Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Barbara Hates Housework

When an independent working woman chooses marriage over career, the results are disastrous in Crime of Passion (1957), starring Barbara Stanwyck as Kathy Ferguson Doyle and Sterling Hayden as police detective, Lieutenant Bill Doyle.  Kathy is a columnist on a San Francisco newspaper - she writes the an "advise to the lovelorn" feature.  Trusted by her readership, she manages to convince a woman who murdered her husband to turn herself in, resulting in the offer of a better job in New York, and a successful collar for LA based detectives Doyle and his partner Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano).  But, Kathy, who has always disliked the thought of marriage (she says that "for marriage, read life sentence"), falls passionately in love with Bill, and consents to a whirlwind marriage.  She quits her job, settles in LA with Bill, and tries to become a housewife.  Bill's lack of ambition, however, frustrates Kathy, who is now trying to live her life through him.  She devises a plan - get friendlier with Bill's boss, Chief Inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr) and his wife, Alice (Fay Wray), in order to wrangle a promotion for Bill. In doing so, she begins to alienate the Alidos, (Virginia Grey as Sara), who have similar goals, creating problems for herself and for Bill.

This TCM article hits on a point that we found seminal about this film - "it seems to be a strikingly modern commentary about how women were driven mad by the limitations imposed on them in the postwar period."  Indeed, for women today, Kathy's dilemma is quite contemporary, making the film both enjoyable and disturbing.  When a woman, used to doing things herself, used to having the drive to succeed, marries someone who is entirely different from herself, is now bound to house and home, and can find no kindred spirit with whom to commune, is madness the ultimate outcome?  It's obvious that Kathy is attracted to the police community - at dinner parties she wanders away from the female conversation (where they discuss recipes and television - much as she predicted prior to her marriage) to the room filled with police officers, where she is clearly unwelcome.  Stanwyck, in her last film noir (see Eddie Muller's Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) is both strident and desperate as a woman falling apart at the seams.
Sterling Hayden is perfect as Bill Doyle - a nice guy, and a good detective, but rather banal -  and Hayden seriously plays up the banal.  Stanwyck was pleased at the idea of Hayden in the part (according to Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith), but one thing bothered her.  She was distressed by his rather badly tailored suits, so they had a conversation and  he got some better clothing (perhaps not entirely in character, but Hayden makes even good clothing looked rumpled).  The biggest question though is, what we attract Kathy to Doyle, to the extent she would sacrifice everything for which she has worked.  Hayden is certainly an attractive man, but one doesn't doubt that Kathy has ever lacked for male attention.  He wants exactly the opposite of what she wants - he desires a "happy marriage... children and a home."  Does the fact that Kathy (and Stanwyck) are no longer in their prime factor into her decision?  It's hard to say.

With the exception of Alice Pope, women don't come off very well in this film.  Kathy spends much of the film verging on hysteria, and Sara Alidos is a manipulative conniver and vicious gossip.  But, as portrayed by Fay Wray, Alice is different.  She relishes her career as a homemaker, loves her husband, and would be far happier if he were home with her.  She is the only genuinely sweet, unpretentious woman in the film, and Kathy finds herself liking Alice almost despite herself.  In this review of the film from the New York Times, the reviewer joyously welcome Ms. Wray back to the screen.  After a second marriage (to writer/producer Robert Riskin) in 1942, the actress whose beauty slew the beast in 1933, retired.  However, she returned to both the screen (on occasion) and to television (more frequently - most notably with Raymond Burr in Perry Mason) in 1953.  She retired again in 1980 - and turned down roles in Titanic and in the Peter Jackson King Kong.  She died in 2004, aged 94; the Empire State Building dimmed its lights in her memory several days later.
Unfortunately, the film didn't do well at the box office - perhaps because it can be hard to watch.  With the exception of Bill and Alice, this is a movie people by unpleasant individuals.  And, in an era where television was now supplying most of the entertainment, this was not a film which parents could make as a night out with the children.  But it is perhaps that "stark intensity" (as this New Yorker commentary puts it) that makes the film so powerful today. 

We'll leave you with this early scene in which Kathy meets Bill and the obnoxious Captain Alidos.  His first comment to her, "your work should be raising a family, having dinner ready for him when he gets home," sets the tone for the film, as we also see Kathy writing for all the downtrodden women out there.  Next week, we'll see Ms. Stanwyck again go up against male chauvinism in a much earlier (and much more lighthearted) film.