Little-Known Gems: Wicked Woman (1953)
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! So every now and again in The Noir Nook, I’m going to make it my business to share some of these gems with you. And I’m kicking off the series with 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.”
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).
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!”
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 also co-wrote the feature 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 it again!
You won’t be sorry.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here: