Husband-and-wife team Guy Maddin and Kim Morgan have programmed WICKED WOMAN (1953) as part of their mini-season at telluride this year, and their comments comparing it to Ulmer’s DETOUR (a favourite of both Errol Morris and Lucio Fulci) made it sound pretty damn intriguing. I tracked it down.
The comparison led me to expect too much, probably, but the film is at least as interesting as it is dull. It’s the work of writer-director Russell Rouse, who made some OK stuff before he made THE OSCAR (a gloriously wretched multi-car-crash of an all-star epic), with the wordless Ray Milland vehicle THE THIEF as a particular stand-out. Rouse created a sort of silent movie simply by having his leading man alone, at night, with no one to speak to. It creates a particularly bleak, lonely atmosphere.
While DETOUR derives a lot of its impact from forcing shots to extend until they become striking — who was it who said, “There’s nothing in it but genius, because they couldn’t afford anything else?”, WICKED WOMAN has a normal B-movie number of set-ups, and they aren’t particularly inventive. The speed of production didn’t compel Rouse to come up with crazy ideas, it just meant the lighting couldn’t be very elaborate and the camera couldn’t move much. The effect is televisual, with only the griminess of everything and everybody in shot to distinguish it from small screen fare. Apart from the very occasional moment —
As far as thrills go, the movie is somewhat lacking. It’s kind of a noir, but the biggest crime contemplated is fraud, and the worst violence is when the titular W.W., Beverley Michaels, gets repeatedly shoved to the floor and bed by Richard Egan. But there IS Percy Helton, hump-backed orangutoad from KISS Me DEADLY, blackmailing Michaels into, ahem, being nice to him. If he were George Clooney, this would be distasteful, but he’s Percy Helton, so it’s intolerably skeezy. You have to rapidly assembled a firewall in your frontal lobes to disbar any images of that lipless, foam rubber face contorting in the throes of carnal ecstasy. Quick! Do it! Do it now!
My favourite Percy Helton role is in the notorious Mandom commercial, where his fleeting appearance may be intended to remind us of the deleterious effects of not buying Mandom.
What WICKED WOMAN does have is Michaels herself, a curious presence, six-foot plus and languorous like a moon-walking astronaut (though far less buoyant), her line readings alternating between depressive monotone and venom-spitting fury. Until she speaks, it always feels like the camera is running at 30fps. Just watching her cross a room is like Valium for the eyes.
And then there’s the movie’s vision, in which everybody, almost without exception, is crummy. Michaels, who commits fraud and adultery and sleeps with another guy and chisels and bullies, is just about the nicest person in it. The bar’s co-owner is an abrasive alcoholic, but I guess she’s basically OK. The short-order cook is a loud complainer, but decent. But Egan is a louse, all the bar customers are chubby sex pests, Michaels’ landlady and fellow boarders are vicious, braying jackasses, and Percy goes from being a seedy, needy dweeb for Michaels to exploit, to a blackmailing molester. The sex goblin versus the giantess. We kind of wanted Michaels to go on a killing spree at the end — she looks more than capable for throwing little Percy through the greasy rice-paper walls of her rooming house.