Sunday, July 19, 2009

Crime of Passion (1957)

“Strange offenses committed by seemingly normal people”: The Subversion of the American Dream in Crime of Passion (1957)

“Don’t call me Angel. I loathe it.”


The subversion of the American dream is the theme in the superb proto feminist film Crime of Passion, from director Gerd Oswald (A Kiss Before Dying, Screaming Mimi). Released in 1957, Crime of Passion is a woman-centered noir--a film ahead of its time in its depiction of a career woman who sinks into housewife hell and is subsequently driven to commit murder.

The American dream may be a happy marriage, a car, a couple of screaming kids and a mortgage on a little house in suburbia, but it’s not the dream of Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck), tough-as-nails columnist for a San Francisco paper. Ambitious, efficient and all business, Kathy delivers her story in spite of obstacles, and when the film opens, Kathy is at work at her desk. A fellow employee reads her a lonely-hearts letter from a reader that includes a confession of loving a married man. The reader, seeking advice, asks Kathy what to do, and Kathy tartly replies: “forget the man, run away with his wife.” This revealing comment reflects Kathy’s outward attitude to marriage and men: there’s no room for either in her life, but that all changes when a couple of Los Angeles cops arrive in San Francisco to nab a woman who’s murdered her husband.

Kathy expects to work with the police and build a story about the fugitive woman, but the L.A cops, snotty Captain Alidos (Royal Dano) and his quiet partner Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden) don’t cooperate. Alidos’s condescending attitude towards career women shows when he tells Kathy she should be home ‘making dinner for her husband.’ This re-direction to the kitchen leaves Kathy momentarily speechless, but fiercely competitive, she comes out fighting by appealing through a newspaper column for the murderess to contact her directly. The column focuses on the shared female experience:

“There you are deserted by him in whom you have placed all your faith. We are alone. Women tortured by fate, betrayed by all men. Where can we turn except to the heart and the understanding of another woman who knows what you are suffering? I feel for you. I suffer with you. I want to help you. Let me stand by your side in your fight for justice and compassion in a world made by men and for men.”

This commonality of female experience is depicted through cleverly paced scenes that show various types of women reading Kathy’s column aloud. While the female-centered column is directed to the fugitive murderess, lonely housewives, working women, bar girls and a couple of tough female cabbies--women from all walks of life read Kathy’s column and it’s as though she addresses them personally.

Alidos pressures Kathy for information on the whereabouts of the killer and threatens to have her arrested if she doesn’t comply, and she sends him off on a wild goose chase, offering to give the arrest to the gentler, meeker Doyle. But the ambitionless Doyle draws the line at double-crossing his partner, and the two L.A. cops get their fugitive killer courtesy of Kathy’s information.

After acknowledging a mutual attraction, Kathy and Doyle share a candlelit dinner, and during the gooey moments, Doyle asks Kathy if she wants to get married. He believes there’s no better goal in life than to be married and raise a family Kathy replies that she doesn’t think she’ll ever get married. It’s all “propaganda,” Kathy firmly states: “For marriage, I read life sentence. Home life, I read TV nights, beer in the fridge, second mortgage.”

Some time later, Kathy lands a plum job in New York, but while she clears her desk at work, a call comes in from Doyle. He wants Kathy to detour to Los Angeles on her way to New York. At first she puts up obstacles, but then folds and lets Doyle make all the arrangements.

Kathy’s career is put on permanent hold when she marries Doyle. There’s a swift, no frills ceremony before a female Justice of the Peace with Captain and Mrs. Alidos standing as witnesses. Mrs. Alidos (Virginia Grey) breaks the spell by telling Kathy to feel free to come to her with all of her “little problems.” After the ceremony, Kathy and Doyle return to his modest house in the suburbs. It’s a perfectly timed scene, and Doyle’s car pulls in the driveway to the accompanying sounds of children playing, a dog barking and an ice cream van jingle. Yes, Kathy has arrived in housewife hell.

Kathy, narcotized by the promise of sex, is still in her delusional phase--although the sight of the house--exactly like all the others on the street--does seem to take the wind out of her sails momentarily. There’s another gooey scene with Kathy telling Doyle she only has “one ambition,” and that’s to be a “good wife.” She even goes as far as to gushingly confess, “I hope all your socks have holes in them and that I can sit for hours and hours darning them.” The film makes it clear that it’s sex--plain and simple--that binds this disparate pair together, and Doyle, who has a certain crumpled charm, growls that he has “other plans” for his new wife, and with the bedroom door invitingly open, the scene closes with Doyle following Kathy into the passion pit.

Sometime later, Kathy is immersed in her life as the wife of a policeman. Her evenings are spent in an endless round of meaningless chatter with the other wives as the men, segregated from the women, engage in cop talk, discuss pensions, swill beer and play cards. This leaves Kathy with the mindless wives, and like geese, the squawking women flock around Sara, the captain’s wife, in a circle jerk of gushing, fawning compliments. The obnoxious Sara Alidos holds court amongst the Stepford wives while they compete to see who can be the most obsequious. Kathy, desperate for some intelligent conversation, tries invading the male domain a few times, but even though she breaches the walls, she’s rapidly put in her place. Surrounded by nauseatingly silly women obsessed with hors d’oeuvres, television sets and dress patterns, it looks as though Kathy is being driven to the point of insanity, but then she hatches a scheme….


Kathy chafes at her husband’s lack of ambition without realizing that this frustration is just sublimation of her own thwarted career. Kathy plays hardball in order to secure a relationship with the woman she sees as being the most influential female on the totem pole of power, Inspector Pope’s wife, Alice (Fay Wray). Sara Alidos has made it perfectly clear to the other wives that as the captain’s wife she’s on a exclusive first name basis with Alice Pope, and so Kathy tricks her way into the Popes’ elite social circle. Soon Kathy and Doyle are rubbing shoulders with the Inspector and the Commissioner. There’s one great scene where Pope (Raymond Burr) is serving drinks when he witnesses Mrs. Alidos wrestling for the limelight with Kathy Doyle. Kathy, whose newspaperwoman sharpness has finally resurfaced, delivers a cutting remark that leaves her adversary speechless. Pope is intrigued and he makes a point of singling out Kathy.

While Doyle is out of his league with Kathy, never understanding the depths of her character, Pope spots Kathy a mile away, and he isn’t fooled one minute by her fake wifely persona. Pope and Kathy understand each other perfectly, and there’s a charged sexual attraction simmering from the first time they meet. The relationship, laced with innuendo, will inevitability lead to a coupling of intellectual equals.

Crime of Passion is an amazingly bold film for its time. Not only does the plot effectively eviscerate the American Dream, but it also laces the drama with two contrasting visions of female relationships. On one hand, there are the wives of the police department--giddy, silly, bitchy vacuous women who seem bred for lives of conspicuous consumption (note the lengthy manicure session Kathy has with Alice Pope), and then there are ‘other’ women--the hard-edged kind who struggle and fight their way in the male-dominated workplace: Kathy, the female justice of the peace, and two female cab drivers, for example.

As a columnist Kathy appeals to the linear experience of women--the shared lot in life--whereas with the police wives, she’s forced into the position of an underling in a fiercely hierarchical system. In this male dominated world, the police wives cannot affect their husbands’ careers other than offer endless support while they ‘fit in’ to the intensely political social evenings. While the policemen’s wives support their husbands’ careers with mega-sessions of ass kissing, paradoxically they also shorten their husbands’ careers with their emotional and mental demands. Ultimately these women--designated to the kitchen and sock darning--seem sadly stunted in their boxed-in roles of happy housewives.

Criticism of the film is often directed to the implausibility of career-minded Kathy marrying Doyle in the first place, and indeed the film does present ‘two Kathys.’ It’s easy for us to predict disaster for Kathy and Doyle as their wildly disparate values are laid out very early in the film. He wants marriage and a family, and she wants a career. Kathy even notes Doyle’s lack of ambition and comments that while he’s a “nice guy,” he won’t go far in life, and yet in spite of all the evidence that screams against these two ever maintaining a successful relationship, they plunge headlong into marriage with disastrous results. This is Kathy’s first mistake. Her second mistake is her decision to take a short cut to power through Inspector Pope. Both of these mistakes are guided by sex. While Kathy wanted a career and didn’t want marriage, she hadn’t placed sex in the equation. She marries Doyle thanks to a strong sexual attraction and she hunts Pope for the same reason. While Kathy claims that her relationship with Pope is guided by her desire to further her husband’s career, the air between Pope and Kathy is too electrically charged with sexual anticipation for Kathy’s ‘sacrifice’ theory to fly.

Kathy should have ripped off her apron and gone back to the newspaper.

Written by Guy Savage

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6 comments:

  1. one thing I noticed is how Stanwyck as a reporter made fun of all the silly problems woman would write to her about. Not a year later, she is killing a man for the same "small problems" she laughed at.

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  2. I love this film so much; I think it's definitely one of the underrated noir films out there, and one of the lesser known Stanwyck films of the 50's. I think her performance in this one is just as great as Clash by Night, maybe even better.

    Great article!

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  3. This is a wonderfully written article.

    I just watched this film tonight on TV and I too immediately thought of Clash by Night. I had never seen Crime of Passion before, but it reminded me that Barbara Stanwyck's face could convey sexual prowess, hopelessness and pure evil all within a few seconds of each emotion.

    The script is great and the juxtaposition of women's roles is wonderfully shown. The characters have a richness to them now found in movies today. Thank goodness we can find gems like these on DVD.

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  4. While the above comment on the feminist agenda of the film is certainly to the point, the film itself is dreadfully boring. Performances of Stanwyck and Hayden are uninspired and no chemistry is felt on the set. Instead, we are treated to the stifling boredom of Kathy's life at length. The murder (70 minutes into the film) comes too late. All in all, a big yawn with little dramatic excitement.

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  5. I have to say that I think Anonymous has a point. Your 'feminist' analysis of the film is right on, but it was rather dull. I did enjoy the claustrophobic dinner parties and the earlier segments when Kathy throws her weight around as a hard-as-nails career woman, and I agree, the presentation of her character, especially then, is striking.

    ...But...in...the...end, she gets what's coming to her, and takes it with a whimper. Proto-feminist or anti-woman propaganda? (I think she called the recitation of the good life by Doyle 'propaganda' on their first date.) Ambiguous...Pope keeps a file on women like Kathy, one's driven to crime by frustration.

    I guess whatever the artists were thinking, they could only go so far. Since I am more concerned with actualities in art than intent, the ultimate product disappoints somewhat.

    Still, thanks for pointing me to it! It certainly WAS unusual for its frank presentation of sex as a force in relationships.

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  6. I enjoyed this movie, I think it might have gone over better had the leading man had a bit more sex appeal, for me he was as appealing as oatmeal so I couldn't fathom Kathy falling for especially when he had no drive to make something of himself.
    Burr on the other hand - maybe it's his eyes or the voice but he sizzles and I could understand Stanwyck's character going nuts when he discards her they way he did.

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