The not entirely wicked history of “The Wicked Lady”
The 1945 Gainsborough Studio production, The Wicked Lady, is based on the novel The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by British author Magdalene King-Hall, who in turn based her novel on the supposed real life and highway escapades of Lady Katherine Ferrers, the wife of a major landowner in 17th century England. The film was purportedly a massive hit at the 1946 box office, grossing over £2 million. It was remade by infamous food critic turned director, Michael Winner, in 1983, but it was critically panned and a box office bomb.
According to my ITV The Margaret Lockwood Collection boxset, Lockwood’s turn as Barbara Worth in The Wicked Lady is her most famous role. The back of the boxset reads “This racy costume drama established Lockwood as an exciting, glamorous and daring star, transforming her from girl next door and endearing her to many fans throughout the 20th Century.” While The Wicked Lady is considered to be one of Margaret Lockwood’s star making roles, James Mason’s portrayal of her highwayman lover, Captain Jerry Jackson, was one of the roles that propelled him to stardom in the United Kingdom. While The Seventh Veil gave him international acclaim, The Wicked Lady could be considered as a vital stepping stone that set him on that path.
A Deadly Affair
Sweet Caroline (Patricia Roc) is to be married to the love of her life, Sir Ralph Skelton, who by comparison, is only “fond” of his parent’s once orphaned ward. Caroline invites her beautiful, green eyed cousin, Barbara Worth (Margaret Lockwood), to be her maid of honour. But instead of ensuring Caroline’s happy day goes smoothly, Barbara steals Ralph away from her self-sacrificing cousin, becoming the new Lady Skelton instead.
This a role reversal for Patricia Roc and Margaret Lockwood, who starred in Love Story the year before. In that film, Lockwood and Roc vie for a young, pre-superstar, Stewart Granger’s affections. But in Love Story, Lockwood is the self sacrificing one, while Roc cares only for her own happiness.
Lady Skelton soon becomes bored and dissatisfied with her life as a landowner’s wife, calling her marital home a countryside “hole” that lacks the excitement and variety of London, which shocks and disturbs Caroline. She decides to forgo sleeping in the same room as her husband, and converts a disused room in the opposite wing into her bedroom. Much to her delight, the room has a secret door and passageway that leads out onto the estate grounds. She makes a telling remark to Caroline about how useful the door would be if she were to take a lover, although it will soon be clear that the door will be used for far more dangerous and harmful activities.
When Ralph’s snobbish, cosmopolitan sister comes to stay, Barbara’s pride over not knowing the latest London social pastimes, causes her to impulsively lose her most prized possession, her deceased mother’s ruby brooch, in a card game. A throwaway remark made by her brother in law causes her to decide to pose as the notorious highwayman Captain Jackson, and steal back the brooch. She enjoys this illegal escapade so much, as it allows her to both humiliate her hated sister in law and claim the thrill she is lacking, that she decides to pursue highway robbery “full time”.
While robbing distraught coach travellers, Barbara meets the real Captain Jerry Jackson (James Mason), who is delighted that Barbara is very beautiful and wants to continue her new night job. They become lovers and partners in crime on the highway as Barbara becomes more even more discontent with her life, and crueler towards Caroline and Ralph. Captain Jackson is initially as beguiled by Barbara as other men, but he quickly realises her penchant for extreme selfishness and destructiveness, remarking that he thinks her not only a potentially dangerous enemy, but also “a dangerous partner”.
Despite Jackson’s trepidation, Barbara formulates a daring plan to rob a baggage coach of gold bullion, after gaining inside information from one of her husband’s naïve tenants, Ned, who is working as a guard to protect the valuable freight. When Ned pursues them on horseback during the heist, and they cannot outdistance him because of the gold they are carrying, Barbara shoots him dead. Barbara shows little remorse, and delights in the notoriety generated by the turn of events, while Jackson is disturbed by them. In order to convince an extremely religious servant, Hogarth, who has discovered her double life, of her innocence, Barbara blames Captain Jackson for Ned’s death, and paints him as a fiend who has blackmailed and her corrupted her into a dissolute life.
Before Hogarth can reveal Barbara’s illegal activities, she murders him by first slowly poisoning him until he is bedridden, and then suffocating him with a pillow. After murdering Hogarth, Barbara endeavours to joyously reunite with her highway lover, but he has not heeded her words, and has “betrayed” her by being with another woman. Barbara betrays Jackson in turn, and he is captured at the inn where he lives by Ralph. At his trial and subsequent execution, where he is treated as a hero and popular personality by a crowd of hundreds, he does not betray Barbara. However, he does indirectly indict Barbara for her betrayal of his trust, and despite taking responsibility for his own part in his downfall, he warns her that she will pay the price for her life of wickedness.
He shows his capacity for decency and compassion by asking Barbara to give money to his grieved and impoverished mistress, who stayed faithful to him before his relationship with Barbara and during his subsequent criminal trial. But the young woman refuses Barbara’s money, and recognises her from the night Barbara promised to ruin Jackson for his unfaithfulness. Barbara is able to escape the consequences of her actions once again due to a riot breaking out at the execution.
To her horror, she discovers that Caroline is engaged to Kit Locksby, the man that Barbara has secretly been in love with since her wedding night. She sets about stealing Caroline’s fiancé-to-be for a second time, but Captain Jackson comes back from the dead, having been cut down by his friends before he was strangled to death at his public hanging. However, he lacks Barbara’s killing instinct, and allows her to live despite her almost fatal betrayal. Although he acts out his capacity for cruelty by sexually assaulting Barbara despite her protests that she is in love with someone else.
“You don’t know what it feels like to be strangled, do you, My Lady? … Feel the the rope crushing your windpipe, choking the life out of you. The whole world goes black, with spots of vivid colour flashing against the awful darkness. You feel as if your head’s going to burst.”
Barbara decides to murder her husband under the guise of a highway robbery so that she may marry Kit, but Jackson balks at her intentions and dies by Barbara’s hand before he can warn Ralph. During his death scene, which is expertly handled by Mason, who manages to make it poignant despite Jackson’s own misdeeds, his parting words to Barbara are, “To our next merry meeting… in Hell.” Jackson’s portentous warning is realised when Barbara holds up the coach carrying Ralph, Kit and Caroline, and Kit ironically fatally shoots her. On her deathbed, Barbara admits her murderous plans and actions to Kit, who rejects her, causing her to die alone.
Although the entire cast is exceptional, Margaret Lockwood and James Mason give stand out performances. Unlike Lady Skelton who is almost completely evil and self interested, Captain Jackson is a complex character who should be a villain but comes across as more of an anti-hero. And this is mostly due to James Mason’s brilliant portrayal of the character, which combines the seemingly paradoxical, brutal capacities of a highwayman and the moral code that makes murder repugnant to him. Captain Jackson could quite easily be a “throw away” character who only acts as a means to allow Barbara her pursuit of dangerous thrills, but Mason’s line delivery and mastery of reaction that is appropriate and natural rather than studied or overdramatic, means that he becomes one of the most memorable characters in the film. Probably the most memorable alongside Lockwood’s wicked lady.
The two parts of the film that show Mason’s consummate capacity to make acting look as if he was born to it, and as if he is Captain Jackson, rather than just playing the part, are the execution, and his eventual roadside death scene. He manages to showcase a range of emotions whilst giving his final speech to the cheering crowds before he is hung. He seems jolly and delighted at the impressive, if morbidly inclined, turnout. But his warning that women like Barbara will mean the death of anyone, especially beguiled, trusting men, is both foreboding and moving, as he conveys his love for Barbara whilst damning her for her betrayal and wickedness, without being preachy or “chewing the scenery”. In this scene, it becomes obvious that Mason is the kind of actor who can enthral the audience through a fairly lengthy monologue.
Despite his own misdeeds, most notably the manner in which he takes revenge upon Barbara on the night he returns, James Mason makes Captain Jackson’s death scenes one of the most poignant and memorable I have seen in film. He does not draw it out so that he may “steal” the scene from Lockwood, but he shows the regret and surprise he feels at the manner of his death, and avoids looking pathetic even though he described Barbara as more dangerous and cunning than a viper or weasel only moments before she shot him. He looks knowing, and almost amused, as he predicts his ex-lover’s impending death with his last words.