Witness the ‘fifties transformation of the femme fatale from scheming murderess to self-deluding social climber. Barbara Stanwyck redefines herself once again in Gerd Oswald’s best-directed picture, a searing portrayal of needs and anxieties in the nervous decade. With fine support from Raymond Burr, Virginia Grey and Royal Dano.
Crime of Passion
1957 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 84 min. / Street Date September 5, 2017 /
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, Raymond Burr, Fay Wray, Virginia Grey, Royal Dano.
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction: Leslie Thomas
Original Music: Paul Dunlap
Original Story and Screenplay by Jo Eisinger
Produced by Herman Cohen, Robert Goldstein
Directed by Gerd Oswald
A key title in the development of the Film Noir, 1957’s Crime of Passion shows how much the style had departed from the dark romanticism and expressive visuals of the previous decade. The best mid-’50s noirs strike a marvelously cynical and existentially bleak attitude regarding crime and society. Shows like Phil Karlson’s The Brothers Rico and Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall no longer take place only in dark urban locations. The noir lighting of the ’40s gave way to more realistic daytime grays of great thrillers like Don Siegel’s The Lineup. In 1957 the ‘official’ culture believed in constant values and a myth of social goodness. But real-world violence now had even less motivation; it’s as if the foundation of civilization were beginning to come unglued.
The fascinating Crime of Passion goes head-on with the classic concept of the femme fatale character. Screenwriter Jo Eisinger wrote the classic Night and the City and also noir’s romantically perverse, erotically delirious Gilda. Here he dissects the murderous female from a ’50s perspective. Thirteen years later, Barbara Stanwyck literally invented the noir femme fatale for Billy Wilder. Although her character in this film is quite different, the two women beg to be compared. Crime of Passion is hard-edged, and direct in its theme. Some viewers will find it dated while others may see it as very progressive.
Big-time San Francisco newspaper columnist Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) has the opportunity to ride a big story to a top journalism job in New York, but she instead abandons her career for true love. The sharp-minded Kathy becomes a housewife for L.A. Police detective Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden). She’s immediately unbalanced by the droning petty misery of suburban life and the stifling social circle of the detectives’ wives, that play nicey-nice at nightly get-togethers, denying that social pressures urge them to further their husbands’ careers. Bill is content to let things stay the way they are, but without his knowledge, Kathy uses her wiles to help him climb the job ladder. Kathy cleverly conspires to associate with Alice Pope (Fay Wray), the wife of Bill’s boss, the Chief of Detectives Tony Pope (Raymond Burr). Bill remains ignorant, even when Kathy’s risky schemes result in him being unfairly pushed ahead of his better-qualified Captain, Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano).
Barbara Stanwyck’s Kathy Ferguson is a truly complex character. She starts out as a wisecracking ’30s-style newspaperwomen, the kind unlikely to be fooled by anybody. Right out in the open, Kathy cooly manipulates a hysterical murderess into a circulation booster for her newspaper. She out-maneuvers L.A. cops Doyle and Alidos to score an exclusive on the arrest. In doing so she falls in love with the tall, straight-shooting but unimaginative detective Doyle.
The script immediately brings its proto- feminist issues to the fore: Kathy is too cool of a customer to be shaken by the conservative detective Alido, when he asserts that she belongs in a home cooking some man’s supper. She’s getting on in years and must be feeling the need to marry, because she lands a man of her own almost before she knows what’s happened. Taking on a passive hausfrau identity doesn’t change Kathy’s nature, which is to plow through rules, institutional roadblocks and legal details. She doesn’t bother to respond to Alido’s paternal put-down. Is Kathy to be admired for her daring subterfuge, or despised as a social cheater?
Writer Eisinger and the expressive director Gerd Oswald (later the auteur of many a superior Outer Limits episode) create a searing portrait of middle class ’50s life. Accustomed to living in high style, Kathy’s rejection of a career coup in New York has plopped her into a Burbank subdivision of pleasant but undistinguished look-alike houses. She’s accustomed to prevailing in conflicts with creative and intelligent people, but now must bandy words with an annoying gaggle of detective’s wives, clucking chickens that praise the big boss and flatter the hen at the top of their pecking order. Virginia Grey (Black Zoo) is excellent as Sara Alidos, the wife who puts on airs because her husband’s rank allows her to socialize with a higher echelon of chiefs and commissioners. Although Bill is not ambitious, Kathy sets her mind to do her husband’s climbing for him — possibly just for the pleasure of making Sara Alidos eat dirt.
The leap Kathy takes from loving wife to Lady MacBeth is central to the story’s bizarre theme. Eisinger’s Kathy is a misfit, a race horse stuck in a pigpen. Back in her newspaper office, she’s subtly criticized for showing little feeling for the unfortunate female criminal she exploits. She patronizes a male co-worker, forgetting his name while putting on a pretense of friendship. Is Eisinger just observing a professional woman with the faults of ambition and thoughtlessness, or are we to think that there is something malign about Kathy? The same qualities are not condemned in male newsmen. Old Boy editor Mr. Nalence (Jay Adler) is casually callous and insulting, but it’s okay because he’s a journalistic tough guy.
On the other hand, the all-male detective squad runs by different rules. Bill doesn’t mind that his Captain Alidos sometimes takes the kudos for Bill’s hard work; he’s a team player and believes that everything evens out in the end. Bill isn’t sure he’s cut out for promotion anyway. This bunch of detectives is much different than the nest of loose cannons depicted in 1997’s L.A. Confidential. All are married and none appear to be corrupt. Commissioner Tony Pope (Burr) compromises himself by sleeping with the wife of one of his detectives and grossly mismanaging his staffing. He’s given the excuse that he’s upset by his wife’s bad health. He wants to retire before he loses what remains of his judgment. Like it or not, practically all of the blame in the story reverts to Kathy. She’s a new kind of femme fatale, seeking status and rewards for her hubby whether he likes it or not.
The film’s events ring true, but Kathy’s characterization is still a tad sentimentalized. It’s intuited that she does what she does out of misplaced love, implying that women just can’t handle complex moral issues when their ‘feminine’ hearts get in the way. There’s nothing unusual about the ‘female’ social tricks with which Kathy insinuates herself into the good graces of the big boss, and men certainly make use of whatever leverage they have to succeed in The Old Boy Club. All climbers regardless of sex strive to meet the right people and cultivate rewarding relationships, even if they don’t engineer traffic accidents to make it happen. It’s just that Kathy’s contempt for her competition frees her to be uncommonly ruthless. Deep down, she believes she’s better than the cows in the sewing circle, and smarter than the plodding detectives her husband works with.
Kathy’s initial strategy is worthy of a Borgia. She twists a petty birthday party to her advantage by suggesting a change of plans; then she cleverly allows her competitor Sara Alidos to miss the party entirely. She can seduce Tony Pope because he knows exactly what she’s doing — they share a clear view of the petty politics in play. Finally, she manipulates Bill into a violent incident tailored to cement their suitability for promotion over the totally outclassed Charlie and Sara.
The key scene in the movie is not a violent act, but an office power play where an unreasonable boss cows his underlings into falsifying reality. Bill should be reprimanded but is instead unjustly rewarded, while the innocent Alidos is victimized. It’s a new kind of twist for noir: ironic social injustice on a petty scale we can all relate to. ‘Insignificant’ compromises imposed in crummy offices often determine who gets on the promotion path, and who goes back to the assignment pool.
It becomes clear that although Bill is a good detective, he isn’t the best management material — his way of handling a crisis is to simply stop sleeping and bear down hard. The less-likable Alidos has no problem putting pressure on his men to get results, but he knows how to delegate. This self-knowledge is the core of Bill’s stability. But the intelligent and supposedly sophisticated Kathy can’t accept a man without ambition, another curse bestowed upon her by the authors.
When she goes way overboard, Kathy ironically becomes another ‘hysterical female criminal case,’ the kind that she once turned into good newspaper copy. The smug Chief Inspector Pope strikes a nice balance between Raymond Burr’s earlier slimy villains and his career triumph, the upstanding Perry Mason character. Pope sees through Kathy from the start, uses her in a moment of weakness and then expects her to settle for something less than she wants. Both Pope and the authors make the sexist case that women have a core emotionalism that will cause them to go nuts under pressure. The script is genuinely perceptive but also more than a little misogynistic.
This time when a Stanwyck character picks up a gun, she’s out of control. Chief Pope expects Kathy to then call it quits, to leave the table with the chips she’s won, as he says. But the idea of losing the game to Sara Alidos is too much for her.
Barabara Stanwyck and Sterling Hayden make a great couple. The aging Stanwyck fared better than Joan Crawford in leading roles, defying the calendar. Unlike Joan, there’s nothing campy here except perhaps the use of a little too much lipstick. Even Barbara paints beyond the line of her lips, and it’s a wonder she doesn’t leave big crimson smears all over Sterling Hayden. Hayden is unique. His Bill Doyle is a sensitive brick, a nice guy who knows he’s just good enough to do his job and is comfortable with that. It’s entirely believable that a go-getter like Kathy Ferguson would fall in love with Bill and then push him beyond his limits. Hayden doesn’t play the rule as entirely clueless. Excellent scenes show Doyle’s detecting instincts leading him down a path he never suspected, back to his own home.
If you’re unaware, Gerd Oswald is the son of the famed German director Richard Oswald. At this time Oswald was making big strides to win the directing career he deserved. A former crack AD and second unit director for George Stevens, Anatole Litvak, Henry Hathaway and others, Oswald shows an attention to detail with some finely-tuned montages. He also creates convincing atmospheres, whether in the Technicolor interiors of A Kiss Before Dying or the drab suburbia recreated here. Bill Doyle’s little house is supposed to be in Burbank, but it looks exactly like a street in Culver City, near the intersection of Jefferson and Sepulveda, where there was once a Drive-In theater. Cameraman Joseph LaShelle even captures the drive-in image on screen in one shot. Director Oswald’s skills would serve him especially well for some of the better episodes of the Outer Limits TV series.
By contrast, the neighborhood of Tony and Alice Pope really is upscale Westwood — our first view looks up a side street toward UCLA. I know this place well because as a student I often parked in the residential area, and walked up the hill to school. L.A. crime aficionados will like a shot that pans from City Hall, to the parking entrance for the old Police Headquarters.
Oswald gets fine performances from his cast, that clearly enjoy speaking Eisinger’s superior dialogue. Putting some gray in Raymond Burr’s hair makes him seem a more likely seduction target for Barbara Stanwyck. His wife is played with sincere charm by Fay Wray. Virginia Grey is appropriate to act pushy and insincere, while Royal Dano is a plodding grump who, it turns out, is well suited to his job.
I won’t reveal the ending, but it has a downbeat credibility that puts the blame on Mame while resonating beautifully with the main story conflicts. Crime of Passion is a noir domestique like André de Toth’s superb Pitfall of nine years previous. Both pictures deal with the roots of despair in suburbia.
ClassicFlix’s Blu-ray of Crime of Passion is duly licensed from MGM, the holder of the 1950s United Artists library. MGM put out a flat, drab DVD of the picture fourteen years ago, but this new Blu-ray is a full-on HD encoding, cropped to a proper 1:85 aspect ratio. Removing a lot of blank walls and empty carpets helps focus the drama.
There are no extras and no trailer but the show does carry English subtitles. I’m happy to report that most of the disc boutiques now recognize the need for subs. Actor-hunters will note a pre-fame Stuart Whitman and Robert Quarry in small parts; Quarry had a bigger role in Oswald’s A Kiss Before Dying.
Genre fans may be more familiar with producer Herman Cohen than they are with Gerd Oswald. This is one of three pictures Cohen did with Robert Goldstein at United Artists before advancing his film career at A.I.P. with I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Crime of Passion was his second picture with Raymond Burr and Gerd Oswald, and is perhaps Cohen’s best all-around movie. I’m sure it was less profitable than his more famous horror successes, however.
Whatever you do, don’t confuse this ’50s picture with Ken Russell’s 1980s shocker Crimes of Passion.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Crime of Passion
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 12, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson