Voluptuous vixens, murderous golddiggers and greedy femme fatales were a familiar sight in B-movie melodramas of the fifties but Wicked Woman (1953) stands out from the rest of the pack. The look and feel of the movie captures the lurid quality of trashy pulp fiction covers from the same period like Tavern Girl, Passion Has Red Lips or Any Sex Will Do. Even the minimalistic, sparsely decorated sets, that represent a confined universe of dingy boarding house rooms and the neighborhood bar, exude a sleazy authenticity and sense of claustrophobia. And scheming her way through these lower depths is Beverly Michaels in the title role of Billie Nash. Blonde, statuesque and sullen, she is the quintessential hard luck tramp, moving from town to town in a futile search for a change in luck.
Wicked Woman offers nothing particularly new or novel in its formulaic scenario but the vivid characters, hard-boiled dialogue and an almost palpable sense of despair transforms this tale of a born loser into something approaching a minor masterpiece. In its own way the film functions as an intimate window into a world most viewers luckily don’t inhabit but have seen glimpses of in real life. We may not be on skid row but we’re close enough. And at the center of it all is Beverly Michaels who is undeniably mesmerizing in a role that requires her to be in almost every scene of the film.
Over the years Wicked Woman has attained a certain cult status with such diverse and ardent fans extolling its virtues as Lily Tomlin, Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, and movie blogger Kim Morgan who hosted a revival of the film at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival. Despite the film’s poverty row status – independent producer Edward Small made it for peanuts using only a few interior sets and some brief location photography – Wicked Woman claims an impressive cinema pedigree. It was written by the filmmaking team of Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse who collaborated on several features over a 23 year period with Greene usually producing and co-writing the screenplays with Rouse, who served as director. Their first screenplay was The Town Went Wild (1944), a light comedy vehicle for Freddie Bartholomew and Jimmy Lydon, but Rouse and Greene really made their mark with the seminal noir story D.O.A. (1950) with Edmond O’Brien, which was remade in 1969 (as Color Me Dead) and in 1988 with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. Their first official effort as a producer/writer/director team (with contributions from Leo C. Popkin) was The Well (1951), a critically acclaimed drama about racial tensions in a small town that scored Oscar nominations for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay and Best Film Editing. They followed that with The Thief (1952), a highly unusual and innovative espionage thriller with Ray Milland that dispensed with dialogue and relied solely on visuals and sound effects to tell its story. In addition to Wicked Woman (1953), the duo also collaborated on New York Confidential (1955), another key noir entry starring Broderick Crawford, Richard Conte and Anne Bancroft; The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), a character-driven Western pitting Glenn Ford against Broderick Crawford (It became a surprise box office hit for MGM); A House is Not a Home (1964) with Shelley Winters as real-life brothel owner Polly Adler during the Roaring Twenties; The Oscar (1966), a legendary, over-the-top camp classic with Stephen Boyd chewing the scenery as a merciless and cunning Best Actor contender; The Caper of the Golden Bulls (1967), a lighthearted and underrated heist caper with a more restrained Stephen Boyd and Yvette Mimieux.
What makes Wicked Woman particularly intriguing is the fact that director Rouse would soon marry his leading lady. Like other better known director-wife collaborators such as John Cassavetes-Gena Rowlands (Faces; A Woman Under the Influence) and Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward (Rachel, Rachel; The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) who created their own unglamorized film portraits of working class couples and rarely glimpsed loners, Rouse and Michaels could be considered prescient in this regard despite the fact that the film is their only joint effort and initially designed to play double bills at drive-ins or the less prestigious moviehouses of its era. What is surprising is how effectively Wicked Woman works as both a lurid exploitation drama and an intimate character study not unlike that 1961 sleeper, A Cold Wind in August. It might be Michaels’ most quintessential role despite the fact that she was typecast throughout her brief film career as a tough customer. Her acting range may be limited but then the characters she played – an assortment of jailbirds, night club chippies and destitute women – were often as stereotyped as the formulaic B-movie melodramas in which she appeared. Her rare TV appearances in one-time episodes of Adventures of the Falcon, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Cheyenne didn’t depart from her usual femme fatale persona either.
Michaels began her career as a model at a young age and later become one of Billy Rose’s showgirls at the Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in the basement of New York’s Paramount hotel. In Hollywood, she signed with MGM and made a small but memorable debut opposite Van Heflin in East Side, West Side (1948) and appeared as an unbilled extra in Three Little Words (1950). But she found her niche after leaving MGM as the on-screen muse for low-budget auteur director Hugo Haas in two borderline noir dramas, Pickup and The Girl on the Bridge (both 1951). She once told an interviewer for The Los Angeles Times that she preferred playing characters who were “earthy or neurotic…The crazy sexy type of thing” and followed this course from Wicked Woman to Crashout (1955) as a dejected, unwed mother to a trio of prison dramas, Betrayed Women (1955), Women Without Men (1956) and Blonde Bait (1956). After this, Michaels retired to raise a family with Rouse and never returned to acting. From all reports, she had a happy marriage with Rouse that lasted until his death in 1987. Michaels lived another 20 years and died in Phoenix, Arizona in 2007.
If you’ve never seen Michaels in a film, then Wicked Woman is the best place to begin. The title credits set the tone as we see a Trailways bus traveling through a desolate desert landscape and a blonde staring forlornly out the window (The bluesy theme song is sung by jazz vocalist/African-American cowboy star Herb Jeffries). When the bus arrives at its small town destination, Billie Nash (Michaels) is officially introduced feet first as she disembarks and the camera slowly moves up her figure, clad in all white with a gold belt to accent her waist. She lights a cigarette, surveys her surroundings with world weary disdain and begins her search for cheap accommodations. It is an all too familiar routine that has become the one constant in her life.
Billie finds a room in a dreary boarding house and settles in with her portable record player, a pint of booze and an astrology magazine. Penniless, Billie turns on the charm for Charlie (Percy Helton), the boarder across the hall, who offers to share with her a steak that he cooks on a hot plate in his room. Sizing him up as a soft touch, Billie manipulates Charlie into giving her some money for a new wardrobe for job hunting and soon finds work at a dive bar run by Dora (Evelyn Scott) and her bartender husband Matt (Richard Egan). One bad decision follows another as Billie initiates a torrid love affair with Matt that runs the usual doom laden film noir route. First the couple plan to run away together to Mexico but that evolves into an embezzlement plot fingering Nora (she owns the bar). Lurking in the background, waiting for the chance to cash in on his favors to Billie is the lecherous Charlie. The finale should come as no surprise to anyone and is a true but fitting conclusion to this sleazy morality play from the lower depths.
When all is said and done, Billie is not so much wicked as pathetic. Her behavior, like the open and close of the movie with Billie’s arrival and departure, is cyclic. She never learns from her mistakes and is doomed to repeat them again and again on her journey to the bottom. Much worse than her is Matt who displays little moral compunction over selling Dora’s business behind her back or even agreeing to kill her. The final wrap-up when Dora and Matt are reconciled and Billie is out of the picture is like the comic fadeout to some demented sitcom with Dora and Matt laughing about the whole attempted embezzlement/affair with Billie. Screenwriters Rouse and Greene may have intended this to provide some much needed closure to their grim story but it only succeeds in exposing Matt as a dim-witted, potentially homicidal sociopath and Dora as a self-deluded alcoholic. At the end, it’s hard to tell who is headed toward the worst hell – Billie or the ill-matched and completely incompatible couple of Dora and Matt.
Wicked Woman is not currently available on DVD or any other format through legal channels but it occasionally pops up on Turner Classic Movies or in repertory revivals. You can also view it on YouTube. Other Links of Interest: