Friday, July 23, 2010

Your Weekend Viewing: Wicked Woman (1953)

I’ve told the story before. But it’s a favorite movie-going memory, so I’m telling it again.

It’s the final night of Noir City 2007. The lights dim in advance of Wicked Woman, which Eddie Muller assures us is one of the sleaziest movies of the 1950s. A man I haven’t seen before slips into the seat in front of me, a figure of a certain age wearing a cologne equal parts Marlboros and hair tonic.

The film starts. And as the dulcet voice of Herb Jeffries belts out the title song, the guy in front of me croons along, his hands aloft conducting the orchestra he’s assembled in his head for the occasion. He’d waited a long time to see Wicked Woman again, and now they were back together.

Wicked Woman, amazingly, lived up to that opening, and that’s because of its star. Beverly Michaels, to put it kindly, is not an actress. What this six-foot tall blonde is, however, is a presence. Some kind of dark magic takes place the second she appears, glaring out a bus window in what she’d call “a bad yuma,” ogled with the dead-eyed camera of a stag reel. There’s an undeniable aura around her character Billie Nash (the ultimate B-movie femme fatale name), a sense that she has used her body and had her body used, and she’s getting pretty damn tired of it. She comes on screen and your first thought is: That woman looks like nothing but trouble. Think I’ll buy her a drink.

The movie calls to mind the old saw about academic politics being so brutal because the stakes are so low. There are no murders in Wicked Woman, no crime plotted more grandiose than a little run-of-the-mill fraud. Those threadbare ambitions give the movie its power; Billie aspires to nothing more than a few months in Acapulco (I love how Beverly pronounces the name as if it’s four complete sentences), but stupid men keep fouling up her meager plans. There’s a true desperation in this movie, borne of small lives lived in furnished rooms.

Not to mention a last call, somebody-take-me-home sexiness. The movie is in love with every inch of Beverly Michaels, content to watch her do anything. Exhibit A: the scene in which Beverly settles into her new digs, puts on a record, takes off her shoes, and points her huge bare feet toward the camera. Where they stay for what seems like an eternity. Director Russell Rouse would go on to marry his leading lady, who would leave movies soon after. He would later win an Academy Award, and their son Christopher would take home a statuette himself decades later for editing The Bourne Ultimatum.

And now more good news. It turns out Wicked Woman is on YouTube. In nine installments, the first of them below. I guarantee you will not spend a better seventy-seven minutes this weekend. Watch it for Percy Helton’s performance as the first poor sucker who falls under Billie’s sway. Watch it for the erotic magic of Billie knotting her robe, over and over. Watch it for the one-of-a-kind Beverly Michaels. Watch it now.