A smoky and pulpy film noir, Russell Rouse’s Wicked Woman is tawdry stuff. This 1953 motion picture is based on a screenplay by Rouse and Clarence Greene, with cinematography by Edward Fitzgerald. It features a minuscule budget and the minimalism suits it, for this is one of the sleaziest pictures of the decade.
The primary cause of all this trashy good stuff is Beverly Michaels. To say she’s an actress might be pushing it, but she certainly does blow the doors off Wicked Woman and it wouldn’t be much of a movie without her. Michaels was in Hugo Haas’ Pickup, one of the more enticing B-movie noirs of the 1950s, and she bolsters her “bad girl” image with her turn in Rouse’s flick.
Michaels is the impeccably named Billie Nash, a drifter who floats into town. She procures a room at a boarding house and winds up across the hall from the nebbish Charlie (Percy Helton), who keeps more than an eye on her. After taking advantage of his kindness for a loan, Billie heads to a bar and snags a job as a drink hustler.
The bar is owned by the alcoholic Dora (Evelyn Scott) and her strapping husband Matt (Richard Egan). Billie feels an immediate attraction to Matt and the feeling is mutual. The two cook up a scheme to sell the joint under Dora’s noise, with designs on fleeing to Mexico.
Everything in Wicked Woman is dipped in skulduggery, from Herb Jeffries’ opening song to the introduction of Billie Nash as she hops off a bus and has the whole neighbourhood staring at her pins. She checks into her apartment and flicks on a record, playing the song “One Night in Acapulco” over and over and over while imbibing straight from the bottle.
This establishes Nash’s character with ease: she’s not a proper woman, despite the virginal white she wears. And Jeffries’ song warns us about her, with her proclivities sure to lead to ruin. She is a woman of appetites and the audience knows Matt is in for it the second he meets her gaze. Michaels’ embodiment of white-hot sex is impossible to resist.
Helton brings greatness to Charlie, a sad sort who lives alone in the boarding house and eats at all hours of the night. Life has not gone well for him and he latches on to the slightest compassion from Billie. He loans her money without much reluctance and longs for a night out with the dame. Eventually, opportunity knocks and Charlie shows another side.
While Billie’s relationship with Matt is one of animalistic desire, her relationship with Charlie becomes one of necessity. She does what she has to do to protect the confidentiality of her ultimate plan and it all comes crashing down when Rouse pulls the trigger on the final act.
Wicked Woman isn’t only concerned with the disturbing dynamics of Billie’s sexual relationships and a big chunk of this lean and mean noir contends with the actual scheme to sell the bar. The trick is to make the sale under Dora’s nose, which requires some fraud. This sets up a number of tense moments, like when Dora gets a little too close to the new prospective owner, and Rouse handles it well.
Fitzgerald’s workmanlike cinematography isn’t exactly the stuff of legend, but the lens loves Michaels and he knows how to exploit the angles. There are some playful shots and there are some sad ones, like Fitzgerald and Rouse are cataloguing the milieus of the despondent. The bars and apartments of Wicked Woman are hollow, spare and lifeless apart from booze bottles and turntables.
Suffice it to say, Michaels and Co. burn up the screen and Rouse directs this scoundrel-filled smorgasbord with aplomb. This is a terrific, little-known film noir and it’s the sort of picture that requires a shower after viewing. Whether that shower is hot or cold is, naturally, up to you.