The Wicked Lady is a 1945 British Costume Drama film directed by Leslie Arliss, based on the novel The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, which was based in turn upon the (disputed) events surrounding the life of Katherine Ferrers, a 17th century heiress who according to legend terrorized the countryside as the eponymous highwaywoman.
The beautiful Barbara Worth (Margaret Lockwood) is invited by her friend Caroline to the latter's upcoming wedding to wealthy landowner and local magistrate Sir Ralph Skelton. A scheming Barbara soon has Sir Ralph totally entranced; Caroline, wishing only his happiness, stands aside.
But Barbara is unlucky enough to truly fall in love at her wedding reception with the handsome Kit Locksby, and married life on a rural estate as Lady Skelton soon leaves her bored to tears. After a visit by her detested sister-in-law Henrietta ends with Henrietta winning all Barbara's jewels (including her most-prized possession, her late mother's ruby brooch) in a game of Ombre, and a chance remark is made about notorious highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson, Barbara hits upon an idea: by masquerading as Jackson, she can rob Henrietta's coach and reclaim her lost fortune — with interest!
Intoxicated by the experience, Barbara embarks upon a double life, continuing to waylay coaches until one night she and the real Jerry Jackson (James Mason) happen to target the same one. When Jackson, amused and surprised, learns her true identity, they become partners in crime and love. But as Barbara seeks bigger thrills, lives are put in danger, people begin suspecting she's not all she seems, and her efforts to cover her tracks only make matters worse for everyone... especially as matters of the heart come into play.
This film was one of the most successful of the "Gainsborough Melodramas", a run of lavish costume dramas from Gainsborough Pictures that topped the British box-office in the mid-1940s. It was remade by Michael Winner in 1983, with Faye Dunaway as Barbara and Alan Bates as Jackson. While the script is faithful to the original film's — to the point that its screenwriter gets a "written by" credit alongside Winner — it is also significantly Hotter and Sexier. The remake also may or may not have had a Mid-Development Genre Shift into a deliberately Camp, comic take on the material — some advertising presents it as such, but some does not, and virtually nothing in the film is played as comedy if it was not played as such in the original version.
This work features examples of:
- Accidental Murder: Twice.
- Barbara and Jerry's robbery of the gold shipment ends with her accidentally killing one of its escorts, Ned Cotterill, when a shot she fires at his horse hits him instead. She feels a little guilty about it.
- In the climax, Kit accidentally murders Barbara to defend Sir Ralph's life, not realizing that the would-be assassin is Ralph's wife.
- Blood from the Mouth: Lady Barbara has a little blood coming from the mouth after being shot (probably a lung wound).
- Disguised in Drag: Barbara does this to rob coaches, in part because she's initially masquerading as Jerry Jackson. Since highwaymen have to conceal their faces anyway, it's easier for her than for most women affecting this trope. She lowers her voice as well, a detail that's more convincing in the remake due to Faye Dunaway's voice being deeper to start with.
- Dying Alone: The final fate of Lady Barbara Skelton.
- Dying Declaration of Love: Downplayed, as the characters were already willing to admit their affection to each other but simply couldn't act on it: At the end, Barbara reveals to Kit that she tried to murder her husband so they could be together. She dies alone after this as he's too appalled to stay.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Zig-zagged with Jerry Jackson. He has a sense of honor and will not kill or rat out his colleagues, but at the same time rapes Barbara as revenge for ratting him out and almost getting him killed.
- Fake Defector: When elderly servant Hogarth reveals to Barbara that he has evidence that she was involved in the robbery that resulted in Ned's death and that they need to tell the authorities for the sakes of their souls (Hogarth being very devout), Barbara convinces him that Jerry wooed her into her double life and promises to reform. Hogarth decides that the prospect of helping redeem her cannot be passed up and agrees not to tell anyone else what he knows, and for the months that follow Barbara forsakes her thieving ways, goes to church, etc...all while slowly poisoning him with arsenic-laced fruit cordial and anticipating her return to the highways.
- Foreshadowing: "Lucky" Jerry Jackson's nickname foreshadows his very narrowly being saved from his own execution.
- Love Dodecahedron: Caroline loves Sir Ralph Skelton, but Barbara woos him away only for her to fall for Kit Locksby at her wedding reception. Barbara ends up becoming Jerry Jackson's doxy — one of them, anyway, complicating matters further — and when she meets Caroline again after the latter's been away in London, she learns she's in a relationship with Kit that's reached the engagement stage. Kit still desires Barbara and vice versa, but he knows he can't have her under the circumstances. Caroline, Kit, and Sir Ralph ultimately agree it will be better for everyone if Sir Ralph divorces Barbara. Unfortunately, on their way to tell her such, Barbara (in her disguise) attempts to murder Sir Ralph — right after she offs Jerry — and Kit shoots her to defend him. She dies, but this still allows a happy ending for Sir Ralph and Caroline.
- Public Execution: Jerry Jackson is sentenced to a public hanging after Barbara anonymously tips the authorities off.
- Rape and Revenge: As the climax looms, Jerry rapes Barbara over her betrayal of him. Later, as she prepares to ambush and kill her own husband, their paths cross again and she kills Jerry both because he objects to her plan and to get revenge upon him.
- Barbara's life of crime begins as a way to get back at her sister-in-law and reclaim the jewels she won fair and square in a game of Ombre.
- After the pandemonium at Jerry's execution, a vengeful Jerry — who barely survived — rapes Barbara, knowing she can't go to the authorities without revealing her double life.
- See You in Hell: Lady Skelton shoots her highwayman lover, Jerry Jackson, who dies saying to her, "To our next merry meeting, in Hell!"
- Tampering with Food and Drink: Barbara does this to that of old Hogarth, one of the few people who knows her true identity, with arsenic-laced fruit cordial. He is soon dying but also considering a deathbed confession, so she smothers him with a pillow to finish him off.
- Villain Protagonist: Barbara, in spades. She starts off by seducing her cousin's finance and just gets worse from there.
- Woman Scorned: Barbara is not happy to find Jerry with another woman after she finally returns to her old ways, and tips off the authorities to his whereabouts so they can finally capture him.
Tropes specific to the 1983 remake:
- Bloodier and Gorier: Lady Barbara's demise is much more gruesome, as she bleeds out much more heavily.
- Breast Attack: The titular Wicked Lady takes vengeance for a slight made by a peasant girl (Marina Sirtis) by expertly whipping her until she is stripped to the waist; the whip targets her breasts as well as her back.