Director: Leslie Arliss
This post is part of the Swashathon hosted by Movies, Silently.
17th-century antihero Barbara (Margaret Lockwood) is so gorgeous “she takes every man’s breath away,” and so greedy for pleasure and satisfaction that she’ll just take every man away, then move on to taking valuables and lives. Barbara begins by helping herself to her best friend Caroline’s (Patricia Roc) nobleman Sir Ralph (Griffith Jones) on the eve of their wedding, marries him for the money and title, but finds the life of a Lady excruciatingly tame and insipid. When she loses her beloved mother’s brooch to her smarmy sister-in-law Henrietta (Enid Stamp Taylor) during a card game, Henrietta’s comment about having to protect her new “trinket” (insensitive witch) from the area’s notorious highway robber gives Barbara an idea. She dons a costume and mask and pretends to be the highwayman to get her heirloom as well as some bonus kicks harassing Henrietta. Barbara then gets addicted to the adventure and power of the highwayman identity and keeps on sneaking out at night for further holdups. One night she meets the real robber, Jackson (James Mason) and for a time, finds him an exciting partner in crime and romance. But her deepest and most genuine affection is saved for the dashing Kit (Michael Rennie), a master of bad timing who might have given her the contentment she seeks, if only he didn’t meet her right after she married Ralph, return when he’s Caroline’s fiance, and recoil in horror when he learns she’s the highwayman.
We’re not supposed to admire or like Barbara. We’re supposed to reject her like Kit, pity and despise her like Caroline, and yearn to get out from under the shadow she’s cast on all their lives, as the dull Ralph puts it. Try as they might to convince us otherwise, Barbara is sympathetic and exciting, a powerful, uncompromising woman made vivid, likeable and vivacious by the wonderful Lockwood, and you want her to win. She’s gorgeous; much is said about her green eyes before we ever see her, and even in this black and white film, when she dons her mask and eyes are all you see, they live up to the advertising and blaze with passion. She fully owns her seductive power and knows how to use it, saying “a clever woman can make a man do as she likes” by feigning sentimentality or attraction she doesn’t naturally feel. What Barbara does feel is a hunger for adventure, she wants to be envied and admired, to ride the wildest horse toward the danger and away from anyone’s control. Her life is about desire and action, the performance and exhilaration of chasing, getting, taking, and never resting on possessions or victory.
Barbara’s oversized personality and cravings can’t be contained or satisfied by a proper Lady’s role so she rebels and creates her own identity. When required, she acts out a parody of female roles, playing the helpless damsel who “falls” off her horse, the naif who begs for religious guidance, the victim of the nasty highwayman’s abuse, or the dumb girl who doesn’t know the first thing about gold shipments but thinks the coachman is cute. She goes further than just wearing the highwayman disguise, she delights in using that male role to expose and mock shallow female sentiment. When Henrietta returns as a heist victim she inevitably twists the incident into a celebrity encounter, brags about flirting with the highwayman, and lies about noticing how handsome he was. An amused Barbara pokes fun of this need for, and false claims about, a criminal’s attention, and then makes sure to work some mild but memorable abuse into her next robberies.
Even though Barbara seems momentarily shaken when she accidentally kills the gold coach guard, she gets over that quickly when flattered by news that her reward is much higher than Jackson’s, and when self-preservation kicks in after threat of exposure from one of Ralph’s trusted men Hogarth (Felix Aylmer). From there she easily advances to ruthless murder and treachery, acts which give Lockwood fantastic scenes like the one where she impatiently urges Hogarth to drink that last bit of poison, then resorts to smothering to shut him up. This woman refuses to be controlled, guided or taken by anyone, and the ultimate irony that confirms her fears of losing independence is that the one man she would willingly give in to, is the one who destroys and abandons her.
Mason’s acting is fabulous as usual and he makes a perfect partner for Lockwood (they made four movies together). He’s a charismatic rogue who accepts that he’ll end up hanged but is committed to enjoying every last minute. He’s initially amused and impressed by Barbara’s daring, but comes to fear her insatiable hunger for danger and capacity for betrayal, and even when he returns from the gallows thinking he has some kind of ghoulish advantage or power over her, she surprises him once again with an evil plot, gets the upper hand and the first shot.
The Wicked Lady was a massive hit, the UK’s biggest movie in 1946. It had to be recut for the American release due to the low-cut dresses, and was remade in 1983 with Faye Dunaway in the lead. It’s wicked, delightful fun and it’s part of the Swashathon hosted by Movies, Silently, click here to see the rest!