Before I forget... please pick up the February edition of Sight & Sound on stands now where you can read my essay on Russell Rouse's "Wicked Woman." Here, my piece, from their "Lost and Found" column: "Overlooked films currently unavailable on UK DVD or Blu-Ray." The movie is not on DVD in the US either...
There's something especially mesmerizing about watching Beverly Michaels slump her tired, six-foot tall body through a tiny, dingy room. And not just any room, her depressing end-of-the-line boarding house run by a woman who calls the joint a "respectable place" (which means it most certainly is not). This is the walk of a woman who has spent her entire day pounding the pavement, clad entirely in white, making sure that white stays clean, which isn't easy, making sure her tight clothing doesn’t reveal too much (but maybe just enough), making sure she won’t wobble on those heels and trip up her icy cool. Her beauty is her success in life. It will get her somewhere -- anywhere -- doesn't have to be too far. Even a job would be nice. As Ingrid Bergman remarked about being born beautiful "Aren't I lucky?" Well, yes, but when you have little else to go on, your luck can run out.
As Billie, in Russell Rouse's Wicked Woman, Michaels is so perfectly cast it's unimaginable to think of any other actress in the part. Men gape as she slinks along the street. She's an extraordinary creation. But when she walks into that room -- that sexy, hypnotic gait turns into the angry walk of a woman so sick and tired of life's day-to-day indignities, that you feel like you're spying on her. Tossing her handbag on the bed in disgust, chucking off her shoes, tying on her robe, skulking to her fridge to crack open a beer, she's almost as foot-heavy as Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? opening doors with her ass, sliding across the floor in dirty slippers while bitterly delivering Joan Crawford her lunch. She's not quite Bette yet -- she's too young and lovely -- but she can see that woman in her future. And though she can finally relax in her small sanctuary after a day of slinking, she's never settled -- she's mad at the world. She’s mad at men, particularly her neighboring creep (Percy Helton). And great actress that Michaels is -- you can see it all in her body. She doesn't even need to say it: "What kind of goddamn life is this?"
Under the direction of Russell Rouse, notable for writing challenging, some, seminal pictures with Clarence Greene (who co-wrote Wicked Woman with Rouse) including D.O.A and The Well, and directing, among other pictures, the intriguing, experimental, dialogue empty The Thief and the excellent New York Confidential, the rarely seen Wicked Woman plays more like kitchen sink pulp than pure noir (an appellation that's constantly debatable). Rouse, an inventive filmmaker dove right into this world with an almost documentary eye and kept it squarely on his characters, trusting his actors to move around their surroundings with the familiarity of all losers: beds are where you throw your clothes, bar counters are where you lay your drunken head when you can't hold it up any longer and cars are for domestic squabbles. Not surprisingly, Rouse married Michaels after making this picture.
The story is both simple and absurdly complex: when Billie finally does land a job at a bar she naturally falls in love with the handsome bartender (Richard Egan). But there's a problem -- he's married. And, worse, he's married to the woman who owns he bar -- the blowzy, though sympathetic drunk who hired her (Evelyn Scott). As frequent in film noir, love walks in at the worst possible moment. How do they escape? What are they going to do? In a rare case (and a gender switch on The Postman Always Rings Twice, which this movie resembles), it's the wife who needs to be removed. Will they rub her out? Nah. That's too typical noir. How about devising something crooked where it looks like the dipsomaniac wife signed some papers, lost her business and the two lovers run off to Acapulco? There's a plan! It's devious. But it's not as wicked as the title suggests. And neither is desperate Billie. But, alas, fate steps in via the angry emasculated reject: Percy Helton. When Percy Helton louses up your entire life, your world is truly two-bit. And then, like love, a colossal misunderstanding walks in at the worst possible moment and the deal is off. Love is over. Life starts all over again. Drifting.
Billie as drifter is, again, in gender reversal, more like Tom Neal in Detour or John Garfield in Postman – tangling with the wrong jerk or dropping into the wrong town. As a woman, her challenges are greater than men – she gets pawed at, possibly raped, or, to reference another female drifter, Detour’s Vera, in danger of being accidentally killed by a telephone cord in a hotel room. You never know what can happen on the open road.
I dislike using the word “realistic” but there’s no other way to describe what distinguishes Wicked Woman from other tawdry B movies punched up with melodrama. Nothing wrong with melodrama, I love it, but there’s no such thing here. The cast feels so lived-in and real, they’re almost freakish. Michaels isn’t just leggy, she’s six feet tall, Helton is such a worm he’s a bonafide hunchback and Egan is so obnoxiously handsome he’s managed to grow a dimple between his eyes. With that, you find yourself liking and feeling for everyone in this picture -- even pervy Percy. They're just not very smart. It's all just so sad.
Unlike other femme fatales, Billie's not as intelligent as Martha Ivers, she’s not as evil as Kathie Moffat, she's not as murderously duplicitous as Phyllis Dietrichson, she's just stupidly in love and trying, desperately, to survive in a man's world. The aforementioned women were too, but they possessed more conniving brass and crazy. Poor Billie actually allows love to louse up the works. In that way, the ending is more dispiriting than any sexy Gun Crazy blast of amour fou. Egan's stuck with an enraged wife and Billie's back on the bus. Another town, another man, another lonely life. But when will it all run out? Keep those white clothes clean and don’t wobble on those heels, wicked woman.
Read the essay in Sight & Sound. And also, of course, Jonathan Romney's cover story on the best movie of the year, "Inherent Vice."