"When she came," says Sir Ralph about his wife, Lady Barbara, "a dark shadow crept over our lives...but it's lifting." He's speaking to Caroline, who has always loved him with a passion that was pure and true. "We shall ride again in the sunshine," Sir Ralph continues, "...sing and laugh and know happiness...and love." For those who cannot foretell the fate of evil women, no matter how spirited and beautiful they may be, read no further. The Wicked Lady may be a lusty Restoration melodrama, detested by the critics yet Britain's highest earning movie in 1946, but it has enough interest to warrant watching all the way through. This is because of the story, which centers on a, well, a wicked lady, but a lady of great spirit and energy. She's as attracted to adventure as she is bored by respectability. Fiancé stealing, highway robbery, shooting and smothering are just the spices needed to keep her love alive, to paraphrase Lorenz Hart. The other element that makes the movie watchable is the actors, particularly Margaret Lockwood as Lady Barbara and James Mason as the charming, energetic highwayman, Jerry Jackson. Jackson knows he'll wind up kicking his heels with a noose around his neck at Tyburn, but he'd rather it be later than sooner...and in-between he'd just as soon enjoy Lady Barbara.
You must picture the times. The men wear higher wigs than the women, and their hats sport more feathers than most ostriches. Dress is elaborate and décolletage is on ample display. In fact, some scenes in The Wicked Lady had to be reshot before the film could be released in the States. It was thought too many Americans would feel threatened by Margaret Lockwood's bosom.
Barbara Worth is a beautiful, bored young woman who, as amusement, steals the fiancé of her best friend, Caroline, and marries him. But the life of a well-to-do country squire in the person of Sir Ralph Skelton turns out to be boring beyond belief. When she loses a treasured brooch gambling, she decides she'll get it back after she hears of the exploits of Jerry Jackson, a highwayman. She does...and she finds the excitement as addictive as a drug. "Think of the exhilaration, the excitement and the danger," Barbara says. "Once a man has taken to the road, all else must seem tame and insipid. I don't see how he could ever give it up." Then, while holding up another carriage, she finds herself facing the real Jackson. Of course, it's not long before they form a rollicking partnership in bed as well as on the road. One thing leads to another...a spot of smothering, high-stakes robbery, a betrayal, the usual things...and before long Lady Barbara has paid the price, a bullet in her side, and alone as she dies. As we all know, a beautiful woman's sins must be washed away in blood, hers.
This may sound like a thousand other heavy-breathing romances, but The Wicked Lady after all these years still entertains. The plot's spice comes from the very idea of the heroine not being a heroine at all. Lady Barbara almost makes us sympathize with the boredom of her married life. Her husband, Sir Ralph (Griffin Jones), is a good-looking, honest man with all the charisma of a piece of toast. One of her husband's retainers, old Hogarth (Felix Aylmer), constantly spouts personal doom from the Bible. Barbara, taking to horse and pistol and robbing carriages at night, finds this activity not only spices up her life, but makes her too tired to spice up the life of her husband. Her evil (pronounced in the movie, "eee-viil") nature is highly entertaining, even when she holds down a pillow over a sick man's face.
Most importantly, the two leads shine. Margaret Lockwood was one of the most popular British actresses during the Forties. She had great looks, but she also was intelligent, humorous and knew her craft. Whatever the thing is that makes some actors vivid through the camera, she had it. James Mason as Jerry Jackson just about steals the film every time he's on screen. "Do you always take women by the throat?" asks Barbara when Jack has his hands around her neck to demonstrate who's in charge. "No," says Jackson, "I just take them." Mason brings everything -- threat, romance, charm -- to those five words. The next year, 1947, Mason would star in Odd Man Out, one of his greatest films, then it would be on to Hollywood.
It seems to me that older movies can be enjoyed best when a person first takes a little time to learn about the film and the actors. Take Griffin Jones, the actor who plays Sir Ralph. He's skilled playing a conscientious and honorable man who makes a bad decision in marrying Barbara but tries to make the best of it. It's not a performance, however, that will stick in your mind. But if you've had the opportunity to see him as Narcy, the thoroughly vicious gang leader in 1947's They Made Me a Criminal, you'll wind up with a good deal of appreciation for his skill. And when you learn he was the father of Gemma Jones, who played Louisa Trotter in the terrific television series, The Duchess of Duke Street, it's an added pleasure.