Margaret Lockwood is The Wicked Lady (1945)


To view The Wicked Lady click here.

“I’ve got brains and looks and personality. I want to use them!”
- Barbara Worth (Margaret Lockwood) in The Wicked Lady (1945)

During WWII, many British citizens were desperate for movies that allowed them to forget about the destruction and mayhem engulfing the world. Against the backdrop of war, it’s not surprising that female film viewers began flocking to historic melodramas offering a momentary escape. The horrors of modern combat were left at the ticket counter while audiences immersed themselves in another time and place. Gainsborough Pictures was at the forefront of this trend buoyed by a stable of attractive and talented actors that included James Mason, Stewart Granger, Patricia Roc, Michael Rennie and Margret Lockwood. Lockwood (The Lady Vanishes [1938], Night Train to Munich [1940], Cast a Dark Shadow [1955]) was Gainsborough’s most popular female performer and although she never had much success in Hollywood, the actress became a household name in Britain during the 1940s. Her voluptuous beauty attracted both sexes but women were particularly drawn to the strong-willed characters she portrayed and her most successful film was The Wicked Lady (1945), which is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel at FilmStruck.

In this scandalous historic melodrama, Margaret Lockwood stars as the wicked and wanton Barbara Worth, a green-eyed femme fatale who uses her many assets to seduce the wealthy Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones) just days before he is about to wed her childhood friend (Patricia Roc). After positioning herself as the new Lady Skelton, Barbara quickly becomes bored with married life and decides to liven up her evenings by masquerading as the infamous highwayman Captain Jackson (James Mason). During one of her nightly adventures, she encounters the real Captain Jackson and the two become smitten with one another. While engaging in a passionate extramarital affair they continue to steal from unwitting travelers but the couple’s thrills are short-lived. Lady Skelton’s heart belongs to another man (Michael Rennie) and Captain Jackson is an unfaithful free-spirited rogue. Consequently, their dangerous liaison ends in tragedy for them both.

The Wicked Lady was based on a 1944 novel written by Magdalen King-Hall originally titled Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton. The book mixed legend and lore with history to create a fictional portrait of Lady Skelton based on the real-life Katherine Ferrers. According to historians, Ferrers was a wealthy 17th-century heiress who may or may not have masqueraded as a highwayman to relieve the boredom of married life and buttress her family fortune. Despite the precarious nature of Ferrers’ crimes, it’s understandable why the romantic notion of a dissatisfied woman who finds love and excitement while committing highway robbery appealed to war fatigued readers eager for some diverting entertainment.


Director and screenwriter Leslie Arliss (The Night Has Eyes [1942], The Man in Grey [1943], Love Story [1945]) was employed by Gainsborough to adapt the book for the screen. Arliss, who worked as a journalist before becoming interested in filmmaking, began his career as a scenario editor for the studio but when war broke out he was given the opportunity to write and direct. While much of the film’s mise-en-scène can be credited to the baroque scenery and sumptuous period clothing provided by art director John Bryan (Great Expectations [1946], Oliver Twist [1948], Becket [1964]) and costume designer Elizabeth Haffenden (So Long at the Fair [1950], Beau Brummell [1954], Ben-Hur [1959]), Arliss’ use of chiaroscuro lighting, striking close-ups and odd angles to imply emotion suggest he was more than just a capable journeyman director. The film also benefits from some distinct editing choices provided by Terence Fisher who would go on to direct many of Hammer Studio’s best gothic horror films.

When The Wicked Lady was released in 1945 it scandalized audiences and faced intense scrutiny from detractors who thought the film was immoral and irresponsible. U.S. censors still beholden to the Motion Picture Production Code were so outraged by the movie’s loose sexual mores, double entendres and Margaret Lockwood’s heaving bosom that they demanded Gainsborough reshoot some scenes before it could be shown in American theaters. To appease them, Lockwood’s cleavage was concealed behind more satin and lace while the film’s suggestive dialogue was toned down but no matter how hard censors and critics tried to tame The Wicked Lady, they couldn’t suppress her.


Audiences embraced Margaret Lockwood and her impassioned depiction of the decadent and unscrupulous Lady Skelton who castoffs convention and surrenders to her basest desires. Marrying for money, engaging in adultery without remorse, cross-dressing and committing highway robbery are just a few of her transgressions. Despite this, the film asks the audience to sympathize with Lockwood’s character and we do thanks to the actresses’ subversive scene-stealing performance.

In 1983 director Michael Winner (I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname [1967], The Mechanic [1972], Death Wish [1974]) remade The Wicked Lady with Faye Dunaway in the starring role and Alan Bates played the notorious Captain Jackson. I’m a fan of this bawdy tongue-in-check reimagining of Magdalen King-Hall’s novel but much like its predecessor, the film received a critical smack down on its release and has failed to find an appreciative audience. While it lacks the unique vision and charm of the original, Winner’s film does contain its own rewards if you can appreciate his ‘vulgar auteurism.’ I recommend that adventurous viewers watch both movies back-to-back for a genuinely wicked filmgoing experience.

Kimberly Lindbergs

3 Responses Margaret Lockwood is The Wicked Lady (1945)
Posted By Jonathan Barnett : March 30, 2017 2:20 pm

Thank you. I Loved the WICKED LADY.

I love the Gainsborough melodramas and British “Tabloid Rhapsodies” in general. I love UNCLE SILAS, CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS, DEAR MURDERER, whenever I see those other names associated like Rank, Hammer, GFD, London FIlms, Herts-Lion, Eagle Lion, Gaumont, I get a thrill.

But Gainsborough always had something extra, something more. DR.SYN, THE LADY VANISHES, NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN (odd to see a young Mason as an “old” person) .There is just so much to see and find and best of all, seeing James Mason and Margret Lockwood in what was considered trashy stuff. So exciting! One of the joys is that these movies haven’t been pick to death and over analyzed. It’s always a discovery.

Posted By Pamela Porter : April 4, 2017 4:18 pm

I’m another Gainsborough fan; TWL was my gateway drug. Nothing better on a rainy “mental health” day!

Posted By swac44 : October 13, 2018 9:12 am

A little late to the game I know, but was happy to finally catch up with The Wicked Lady this morning, and remembered Kimberly’s fine essay on it, which I immediately re-read afterward. Certainly a rousing melodrama with enough appeal for any gender, what with all the sexy transgressions going on, it’s refreshing to see a film from this period which isn’t held back by Production Code restraints, and manages to be sensuous without being vulgar. There’s nothing I didn’t love about The Wicked Lady.

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