Terry Zwigoff Presents WICKED WOMAN!

November 8, 2023 - 3:21pm
Posted by Jim Healy


We asked filmmaker Terry Zwigoff to select a favorite film to screen alongside his own work as he visits the Cinematheque this weekend. Given that his movies frequently examine the dark side of American life, we were not surprised that he selected a terrific film noir, Russell Rouse's Wicked Woman (1954). Rouse's marvelous social drama, The Well (1951), co-directed by Leo Popkin, screened at the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival. Wicked Woman is a movie ripe for rediscovery, and we are delighted to present an excellent 35mm print. This screening of Wicked Woman will be followed by a discussion with Terry Zwigoff.

The following notes on Wicked Woman were written by Mattie Jacobs, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison.

By Mattie Jacobs

Billie Nash (Beverly Michaels) is too much for this world. Too tall, too seductive, too full of dreams for any town to hold her. She steps off a bus at the start of Russell Rouse’s Wicked Woman and every head turns, following her down the sidewalk in the small California town where she’s washed up. Michaels dominates the screen with physicality, warping and slowing time around her as she moves. She dresses only in white, and the camera follows her with an irresistible pull. Rouse showcases her intimidating presence, framing her to barely fit in small rooms, like the run-down boarding house she lands in, and stages her against the small men she finds in the small town.

As the door of her shabby apartment closes behind her, she switches from a slinking seductress to a tired, angry woman, fed up with the leers and gropes of the men that use and abuse her. She throws her weight around in the visually lived-in, almost documentary-realistic spaces she inhabits, knocking furniture and tossing clothes around. Noir is often embodied, sweaty, and manifesting physical presence, but rarely does the genre showcase a woman’s sensuality beyond her sexual effect on men. Here Billie’s “wickedness” comes out behind closed doors as she takes an evening shot, puts a song on repeat, and indulges in dreaming of another place.

Wicked Woman avoids many of the patterns familiar to the noir by 1953, foregrounding Michaels’s character as a femme fatale but also as a woman with desires and agency of her own. She’s desperate to get somewhere far away where she can “dance and make love and be serenaded. And lay out in the sun all day.” Instead of resting in sun-soaked Acapulco, though, she’s the protagonist of a grim, pulp tale: a complicated wicked woman who uses sex appeal to seduce the handsome, granite-faced, and frustrated bartender she works for, Matt Banister (Richard Egan). Still, she’s human and there’s little shock when she also immediately falls in love with him, even as she plays friends with his wife Dora (Evelyn Scott), the bar’s alcoholic co-owner who hired her in the first place. A sympathetic woman who knows the wariness their world requires, Dora warns her of customers: “Be nice to 'em, but not too nice.” But Billie’s seemingly been here before; she can handle a crowd of easily shrugged-off men and says so. While the last girl may have quit after a day, Billie is confident: “I'm not the last girl.”