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With a title proclaiming it to be a Murder Inc. production, George Axelrod and Richard Quine's How to Murder Your Wife begins on a witty note, and manages to maintain a consistent tone of classy humor throughout. Toying with the notion that murder is the solution to marital disharmony, the film's actual subject matter is the irresistible sexual attraction that will snafu even the 'perfect' man's attempt to make his love life adhere to the Playboy philosophy. The fun works as least as well as Axelrod's The Seven-Year Itch, and the stars and especially the superior production carry the show the rest of the way. Jack Lemmon is particularly charming in this farce, with italiana Virna Lisi as his breathtaking murder object.
It's not much of a confession to admit that as a teenager I grabbed at every opportunity to see an issue of Playboy magazine. Besides the obvious reason, there were colorful layouts on new movies, like What's New, Pussycat and Casino Royale - and flashy consumerist articles and photo spreads giving us Hugh Hefner's idea of the perfect bachelor's life in the perfect bachelor pad. Hefner was selling a fantasy that only a select few well-heeled hedonists could hope to pursue - wealth, high-tech consumer luxury, and women. He did have a sense of humor about it, as one issue had a very subversive acknowledgement of the basic selfishness of the perfect Playboy plan: a child's coloring book. It showed all the things the perfect Playboy needed: "This is the Playboy's car. Color it fast." The last page of the coloring book had a picture of a bride holding a bouquet. Obviously the Playboy has goofed, and has found himself at the altar. The instructions were to "Color this page BLACK. Now tear it out and BURN it."
There's also a famous Luis Buñuel film called Ensayo de un Crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz) in which one of Buñuel's typical frustrated surrealist heroes, thwarted at his murder attempts, butchers and cremates a mannequin likeness of his female victim as a substitute method of attaining the sexual charge he's after. It's very sly, complex, and sick in a different way from Hefner's coloring book.
How to Murder Your Wife isn't edgy enough to carry through with the Black Humor morbidity of either Hefner or Buñuel, but it comes about as close as a Hollywood light comedy could in 1965. Doris Day movies and other farces flirted with 'shocking' ideas like whether or not Doris would lose her virginity, and when Billy Wilder had the temerity to tell a dirty joke like a dirty joke in Kiss Me, Stupid, the picture barely got released. Wife skirts the murder issue, teasing us with the idea that Stanley Ford might kill his spouse. The only controversy it risks is that uptight wives in the audience will feel threatened and howl that the show is a rigged misogynist fantasy that reinforces male chauvinist ideas.
Thatıs exactly what it is, of course. How to Murder Your Wife isn't any more sophisticated than The Seven-Year Itch, which handled adultery in the exact same way, through fantasy displacement. But both comedies work because they honestly reflect what Axelrod thinks the American male is thinking. Tom Ewell can't deny that he'd leap into bed with MM at a moment's notice. Stanley Ford's playboy paradise may look great from the outside, but it's incompatible with the kind of idealized love and marriage set-up that non-swinging society wishes to promote.
How to Murder Your Wife quietly evades the issues by never really making Stanley Ford face the fact that his Peter Pan playboy life is a selfish and infantile fantasy. Charles the Butler might as well be a genie from a lamp, such is his utter devotion to Stanley. 1 Stanley's marriage is also a popular fantasy - how many men are going to wed exotic love objects with no identity except to serve their husbands? Mrs. Ford isn't even given a name - nobody has to address her directly. The extent of her communication with her husband is physical affection, stemming from a (really well-presented) love-at-first-sight fantasy that tells them both they were Made For Each Other, even though this epiphany happens when he's stone drunk. In a strange land, with all of her belongings stolen, Ms. Lisi's character, in any other context, could be confused for a gold-digger.
Axelrod's story holds another key that Savant only noticed while reviewing this DVD: Stanley attends a bachelor party for his friend Tobey (Max Showalter). News comes that Tobey's engagement has fallen through, and the party turns into a drunken bash where Stanley is smitten by the Venus-like vision of Virna Lisi rising from a cake. He marries her with Tobey's discarded engagement ring. But what made Tobey's fiancee bolt? She's the very same girl Stanley took to bed the night before - Our hero Stanley sleeps with his best friend's girl and neither he nor the movie have anything to say about it. We see the woman later at the Fords' party, and Stanley ignores her (he's busy hauling his unconscious wife upstairs). We don't know if this is meant to be business as usual among Stanley's La Dolce Vita pals, or if he's just an unthinking clod.
The film's engaging comedy veneer tells us to stop taking all this seriously, but it can't hide a real misogynistic streak in the picture - besides Lisi, the few women characters are bimbos, old bats, and a weepy old maid (Lampson's secretary). As soon as the selfish Stanley tires of Lisi's sexual attraction (images of which, even in his private thoughts, substitute for any love for her) she'll become the irritating bozo of the Bash Brannigan cartoons, an embarrassment. Note that Stanley never takes her anywhere.
The show ends with Stanley publicly promoting his selfish side ("I did it! Acquit me!"), but returning home to privately hope for the return of ... who? He never bothered to get her name. Hiding under the idea that 'Love is a mystery that transcends logic and rationalization', the film gets to fade out harmoniously. I like to think that the catatonic women that fill that last courtroom, are all turning into militant feminists, primed to get revenge for this outrage!
How to Murder Your Wife is a beautiful production. Abetting the fantasy are a host of great talents. Richard Sylbert's designs for Stanley's fantasy townhouse make the Playboy layouts look second-rate. Harry Stradling's slick photography gives all the textures a sexy look, from the fabrics of Virna Lisi's dresses ("She doesn't wear underwear!") to Stanley's drafting table. The Spillane-Bond-Peter Pan fantasies of Stanley's photo shoots also capture a nice comic-book feel, the kind of graphic reductionism that Fearless Frank wanted, and Danger: Diabolik perfected. Neal Hefti's score is a delightful lounge - cocktail mix, that sounds a bit like a circusy Fellini film whenever there's action.
The actors are perfectly cast. Jack Lemmon hadn't had a role as good as this since The Apartment. I'm not a fan of his serious efforts, like The Days of Wine and Roses, because he always seemed to be trying too hard. Frankly, he made a lot of comedies in the 60s that fell equally flat. Stanley Ford has the right kind of innocent immaturity and sincere selfishness that Lemmon could work with in his best comedies. He's ordinary enough to identify with, and when he doesn't overact, he's lovable too. Virna Lisi has the perfect American role for an Italian actress, alternating between drop-dead glamour, animated affection and spirited stubbornness. We don't know if she'll outgrow Edna's victimize-the-men indoctrination. Except for a stereotypical Italian love of cooking, and her desire to bring Mama into the picture, she's an under-developed character.
Eddie Mayehoff and Claire Trevor are the Fred and Ethel Mertz of the show, providing solid support, but the standout is of course English comic Terry-Thomas. His Charles Burbank is the best 'finicky butler' character in the movies since the 1930s. He's apparently completely asexual, and the pleasure he derives from the order and ruthless masculinity of his household is contagious, as is his delight at thinking that Stanley perhaps will knock off his wife. She interferes with Charles'es life much more than she does Stanley's.
Not quite a classic, but a very funny and satisfying comedy, How to Murder Your Wife is a great discussion tool. If your girlfriend becomes furious and won't even talk about it, you're in trouble. If she will, and you aren't too mule-headed about Stanley's rigged paradise or the nature of relationships, love, and male-female fantasy expectations ... well, you've got a chance.
MGM's DVD of How to Murder Your Wife has excellent photography that would have looked better in 16:9, but it's a good transfer matted at 1:66. The print is clean and bright, and the mono sound acceptably clear, but recorded at a slightly lower than normal volume. A grainy trailer hypes the 'shocking' tongue-in-cheek premise.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
How to Murder Your Wife rates:
1. Since their 'perfect' life together is baldly stated as a superior
alternative to marriage, there's also a ripe asexual (?) homosexual (?) reading of the film that
Savant's not qualified to approach.