Little-Known Gems: Wicked Woman (1953)

Don’t you love this shot? You’re going to love this movie even more.

Even classic film lovers who aren’t film noir aficionados have heard of such classics as Double Indemnity, Laura, and Out of the Past, am I right?

But what of those low-budget Bs that no one ever talks about? The ones that rarely show up on the Late, Late Show? Don’t they deserve their moment in the sun?

I’ll say they do! And among these is one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures: Wicked Woman (1953), directed by Russell Rouse and starring none other than Rouse’s wife, Beverly Michaels. It’s one heck of a flick that you’ve got to see to believe!

As the credits roll, we see the wicked woman of the film’s title, riding a bus through dusty towns, on her way to who-knows-where. And just in case we weren’t sure who this film was about, we’re treated to a jazzy theme song all about her as the credits roll, soulfully belted by Herb Jeffries (who, incidentally, was billed during his career as “Hollywood’s First Black Singing Cowboy” and the “Bronze Buckaroo”). (Just thought you’d like to know.) The words of the song tell us all we need to know about this dastardly dame: “You know that what she’s doin’ is sure to cause you ruin – and still, you listen to her lies.”

Everything’s better with Percy. Everything.

We learn that the dame’s name is Billie Nash (Michaels), and when she disembarks from the bus, she finds a rooming house and gives the landlady her last dollar, including a “good luck” coin – “All the luck that’s brought me shouldn’t happen to a dog,” she emotionlessly remarks. There’s something fascinating about Billie – from her uncommon name, to her blonde hair and all-white outfit, which puts you in mind of a poor man’s (I mean a REALLY poor man’s) Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice. There’s the syncopated rhythm record that she plays over and over (and over!) on her portable phonograph. The nearly empty pint of gin that she drains once she’s settled in her room. The astrology magazine that she reads to pass the time. She’s not beautiful, but she’s attractive in a brassy, I’ll-kick-your-ass kind of way. And she doesn’t just walk – she moves with a slow-motion strut that makes you wonder if she really wants to get where she’s going.

We don’t know anything about Billie when we meet her, except that she’s flat broke and looking for a job. And also that she’s resourceful – not long after noting the frank appraisal given to her legs by her across-the-hall neighbor, Charlie Borg (the always great Percy Helton), she turns on the charm and winds up dining on the chop he’d been cooking for his own dinner. And then, after landing a gig as a waitress in a bar, she gets Charlie to loan her 20 bucks for a new outfit by suggesting they celebrate her new job by going out for dinner and dancing on her first night off (“I’ll teach you all the latest steps,” she promises with a dazzling smile).

Richard Egan. Hubba hubba.

The bar is owned by Matt Bannister (a hunky Richard Egan) and his wife Dora (Evelyn Scott), who’s just a little too fond of the product they’re selling, if you know what I mean. Before long, Billie is casting meaningful glances in Matt’s direction, taking suggestive puffs from his cigarette, and letting her hand rest in his just a couple of beats longer than necessary when passing money from the customers. And before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” she’s ensnared Matt like a fly in a spider web, drawing him in with her fantasy of going to Mexico: “I want to dance and make love and be serenaded,” she purrs. “And lay out in the sun all day. And get tan. Not too tan, though. They like blondes with fair skin down there.” After lulling him into a stupor with her imagery, she only has to say three more words – ‘’Mexico City. Acapulco…” – and Matt’s a goner. Meanwhile, she keeps poor Charlie panting on the sidelines, getting favors out of him by continuing to dangle the promise of their future night on the town.

Billie and Matt enjoy a brief interlude of stolen kisses and whispered endearments, but Billie’s soft and sultry side falls away like scales off a lizard when she insists that Matt sell the bar and run away with her south of the border. Matt’s appalled at the notion of leaving his wife in a lurch, and when he turns her down flat, Billie shows her true colors: “You can look for a new girl at the end of the week – I’m quittin’,” she tells Matt. “You stay in this hole you dug for yourself, but don’t expect me to hang around ‘til it’s six feet deep!” And Matt’s not the only one to suffer Billie’s wrath. Charlie encounters her upon her return to the rooming house and makes the mistake of trying yet again to get her to set a date for their outing. Instead, he gets pummeled with Billie’s screaming insults: “Do you think I’d go out with an undersized runt like you? Don’t make me laugh – I wouldn’t be caught dead with you!”

She looks kinda sweet here, doesn’t she? Kinda innocent? Well, she AIN’T.

But if you know anything about film noir, you’ll know that this isn’t the end. I don’t want to completely spoil the film – you’ve really got to see it to believe it – but let me just say this: the last 20 minutes of Wicked Woman will leave you bug-eyed and on the edge of your seat.

By the way, in addition to directing the film, Russell Rouse co-wrote the feature, along with Clarence Greene. This duo also penned the screenplay for D.O.A. (1949) and, in a complete about-face, they were responsible for the story for Pillow Talk (1959), the first teaming of Doris Day and Rock Hudson. In addition, Rouse was the man behind the camera for another of my favorite noirs, New York Confidential (1955).

If you’ve never seen Wicked Woman, do yourself a huge favor and check it out – you can catch it on You Tube. And if you’ve already had the pleasure of seeing it, there’s no time like the present to see it again!

You won’t be sorry.

——————-

This post first appeared in my Noir Nook column for Classic Movie Hub. Do yourself a favor and check out this awesome site!!

 

 

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~ by shadowsandsatin on April 16, 2018.

9 Responses to “Little-Known Gems: Wicked Woman (1953)”

  1. This film is a hoot especially Percy Helton as Michaels next door neighbor and tailor. Some scenes where she asks Helton for twenty dollars to buy a new dress for her new job at the bar and Helton measuring her are a laugh after laugh. Michaels relationship at the bar with Egan and his wife is so easy to guess what’s going to happen from the moment she starts her job. This film is so off beat and low budget that I enjoyed it right fro the beginning.

  2. Not familiar with this one but I’m intrigued. D.O.A. is one of my favorite noirs. I’m going to dial it up. Thanks.

  3. Beverly Michaels really is something else! And this script suited her very well. The ending surprised me, I didn’t expect it to be relatively upbeat.
    Always like Richard Egan.

  4. What a treat this one was! Interestingly, every thing I generally don’t like about low-budget noirs, this one had in spades. But Beverly Michaels is absolutely the worst of the worst femme fatal in that she doesn’t seem to do anything for a loving motive of any kind. What I thought especially humorous was when the man who was to buy the bar showed up at the establishment and heard the customers calling Dora (or who should have been!), Billie. This guy gives her cover and asks, “Is that a nickname?” Sure! This dopey guy seems asking to be double-crossed! But Bille’s just desserts is that guy on the bus out of town is giving her the eye!

  5. She’s also nastily good in PICKUP. Beverly is less dangerous in BLONDE BAIT ( which has an interesting history). One I’d like to see is THE GIRL ON THE BRIDGE.
    I first saw Beverly in EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, in which she had the wonderful name, Felice Backett!

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