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Saturday Night Cinema: Wicked As They Come (1956)

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema feature is Wicked As They Come, one of those superb B movies we hate to love. But we do love it. Campy? Is it ever. Juicy? Dripping …..with contempt. Arlene Dahl was marvelous. If you are like me and love the cool, the clothes, the class, the clubs, the conversation, the culture, the aestheticism of that sophisticated era, kick back and pour yourself an extra dry martini.

A working-class gold digger (Arlene Dahl) ruins her life as she uses men to get what she wants.

“What she wanted out of life… she got out of men!” Arlene Dahl is a sizzling sensation as Kathleen Allen, a woman who learns early that sex is how she’ll get ahead in the world.

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Wicked as They Come stars Arlene Dahl as Kathy Allen, whose sour attitude on life has been formed by a sexual assault in her childhood. Rising out of the shabbiness of the Lower East Side, Kathy ruthlessly climbs the social and financial ladder by using and then abandoning a series of gullible older men. When she finally gets what she wants out of life, it still isn’t enough, and it is this insatiability that leads to her downfall. Extensive location filming in London and Paris adds an exotic touch to this predictable melodrama. Wicked as They Come is based on Portrait in Smoke, a novel by Bill Ballington. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Wicked As They Come
“What she wanted out of life…she got out of men!”

Tag line for Wicked as They Come

Best remembered today as a glamorous television guest star who shared her beauty secrets with fans in her syndicated newspaper column or as the mother of action star Lorenzo Lamas, Arlene Dahl has a devoted cult following for her brief but effective reign as a screen bad girl. Case in point is the 1956 British drama, Wicked as They Come, about a beauty queen seducing her way to the top.

Dahl had gotten into the movies through modeling, hoping that one of the Hollywood studios would give her the chance to star in musicals. Such roles rarely came her way, though she performed a memorable rendition of “I Love You So Much” in MGM’s Three Little Words (1950). Through most of her three years at MGM, the studio simply used her as beautiful set dressing, most notably in some of Red Skelton’s final comedies for that studio. Only her last film at the studio, No Questions Asked (1951), gave any indication of her potential. Cast as a seductress trying to enlist ex-husband Barry Sullivan in an insurance scam, she showed a surprising flair for film noir.

That talent would blaze brightest in three late ’50s films, starting with Slightly Scarlet (1956). As Rhonda Fleming’s mentally ill sister, she ran the gamut from kleptomania to nymphomania with a sizzling performance that has made the film a cult favorite. Then she traveled to England for a pair of films noirs — Fortune Is a Woman (1957), another tale of insurance fraud with more than an echo of Double Indemnity (1944), and Wicked as They Come, both made for Columbia Pictures’ British production arm.

In addition to showcasing Dahl as a seductress, Wicked as They Come was somewhat ahead of its time in its attempt to provide a psychological basis for her behavior. The character’s ruthless use of the men in her life and her inability to enjoy normal sexual relations are traced back to a gang rape at the age of 15, a shocking development for a film in the still-pristine ’50s, when rape was rarely alluded to or discussed in movies. Of course, the violent episode is not dramatized here and Dahl’s sexual manipulation of her victims is more amusing than disturbing as she self-consciously telegraphs every move in her deceitful plan.

Imported to give the film more U.S. box office pull was leading man Philip Carey, cast as the honest but poor man who falls for Dahl and tries to help her deal with her emotional problems. The rugged star of numerous Western and war films, most notably the Doris Day musical Calamity Jane (1953), Carey moved into low-budget films noirs and television guest roles in the face of a waning studio system. He would follow Wicked as They Come with one of the great unsung films in the genre, Gerd Oswald’s Screaming Mimi (1958), another tale of a destructive female with deep-seated psychological problems. In later years he would excel as oil man Asa Buchanan, a role he would play on One Life to Live for almost 20 years, during which time he re-teamed with Dahl, who joined the series for three years in the ’80s.

Among Dahl’s victims in Wicked as They Come was Herbert Marshall, a veteran of such Hollywood classics as Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Little Foxes (1941) and The Razor’s Edge (1946). After years as an in-demand leading man and character player, he had moved into lower-budget films with the decline of the studio system in the ’50s. By that time, he was bringing his British diction and stiff upper lip to science-fiction films such as Gog and Riders to the Stars (both 1954) while also drawing on his stage experience to star in live television dramas. Two years after Wicked as They Come, he would make his most notorious film appearance, as a French police inspector investigating a strange death in The Fly (1958). Director Ken Hughes had previously worked for Columbia on another film noir, Joe MacBeth (1955), a British-shot film that starred Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman in a resetting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the world of gangsters. Although his biggest productions would include the children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and the historical epic Cromwell (1970), his favorite film would be The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), an uncompromising depiction of the great writer’s trial for sodomy, with Peter Finch as Wilde. He also would make another bid for cult status as director of Sextette (1978), the final film for legendary cinema seductress Mae West.

Producer: Maxwell Setton, M.J. Frankovich
Director: Ken Hughes
Screenplay: Ken Hughes, Robert Westerby, Sigmund Miller
Based on the novel Portrait in Smoke by Bill S. Ballinger
Cinematography: Basil Emmott
Art Direction: Don Ashton
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Principal Cast: Arlene Dahl (Kathy Allen), Philip Carey (Tim O’Bannion), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Collins), Michael Goodliffe (Larry Buckham), David Kossoff (Sam Lewis), Marvin Kane (Mike Lewis).
BW-94m. Letterboxed.

by Frank Miller

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