) with whom she falls in love with, at first sight. 

Besides, Barbara has no love for country life. She had imagined that Ralph would shift to London, where she could be the society darling, admired for her beauty and intellect. Unfortunately, Ralph is committed not only to his home but to his tenants, for whose well-being he strives against all odds.

Bored and unhappy, Barbara soon begins to distance herself from Ralph. A chance remark by Hogarth (Felix Alymer), a family retainer, about a secret passage in a disused part of the house, makes her insist upon Caroline showing her how to use it.

Well aware of the possibilities of this escape route, she shifts her living quarters to that wing. When Henrietta, Lady Kingsclere (Enid Stamp-Taylor) and her husband (Francis Lister) visit, it doesn’t take long for Barbara to realize that her sister-in-law despises her. 

While she bests Henrietta in a battle of words, the latter defeats her at Ombre, even winning from her, her late mother’s ruby brooch. A chance remark by Henrietta about the notorious highwayman, Captain Jerry Jackson gives Barbara an idea – using the secret passage to go out of the manor without being noticed, she holds up the Kingsclere coach, masquerading as a masked highwayman.

This initial success gives Barbara the excitement she craves for and soon, she’s regularly waylaying coaches. Until one day, she runs into Captain Jackson (Jack Mason), who isn’t too happy to find his pitch queered by another highwayman. He is amused, however, when he realizes that his new partner-in-crime is a beautiful woman. 

Soon, they are lovers as well. However, nemesis is waiting around the corner for our duplicitous heroine – Barbara hears of a shipment of gold bullion from Ned Cotterill, the son of one of Ralph’s tenants who rides as a guard. Despite Jackson’s reservations, she persuades him to rob the coach; unfortunately, while escaping, she shoots Cotterill by mistake. While sorry for his death, it doesn’t weigh heavily on her conscience for too long. Until Hogarth informs her that her handkerchief was found next to the young man’s dead body. 

But canny as ever, Barbara pretends to be repentant, begging Hogarth to lead her out of her evil ways. 

Religious as he is, Hogarth cannot resist the temptation to be her saviour – and Barbara is safe, for the moment. Unfortunately for her, Hogarth’s close watch over her comings and goings prevents her from enjoying her night-time pursuits.

Meanwhile, Caroline, who is now in London, has been introduced to Kit, and soon becomes friends with him. Their bruised hearts find solace in each other’s friendship, and Kit soon proposes to her. 

His easy manners and his understanding of her circumstances cause Caroline to accept. And then, Caroline gets a call from Ralph – could she come home to look after Hogarth? The elderly retainer is suffering from a mystery illness.

Caroline returns to find Hogarth seriously ill, and Barbara worn out from worry and exhaustion but determined to nurse Hogarth by herself. And then Hogarth dies, leaving Barbara free once again to pursue her extracurricular activities. But she’s still tied to Ralph, Kit is engaged to Caroline, Jackson is not as faithful as she would like and certain actions of hers bring her dangerously close to being exposed once again.

Based on ‘The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton’, a novel by Magdalen King-Hall, The Wicked Lady is, on the face of it, a bodice-ripping tale of swashbuckling adventure. Well-acted, tightly directed, but a rather improbable tale of derring-do, though ostensibly based on the activities of a real noblewoman. But it has several noteworthy points. For one, it is very rare for a protagonist, especially a female one, to be so unabashedly wicked. That is reserved for the villain/vamp. You keep looking for redeeming qualities in your lead characters – you don’t find it in either Lady Skelton or in Captain Jackson.

In fact, the latter comes off the better of the two – Captain Jackson is a hedonistic, devil-may-care highway man, with a sense of humour. 

Also, he draws the line at murder. Given that the punishment for highway robbery in late-17th century England was death by hanging, it is the risk that delights the man, and he’s more than willing to pay the price. That curious sense of honour also seals his lips when he’s betrayed, and he goes to his death with a jest on his lips. When a chance incident saves him, he takes his revenge in as brutal a manner as possible, but bears no further ill-will towards his betrayer. 

Until he hears of plans for cold-blooded murder.

Lady Barbara Skelton, on the other hand, is wicked through and through. A penurious childhood spent on the charity of an aunt and uncle leaves her aching for wealth and fame. She seizes what she wants with no thought to the consequences or indeed, of the people whose lives she shatters in the process. Having seduced her cousin’s fiancĂ© and married him, she quickly loses interest in her husband, finding him ‘a bore’. When Caroline asks her why she marries Ralph if she was never interested in him and knew that Caroline loved him deeply, Barbara replies that she's always wanted what others had.

While her first foray into highway robbery is to get back her mother’s brooch, the excitement it offers her makes her continue. When she takes Jackson as her lover, it is with the understanding that he will never cheat on her. When she discovers him in bed with another of his past loves, her fury at the betrayal leads her to denounce him, without regard for her own future.

Similarly, the first killing is accidental. The next, a necessity. The third, planned. The fourth, calculated. The utter lack of remorse makes her a chilling study in lead female characters.

Having only watched her earlier in regulation heroine roles, Margaret Lockwood was a revelation. She was brilliant as Lady Skelton, investing her character with both sultriness and ruthlessness. As each twist brings her closer to being exposed, you can almost see her plotting her escape. Her self-interest is fascinating.

Lockwood plays Barbara with a nervous energy that allows you to see the conventions she feels trapped by, and the eagerness she has to seize what life has to offer her. In one scene, she tells Caroline: “I’ve got brains and looks and personality. I want to use them instead of rotting inside this dull hole.” It makes you realize just how constrained women were/are in a society that trapped/traps them in prescribed roles and will resonate even today. 


She is complemented by James Mason, who plays the dashing ‘Captain’. His sense of humour is only matched by his code of honour and his courage. He knows, as he tells her in one of their first meetings, that he will end on the gallows. But he’s willing to take the risk, and when the cards go against him, he will face the hangman with the same courage and humour. In fact, his last wish is that a girl, one of his mistresses who had stayed loyal to him through thick and thin, be taken care of after his death.

Compared to the two of them, both Patricia Roc and Griffith Jones have the straight – and sympathetic – roles, with Patricia making for an enchantingly pretty Caroline. They are fine and upright, without being self-righteous.  All four leads (five, including Michael Rennie) make you empathize with their situation, even when you don’t sympathize with their actions.

In her memoirs, Margaret Lockwood wrote about how she had very nearly rejected the role, having played villain earlier in The Man in Grey. But, she said, she enjoyed playing this ‘deliciously wicked part’ and how much the entire cast and crew had enjoyed working on the movie (though not re-making it for the American censors). The Wicked Lady is outrageous fun, full of very British humour, and well-worth a watch.

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