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Monday, April 11, 2016

WICKED WOMAN (1953) - what's the fuss about this B noir?

After having indulged in mostly classics lately, like SHANE, 3:10 TO YUMA, and RIFIFI, watching a decidedly B film from the early 50s resulted in a bit of a shock to the senses.  But I trusted Guy Maddin's advice and came away more than entertained.  The film was WICKED WOMAN directed by Russell Rouse in 1953, and it was screened April 10th at the Harvard Film Archive, as part of their Guy Maddin Presents series.

Platinum blonde Beverly Michaels stars, she of the apparently long B movie career playing tough but beautiful dames.  The role in this film is the one she is best known for.  She isn't a great actress, but uses everything she has to create a powerful screen presence here.  At 5'9" she towers over most of the other characters, except her leading man, Richard Egan.  She deliberately slinks and slithers her way around the camera, using her lean body to full advantage.  In fact the first shot of her features only the waist down.  She's as sultry as they come, and we know she's gonna stray from the straight and narrow, yet she projects enough vulnerability to win you over, and make you understand that she knows of no other way to survive.  As Guy Maddin says in his film notes for the series, "She's an amazing presence, the towering Michaels, who contrived for this el cheapo movie miracle a gliding, super-sensual gait not unlike the scudding of a just-surfaced submarine."  

First view of leading lady Beverly Michaels as she gets off a bus
The plot of the film is simple - a beautiful dame short on luck buses in to an unnamed town, takes up residence, and sets about conning the landlady and a particularly smitten neighbor into funding her attempts to land a job.  When she does, she becomes a waitress at a local blue collar bar owned by hunky bartender Richard Egan and his wife, who has a predilection for drink.  Our heroine seduces Egan and sets about planning their getaway.  The low budget film takes place mainly in three indoor sets -- the bar where our heroine works nights, and her small flophouse apartment, and the hallway in the apartment building.  Shorter scenes take place inside an office, a bus station, and the street in front of the flophouse. One surprise in this film is the passionate kissing scene between Michaels and Egan -- a complaint of mine in older films is that kisses more often than not are unconvincing.  This one just -- is.  
Beautiful "wicked woman" pleading for a job
Beverly Michaels and her vulnerability
Evelyn Scott as Dora
The tone honestly didn't seem 'noir' to me.  Rather, it was more like a cross between a seedy dark comedy and melodrama.  Despite this, the characters created by Michaels, her lover Egan, his trod-upon wife, played by Evelyn Scott, and leering neighbor-from-hell Percy Helton, are all compelling.  The direction by Rouse and hard boiled script by Rouse and Clarence Greene make this familiar story suspenseful nonetheless.  This film will never reach a wide audience, but is a reminder of how entertaining a low budget film can be given a decent script, director, actors, and a large dose of inventiveness.
Apparently WICKED WOMAN has a cult following among noir aficionados, including Eddie Muller.  Here are a couple of references that expand upon the pleasures and lessons to be gained from spending 77 minutes it its company:

Sunset Gun reviews the film at its Telluride screening in 2014 and focuses on its feminist underpinnings
Beverly meets Richard Egan

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