The Wicked Lady (1945)


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!swashathon-header


36 thoughts on “The Wicked Lady (1945)”

    1. No kidding, he thought he could push her around, the fool. Wonderful character, actress and a movie I love to revisit, thanks for the opportunity!

  1. Vivid, nicely put together piece, but I must raise a (lone?) dissenting voice to the claim that *all* of us were rooting for Barbara. I, for one, was not. I was with her against Henrietta (the cattty witch), but that was the extent of my sympathy… I felt like cheering when Caroline finally slapped her. I also found Jerry Jackson the more sympathetic of the two, and was practically yelling at him through the screen: “don’t turn your back on her, you chump!” (lol)

    1. Dissent is fine 🙂 in fact dissent is patriotic, haven’t you heard? I’m being bad here and I know she went way too far down the wrong path but I can’t help it, Lockwood is so fun, makes everyone (but Jackson) seem dull by comparison I just can’t help but root for her and hoped she could have somehow reformed.

      1. Haha, thanks, that does sound familiar ;-)… I did get the overall impression that you were just having fun with it, and don’t really condone murdering old men in their beds (even if they do happen to be self-important and rather deluded.)

        Interesting to note that the story is based on an old Hertfordshire legend about a certain Lady Katherine of Markyte Manor. Her ghost is said to haunt her old home and the nearby roadways. There’s been a folk-style song written about the legend (although the chorus shows that the film helped inspire it too):

        Do not wander by the manor, late at night when darkness falls
        Do not go down by the common, not by foot or on your horse
        ‘Cause she’s waiting there to rob you, not of silver, or of gold
        Lady Katherine she is waiting… she will rob you of your soul

        Wicked lady, wicked lady, she can’t rest and she can’t sleep
        She was once a highway robber, taking lives and gold to keep
        Wicked lady, wicked lady, Lady Katherine was her name
        Lived the daytime as a lady, but at night a robber she became

        There’s more…. I’ve included the link in my post. It’s pretty catchy.

        Lady Katherine’s highwayman lover’s name was supposedly Ralph, but in the film it’s her husband’s name. I guess there’s no way a dashing rogue can be named Ralph in filmdom?

        1. 🙂 true! I have come across that legend whenever I read about the movies, and find that so interesting. I would love to see a modern version of this movie, and it would make a great video idea for you, with that song.

          1. Should have known you were already well aquainted with the legend 🙂 Did you draw the same conclusion about the name of Ralph, I wonder? (at least it’s better than “Elmer!”) I’d like to use the song for a video… too bad they didn’t make a follow-up, switching to the horror genre. with her ghost out to destroy the descendents of Caroline and her husband… that might have worked nicely.

            1. I want to see THAT movie!! Take my money.
              and yes on Ralph, he was a bit of a dullard and might have driven me to highway robbery.

  2. 😀 Me too! Like Maricatrin, I cannot root for Barbara – except when Henrietta is concerned. Then again, she is smarter and more vivid than anyone else in the film, and while this is in huge part Margaret Lockwood’s doing, I can’t help wondering whether we are truly, truly not supposed to like her…

  3. Barbara sounds like a great character! I must admit that that I’ve always found Lockwood to be a bit insipid (especially in The Man in Grey and Love Story), which disappointed me as I generally try to like UK-born actors that made it big in Hollywood. BUT I haven’t seen this, which seems to present her in a totally different light – I can’t wait to watch it!

  4. This sounds wonderful! Like how Rebecca Sharp should have been portrayed in the latest version of Vanity Fair, but wasn’t (why must they so often soften our favorite female villains?) I love the description of her love as a ” a master of bad timing,” by the way. That’s hilarious, and true of many men in film:)

    1. I agree, I don’t like it when bad or complicated girls get softened or made into cardboard for our safety. The more rich and messy women’s roles like this the better. Try this movie, as always everyone’s mileage may vary but she’s one of the best villainesses. Thanks!

  5. Reblogged this on The Last Drive In and commented:
    Because we love Margaret Lockwood at The Last Drive In and because we love The Swashathon hosted by our beloved Fritzi at Movies Silently and because we love Speakeasy blog and this insightful post… we’re itching to reblog it and watch it for ourselves it sounds like a captivating film!!!!

  6. This is one of my favourite movies of all time and my 2nd favourite Margaret Lockwood movie (after The Lady Vanishes). It is just so much fun, and she was just so gorgeous!

    1. I vaguely recall the Faye version and you’re right, it just doesn’t compare, this one has the romance and the fiery villainess. Great stuff.

  7. This sounds like heaps o’ fun. Loved this in your post: “He’s a charismatic rogue who accepts that he’ll end up hanged but is committed to enjoying every last minute.” James Mason is certainly an actor who could pull this off.

    1. I think it’s fun, nothing like a memorable and somehow likable villainess teamed with such a charming partner. He’s the only one who matched her in this, as far as I’m concerned, the other men couldn’t keep up, too bad she tossed him aside.

  8. I wrote about Wicked Lady a year ago and found one critic had likened it to Gone With The Wind. That critic said it was a british version of GWTW, with Barbara like Scarlett, Caroline is like Melanie, Rasph is like AShley, and Kit/Jackson are an amalgamation of Rhett. I can see a bit of similarity, but Barbara is much more wicked than Scarlett could ever hope to be, imho. Great film, and Lockwood and Mason have great chemistry together. I can see why this was the #1 film in Britain in 1946. Enjoyed your take on it!

    1. Thank you, I can definitely see those comparisons, and yes Barbara would send Scarlett running. Fun movie that obviously gave audiences the escapism and glamour they wanted!

  9. Great read! I mean, if this were Aileen Wuornos ( in “Monster” ) doing this I’d be all “What the heck, throw that b*tch in jail!” But put a gal in some pants, boots and a mask, riding a horse and living out her mad dreams without a care in the world…then count me in. I’ve not ever seen this movie, but now I must. ( Lockwood reminds me a little in looks of Joan Bennett ). You gave Lockwood a spirited endorsement and now I’ve GOT to find this movie. It seems that other gals might be playing at it, but Lockwood as “The Wicked Lady” was dead serious. I enjoyed your write-up. I love bad girls in the movies.

    1. I’m a big Lockwood fan in general, this is in her top few performances but she made so many good movies. She was dead serious, you can tell she had a blast playing it and it’s enjoyable (and forgivable to enjoy her villainy) because it’s escapist fun. Thanks for reading, hope you get a chance to see this!

  10. Watched this film for the first time when I was 9 or 10 and have loved Margaret Lockwood ever since, my first big screen crush. This film is just so much fun and for me much of that comes from Margaret Lockwood’s performance, one that really leaves the viewer unsure who to root for. At one stage this film seemed to regularly be on TV here in the UK but sadly times have changed. The remake didn’t really work for me, Faye Dunaway (a fine actress) turned the character into a pantomime villain, although from what I read that was what Michael Winner wanted. Great to read such a positive post about a film I love and to read so many enthusiastic comments.

    1. Same here, love to see fans like you leave their opinions on it. She totally won me over, such a colourful and lively baddie with understandable motives, that I do root for her, I admit. Thanks so much, glad you enjoyed!

  11. Oh, thank you, thank you for this! I feel like we forget that James Mason had an adventurous streak in him, since we’re so used to thinking of him in a suit calmly sipping a martini. Saw this ages ago, and now I I have GOT to see it again.

    1. That’s great, thank YOU for reading and for the nice words. I love Mason and agree he made a great rogue and charmer anywhere on the spectrum 🙂 such a talent.

    1. Give it a try, with such a compelling villainess and a likable actress, it is very subversive as well as just plain entertaining. Thanks!

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