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Wicked Lady, The (1945)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Wicked Lady, The (1945)
35mm, black and white, 104 mins
DirectorLeslie Arliss
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ProducerR.J. Minney
ScriptLeslie Arliss
Original novelMagdalen King-Hall
PhotographyJack Cox

Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Lady Barbara Skelton); James Mason (Captain Jerry Jackson); Patricia Roc (Caroline); Griffith Jones (Sir Ralph Skelton); Michael Rennie (Kit Locksby)

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Lady Barbara Skelton is frustrated by the stifling conventions of seventeenth-century England and asserts her independence through stealing her best friend's husband, turning to gambling and becoming a highwaywoman. But how long can she keep up her double life before she's unmasked?

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The most commercially successful of all the Gainsborough melodramas, and arguably the best known (it was controversially remade by Michael Winner in 1983), The Wicked Lady is in many ways the definitive example of the formula.

While its predecessors had featured strong female roles, as befitting films aimed at largely female audiences, the characters were for the most part straitjacketed by the society that produced them, with even the villainesses like Hesther in The Man in Grey (d. Leslie Arliss, 1943) or Alicia in Fanny by Gaslight (d. Anthony Asquith, 1944) conforming to type.

However, Lady Barbara Skelton (Margaret Lockwood) is clearly pushing at the barriers right from the start, as she steals her best friend's fiancé, marries him, and, after belatedly discovering married life to be somewhat dull, she turns to gambling, highway robbery, murder and every social transgression under the sun.

Totally rejecting any conventional image of "femininity", she spends much of the film challenging stereotypes head-on, running rings round her male counterparts, whether they be the dull but essentially good Sir Ralph (Griffith Jones), the wickedly sexy highwayman Jerry Jackson (James Mason), the stern, high-minded puritan Hogarth (Felix Aylmer) and the vivacious Kit (Michael Rennie), the man she really loves but who she never seems to meet at the right time.

What unites the men is that they all have at least some kind of moral code - even Jackson baulks at killing - whereas Barbara rejects anything that might conveniently pigeonhole her (her dead mother is the only person she remains unswervingly loyal towards). But by rejecting society, she's playing a dangerous game - as society in turn rejects her to the point of degradation and death, leaving her utterly alone awaiting her fate.

The ending, while undoubtedly motivated at least partly by the British Board of Film Censors' moral code regarding criminals getting their comeuppance, is tragically inevitable - transgression may be hugely entertaining, but there's an unmistakable price to pay.

While the BBFC was happy to sanction the end result, the film ran into trouble on the other side of the Atlantic - notoriously, much of it had to be expensively reshot for the American edition after Lockwood's cleavage was considered too prominent to meet the moral strictures laid down by the Hays Code. Even by today's standards, The Wicked Lady is startlingly racy, and must have seemed thrillingly subversive to 1945 audiences.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The secret passage (3:36)
2. Highway robbery (3:16)
3. Death of Hogarth (3:10)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Fanny By Gaslight (1944)
Jassy (1947)
Love Story (1944)
Man in Grey, The (1943)
They Were Sisters (1945)
Arliss, Leslie (1901-1987)
Bryan, John (1911-1969)
Cox, Jack (1890-1960)
Fisher, Terence (1904-1980)
Lockwood, Margaret (1916-1990)
Mason, James (1909-1984)
Roc, Patricia (1915-2003)
Costume Drama
Female Protagonists
Gainsborough Melodrama