Would it be considered a crime of passion if Judge George Hatch stole a meatball hoagie?
"Is that the mediocrity you're looking forward to, just waiting to be wrapped up in the mothballs of a pension? Don't you have any ambition?"
Kathy Doyle demands an answer.
Abandoning a successful newspaper career, Kathy Ferguson marries police detective Bill Doyle almost on a whim, only to discover that her spirits are stifled by a suburban lifestyle that contradicts everything she's fought to attain. Kathy insists that Bill enhance his status on the force, but he prefers to "play fair" and let things—like promotions—take their own course. To save her marriage and sanity, Kathy finds that some desperate measures are called for.
Facts of the Case
Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a popular advice columnist writing for one of San Francisco's leading newspapers and, much like gossipmonger J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, her face and bylines are plastered on the sides of trucks and buses in the opening frames of Crime of Passion. A neat montage shows female readers—from housewives to hookers, butch lady cab drivers to dainty concession stand babes at the local bijou—accepting Kathy's influential recommendations at face value and nodding in agreement. While her editor pressures her to simply deliver "the regular dose of Ferguson schmaltz," the aggressive, career-oriented Kathy manages to pull off a major coup by wordsmithing her way into the mind of a murderess wanted by two Los Angeles detectives desperately trying to track the killer down. She despises one—the arrogant, by-the-book Capt. Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano)—but falls in love with his partner—wimpy, "whatever-you-say" Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden). Ultimately, Kathy hands over the details for the killer's capture to Bill.
A whirlwind romance follows, with Kathy turning down a prestigious and lucrative position on a New York newspaper to marry and settle down with Bill in an LA suburb where post-war, prefab houses line the streets and tedious weekly get-togethers with other LAPD cops and their wives are the norm. Ping-ponging between the inane nattering wives in the living room and poker-playing husbands debating the percentages of early retirement in the kitchen, Kathy finally snaps, 1950s-style—with the picture going blurry and snippets of dialogue echoing in her head.
Deciding that the mundane married life of "TV nights, beer in the fridge and a second mortgage" isn't for her, Kathy starts pushing Bill to advance his career in the police department so they can move out of the Valley to the more socially upscale Westwood area. Bill, however, just wants to earn a regular paycheck and continue doing his job the best way he can "without poking the other fellow in the eye." When his partner, Captain Alidos, gets credit for a sting Bill had engineered, Kathy is so frustrated with her husband's laissez-faire attitude that she confronts him with, "Just how many times have you been poked in the eye, Bill?" and decides to engineer a few upwardly mobile career moves on her own.
Kathy stages a fender-bender that enables her to befriend Alice Pope (Fay Wray), then ingratiate herself with Alice's husband, Police Inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), while manipulating Charlie Alidos out of the picture. Pope appears to be aware of Kathy's scheme and shows her a private folder of cases advising, "Women can reason with life just so far, but frustration can lead quickly to violence." He soon becomes so enamored with Kathy, however, that he drops the cat-and-mouse game in favor of a secret affair.
Within weeks, Kathy starts receiving threats: "Don't think you're fooling anyone. Don't think what you're doing isn't clear to anyone with half an eye—except your blind husband." Finding one of the letters, Bill demands to know who sent it. Kathy implies it may have come from Charlie Alidos and his wife, Vera (Virginia Grey). Bill races to the police station, barges into the squad room, and violently attacks Alidos in front of two other detectives. Inspector Pope must now determine if the case should go before the Police Review Board. Using some brilliantly written dialogue (delivered with such vigorous eloquence by Burr it must have snagged his upcoming role as Perry Mason), Pope twists the implications of the alleged accusations against Bill Doyle until they're virtually meaningless, and decides to drop the case because the publicity would "unjustly damage the prestige of the Department." He promotes Doyle to captain and demotes Alidos to the uniform division. More than a half-hour remains, but that's all the evidence I intend to present at this time.
In his 1972 essay, Notes on Film Noir, Paul Schrader determined that the noir cycle officially ended in 1955 with Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, and that Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1957) was its epitaph. So what are we to make of Crime of Passion, which came in just under the wire as a sort of footnote to that epitaph? Some critics question its noir qualifications, but Crime fits in nicely with several of Stanwyck's later films—The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), Jeopardy (1952), and Witness to Murder (1954). It comes even closer to No Man of Her Own (1950) and Clash by Night (1952), both of which evince the "women's weepie" elements of suburban malaise and discontent, and the frustrations pointed out by Inspector Pope that can "push seemingly normal people into committing some strange offenses."
Crime of Passion is an odd admixture to be sure, but a highly entertaining one—with a fast-paced and witty original screenplay by Jo Eisinger (Gilda, Night and the City) and terrific performances from the three leads. Barbara Stanwyck is not quite the femme fatale she was in Double Indemnity or The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, but is convincing as both the feisty advice columnist and the frustrated conniving housewife. I did find the transition a little hard to accept, however, as both sides of this character's personality are just too smart to allow a head-over-heels love affair to determine such a drastic change in career and lifestyle. Sterling Hayden (The Killing, Dr. Strangelove) looks a little uncomfortable during the first half of the film playing against type in a weak-willed role, but assumes his familiar tough guy attitude once his character becomes more aggressive. It was also interesting to see Raymond Burr take a break from the contemptible heavies he played for director Anthony Mann, in Desperate and Railroaded among others, in favor of a decent married man who regrettably goes astray. Fay Wray (King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game) and Virginia Grey (All That Heaven Allows) make cameo appearances with barely any screen time at all. Royal Dano (Something Wicked This Way Comes) makes for a no-nonsense Captain Alidos—he has one of the film's funniest lines during Pope's interrogation, "You keep saying the 'alleged' attack, Inspector. There's nothing 'alleged' about the way my face looks." Those with a sharp eye will catch Stuart Whitman (Shock Corridor, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines) in a small role as a forensics technician.
Joseph La Shelle's cinematography is adequately effective, though it shouldn't be compared with his film noir classics like Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends—those films relied heavily on expressionist lighting and technique, while Crime of Passion is representative of the "darkness in daylight" trend that became more popular in the 1950s. La Shelle's spectacular use of color and CinemaScope, however, can be seen in a stunning transfer of The Long, Hot Summer, released earlier this year on DVD.
Paul Dunlap's score begins with the near-obligatory plaintive notes of a lonely trumpet triggering a noir connection which he then appropriately expands to the more lush orchestral arrangements associated with Frank Skinner's compositions for Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, unifying the film's double-edged approach to the storyline.
Gerd Oswald directed the original A Kiss Before Dying and the cult classic Screaming Mimi before becoming one of the more prolific contributors to The Outer Limits television series, and he brings Crime of Passion in at a tight 86 minutes. MGM's 1.66:1 non-anamorphic transfer is above average—even the darker scenes are surprisingly rich with little muddiness. Standout yellow subtitles are provided, but the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound is so crisp you won't need them—you can listen without missing a word.
While Crime of Passion may not be Mildred Pierce, it's neither a typical film noir nor, by any means, a turgid "weepie" melodrama. With an ahead-of-its-time screenplay by female scripter Jo Eisinger, Crime presages the Women's Lib movement by over a decade, and presents a flip-side of the domestic wives glamorized in movies and especially television shows of that era.
The DVD is a must-own for fans of Barbara Stanwyck and Sterling Hayden, and a must-rent for those seeking an offbeat suspense film with a feminine twist.
Case dismissed. No punishment for this Crime of Passion.
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