With the affect of a sleazy 1950s paperback novel’s cover, and all its lurid come-ons and empty promises, Russell Rouse’s Wicked Woman appears to be just another campy, trashy wallow in the lower depths of American life.
Behind that crude exterior is an admittedly tawdry but sobering slice of femme fatale film noir. Writer-director Rouse had three unusual films noir to his credit before Wicked Woman. His screenplay for 1950’s D.O.A. blends comedy and pitch-black drama. 1951’s The Well, Rouse’s directorial debut, tackled racism and myopic small-town attitudes. 1952’s The Thief ostentatiously tried to be wordless, during one of Hollywood’s gabbiest eras.
Neither of Rouse’s first two films entirely succeeds in their goals. Both are ambitious, unusual and distinctive. Wicked Woman was, perhaps, an attempt by Rouse to make a more conventional, crowd-pleasing picture. The creative team’s collective tongue may be slightly in cheek, but a grubby gravity rescues the movie from mere camp.
Over the film’s opening credits, ex-Duke Ellington vocalist Herb Jeffries moodily croons a title song. We follow the trail of a Trailways bus across desolate highway landscapes. “You know that what she’s doin’/is sure to cause you ruin,” Jeffries warns us in song. Seen in one bus window is Billie Nash, embodied by actress Beverly Michaels. A disillusioned drifter, Nash rolls into dismal Anywhere, USA., deceptively dressed in virginal white. A quick tip from a bus station clerk leads her to nearby Gary Street and a shabby rooming house.
As Billie approaches her new abode, she’s given the eye by Charlie Borg, a mole-like tailor, played to the hilt by Percy Helton. I believe this was Helton’s highest billing in a motion picture. His name appears third, after Michaels’ and co-star Richard Egan’s. Helton obviously relished this rare opportunity for plentiful screen time.
Wicked Woman is largely the story of Charlie Borg’s pathetic attempts to woo this B-girl, despite impossible odds. His possessive, manipulative and desperate courtship of Billie leads to misery and confusion for her more than for him. Despite the theme song’s warning siren, it’s Billie who gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop, constantly, throughout this film.
After some zesty banter with the flophouse’s owner, Mrs. Walters (Bernadene Hayes), Billie attempts to settle into her $6-a-week digs and find a job. Borg is like white on Rice, if you’ll pardon the pun. He wastes no time trying to worm his way into Billie’s life—and panties.
She understands that this marsupial manipulator might be useful to her, and she immediately strings him along in a fevered sexual fantasy that’s 100% projection on Borg’s part. After Billie talks her way into a waitress job in a neighborhood tavern, run by amicable alcoholic Dora Bannister (Evelyn Scott) and her brooding, hunky husband Matt (Richard Egan), Billie wheedles a sawbuck off of Borg to buy a new work outfit.
Bug-eyed with lust, Borg shells over the 20 and begs her to let him know when she has a night off.
At this point, Wicked Woman thumbs a ride from the works of James M. Cain. Billie and Matt Bannister take a shine to one another. Matt is the long-suffering spouse of a lush, and, like Billie, seems to barely contain his own personal trauma and dejection. These two lost souls bond, and soon hatch a scheme to pose as man and wife, sell the bar, and skedaddle to Mexico—the place of choice for noir desperados.
Billie is, in fact, obsessed by a recording called “One Night in Acupulco.” It appears to be the only record she owns, and she asks the bar’s jukebox service to put the platter in its machine. This cartoon dream of escape proves her downfall. Borg learns of her plans, and snares her in a web of sexual blackmail.
We see him sadly and noisily kissing her arms, cooing like a sick dove, as she withers with contempt. Worst of all, it’s made crystal clear that she spends the night with him, and that he has his way with her… brrr!
It’s tempting to laugh at this desperate display of helpless passion. But the scene is also quite sad. There’s no way Borg will find contentment or satisfaction with this set-up. These love-making scenes entrap us in an awful voyeuristic contract. We can’t look away… but it hurts to look; thus, to protect ourselves, we reflexively laugh.
The fraudulent scheme to sell the bar fails. (If this is a spoiler for you, you don’t know your film noir.) In a fit of pique, Billie breaks her treasured record of “One Night in Acupulco.” At film’s end Billie is disgraced, while Matt Bannister is rewarded with his own private hell: a lifetime chained to his verbally abusive alky spouse, who now has the permanent upper hand.
For his troubles, Borg is slapped by Billie (fuel for his future fantasies, I’m sure) and is out 20 bucks. Billie is booted from Walters’ seedy digs and back on the bus, en route to more of the same—sadder but probably not wiser for her troubles.
Wicked Woman is not a standard bad-girl B noir. Its characters are too busy being miserable to get what they want, and too resigned to their dreary fates to fight them.
Billie seems more down in the dumps than seductive throughout the movie. Her detachment from life seems profound. Her eyes are sad mirrors of her downtrodden life. She doesn’t seem to enjoy herself, even when she smiles.
The documentary-like attention to detail in the film’s surroundings enhances this glum air. Billie’s room, with its hotplate, battered fridge and time worn furniture, is a temple for the blues of a lifetime. The Bannisters’ tavern, while successful, is well-worn, with a potentially deadly stove in its kitchen. No one could really be happy in these shabby surroundings, regardless of their emotional or financial circumstances.
Michaels’ gloom permeates this and other films she’s in. I don’t suppose Dejected Dame would have done much box office, but that’s a far more apt title for this picture. As in Michaels’ contemporary noir roles (the Hugo Haas films Pickup and The Girl on the Bridge, both from 1951), the actress exudes a hard-bitten unhappiness that seems to speak of personal experience.
Noir themes would continue to dominate director-writer Rouse’s work. Following Wicked Woman were New York Confidential (1955) and the fascinating House of Numbers (1957), with twin Jack Palances enacting an eccentric story by novelist Jack Finney.
Percy Helton would find noir immortality via his brief bit role in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me, Deadly, and cult-level recognition from his countless television roles.
Wicked Woman is viewable, in its entirety, on YouTube, in six parts, starting here ( ). Brace yourself for lowlife noir at its seamiest—and then go take a hot shower… you’ll need it!
--Frank M. Young