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Crime of Passion

Crime of Passion
MGM Home Entertainment
1957 / B&W / 1:66 letterboxed flat / 84 min. / Street Date December 2, 2003 / 14.95
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

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Film noir mutated in the 1950s, away from a dark romanticism ruled by fate and the hardboiled tradition and into a more cynical and existentially bleak look at crime and society. Films like The Brothers Rico and Nightfall no longer took place only in dark urban locations, and the noir lighting of the 40s gave way to more realistic daytime grays of great thrillers like The Lineup.

Crime of Passion is a fascinating film that goes head-on with the classic conception of the femme fatale character. Screenwriter Jo Eisinger wrote the delirious 1946 Gilda, noir's most romantically perverse epic, but here she dissects the murderous female from a 50s perspective. It's hard-edged, direct in its theme and both dated and progressive at the same time. Barbara Stanwyck and Sterling Hayden make an exceptional screen couple.


Big-time newspaper columnist Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) abandons her career to become a housewife for LA Police detective Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden). She's immediately unbalanced by the droning petty misery of suburban life and the stifling social puddle of the detective's wives. Without her husband's knowledge, she uses her wiles to help advance his career - cleverly conspiring to associate with Alice Pope (Fay Wray) so as to get close to Chief of Detectives Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), Bill's boss. Bill remains ignorant of Kathy's dangerous schemes even when they result in him being unfairly pushed ahead of his more-qualified Captain, Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano).

Barbara Stanwyck's Kathy Ferguson is a truly complex character. She starts out like wisecracking 30s newspaperwomen, cooly manipulating a hysterical murderess into a circulation booster for her newspaper. She out-maneuvers LA cops Hayden and Dano in an attempt for an exclusive on the arrest, and in doing so falls in love with the tall, straight-shooting but unimaginative Hayden.

The script brings all the feminist issues right to the fore: Kathy's far too cool to be shaken by conservative detective Dano's assertion that she belongs in a home cooking some man's supper. But 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.

Eisinger and expressive director Gerd Oswald (later the auteur of many a superior Outer Limits episode) create a searing portrait of middle class 50s life. Used to high style, Kathy has turned down a career coup in New York, only to be plopped into a Burbank subdivision of pleasant but undistinguished look-alike houses. Worse, after dealing daily with creative and intelligent people, she has to bandy words with a gaggle of annoying detective's wives, shallow women that seem do little more than praise the big boss and butter up the hen at the top of their pecking order. Virginia Grey (The Women) is excellent as Sara Alidos, the wife who puts on airs because her husband's rank allows her to socialize with the higher eschelon of chiefs and commissioners. Even though Kathy knows that Bill isn't ambitious and just wants to make a living to be with her, she sets her mind to do Bill'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. She's subtly criticized when she shows 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. Eisinger seems to think that there is something malign about a woman having these faults of ambition and thoughtlessness, but doesn't apply the same standard to the men. Old Boy editor Mr. Nalence (Jay Adler) is casually callous and insulting, but it's O.K. because he's a journalistic tough guy.

Love is all the excuse the story needs to stick Kathy into a situation where she makes big mistakes. There's nothing unusual about the 'female' social tricks with which she insinuates herself into the good graces of the big boss. She's just meeting the right people and cultivating rewarding relationships, something many people do 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.

Kathy's initial strategy is worthy of a Borgia. She twists a petty birthday party to her advantage by suggesting a change of plans to please the boss's wife. Then she cleverly allows her competitor Sara Alidos to miss the party entirely. She seduces the boss and then takes bold advantage of the relationship. And she manipulates her own husband into a violent incident tailored to cement their advantage over the totally outclassed Charlie and Sara Alidos. The scene where Bill should be reprimanded but is instead unjustly rewarded, while the innocent Alidos is victimized, is a new kind of twist for noir: Ironic social injustice on a petty scale.

Of course, the Kathy character goes way overboard and the main thematic thrust turns her into a desperate adultress who cracks up and uses a gun. That part of the story is somewhat of a stretch, but no more sordid or incredible than the 'hysterical female criminal cases' that the smug Inspector Pope (Raymond Burr, nicely balanced between his earlier slimy villains and Perry Mason) shows Kathy. Both he and the authors make the sexist case that women have a core emotionalism that makes them go nuts under pressure. The script says this, while the direction of the film shows us that society's social straight-jacket puts too much pressure on people in unlucky circumstances. The story may seem misogynistic, but it's more complicated than just that.

The 1950s LA detective's squad is much different than the nest of loose cannons depicted in 1997's LA Confidential. All of these detectives are married and none appear to be corrupt. Commissioner Tony Pope (Burr) compromises himself, 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 and should be retiring before he loses all of his judgment. The film tries to put all the blame on Kathy.

In reality, Kathy's brown-nosing the boss might indeed result in a cheap affair. Rub people together, and things happen. The boss would possibly promote her husband so as to feel more secure, to lessen the chance that the affair would be publicized. Then Kathy would call it quits, leaving the table with enough chips, as Pope says. It becomes clear that although Bill is a good detective, he isn't management material - his way of handling a crisis is to simply bear down hard and stop sleeping. This self-knowledge is the core of his stability. But the intelligent and supposedly sophisticated Kathy can't accept a man without ambition, another curse bestowed upon her by the authors.

Barabara Stanwyck and Sterling Hayden are a great couple. She's as old or older than Joan Crawford but as her career wound down fared better in leading roles; unlike Joan, there's nothing campy here except perhaps the use of a little too much lipstick. It's a wonder she doesn't leave big crimson smears all over Sterling Hayden. Hayden is unique. He could be described as sort of a sensitive brick, a nice guy who knows he's just good enough to do his job and is comfortable with that. It's believable that a go-getter like Kathy Ferguson could fall in love with him and then foolishly push him beyond his limits. He has some excellent scenes where his detecting instincts lead him down a path he never suspected, back to his own home.

I won't reveal the ending, but it has a downbeat credibility (given the Sterling Hayden character) that puts the blame on Mame while resonating fairly well. Crime of Passion is a noir domestique like Andre de Toth's superb Pitfall, dealing with the roots of despair in suburbia. I'm grateful for MGM dipping into its classier B-Crime 50s titles for a few discs to complement their polished-up release To Live and Die in LA. Both Crime of Passion and He Walked by Night are earlier crime classics with key Los Angeles locations. 1

MGM's DVD of Crime of Passion is a good flat transfer of a film that would have been better served if presented 16:9. But the picture holds up anyway with little grain; Joseph LaShelle's no-nonsense photography looks quite handsome.

This is one of 3 pictures Herman Cohen did with Robert Goldstein at United Artists before beginning his film career at AIP with I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Crime of Passion was his second with Raymond Burr and Gerd Oswald, and is perhaps his best picture. I'm sure it was far less profitable than his horror successes, however, no matter how poor most of them were.

There are no extras and no trailer but the show has subs in English, French and Spanish. Star followers will note pre-fame Stuart Whitman and Robert Quarry in small parts. The Golden Gate Bridge appears in the attractive cover illustration, but not in the film itself.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Crime of Passion rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 22, 2003


1. The film's producers could only afford a couple of LA exteriors, but they're good ones. The Popes live in Westwood, just East of UCLA on curving streets with handsome homes that now are worth millions. In the 1970s I used to park down there and hike half a mile up to campus. The streets looked exactly like the 'Leave it to Beaver' neighborhoods that 50s TV pretended were middle class. Stanwyck and Hayden live in a packed housing tract where a drive-in movie is visible down the block. The houses were cheap then and nobody cared that they were so close together; today in LA they are probably grossly overpriced.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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