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A famous Luis Buñuel film called Ensayo de un Crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz) chronicles a surrealist hero's attempts to murder his girlfriend, all which are thwarted by pure chance. In frustration Archibaldo butchers and cremates a mannequin likeness, murdering her by proxy to attain the sexual gratification he desires. The sly, complex, and essentially sick movie might have inspired this later story by playwright and screenwriter George Axelrod.
With a title announcing a Murder Inc. production, George Axelrod and Richard Quine's How to Murder Your Wife begins on a witty, playful note. Toying with the notion that all marriages are disharmonious, and that the cure is murder, the film also celebrates the irresistible sexual attraction that will snafu even the 'perfect' man's attempt to adhere to the Playboy philosophy. As with Billy Wilder's compromised adaptation of Axelrod's The Seven-Year Itch, glamorous stars and superior production values carry the farce the rest of the way. Jack Lemmon is particularly charming, with italiana Virna Lisi as his breathtaking murder object.
The movie purports to show us the Good Life in Manhattan for what may be the world's luckiest man. Syndicated cartoonist Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is a carefree and wealthy bachelor living out the fantasy of his popular comic strip character, Bash Brannigan. For authenticity, Stanley acts out all of Bash's adventures with hired actors for the camera of his loyal butler Charles (Terry-Thomas); all Stanley has to do is turn the photos into cartoon strip panels. At a particularly wild bachelor party he somehow ends up married to a gorgeous Italian who pops out of a cake (Virna Lisi) -- and speaks no English. Fearing that Charles will leave him, Stanley rushes to have the wedding annulled. But his lawyer Harold Lampson (Eddie Mayehoff) and Harold's wife Edna (Claire Trevor) are delighted to see the career bachelor so entrapped, and Edna coaches the new wife how to keep Stanley strictly in line. Loyal Charles is the only one Stanley can turn to. The butler's advice is to bump off the new bride -- as soon as possible.
It's not much of a confession to admit that as a teenager I grabbed every opportunity to see an issue of Playboy magazine. In my house the existence of such things was not acknowledged. Besides the obvious reason, there were colorful layouts on new movies like What's New Pussycat and Casino Royale, and flashy photo articles promoting Hugh Hefner's materialistic 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. Hef did have a sense of humor, as shown by "The Playboy Coloring Book", a feature in one issue that acknowledged his philosophy's basic selfishness. All the things the perfect playboy needed were spelled out in terms of Dick & Jane: "This is the playboy's car. Color it fast. This is the playboy's 'friend'. Color her fast too." 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."
How to Murder Your Wife avoids morbid extremes but does flirt with Black Humor in its own cartoonish way. Axelrod and Richard Quine's show skirts the murder issue, teasing us with the idea that Stanley Ford might indeed go all the way and kill his gorgeous but inconvenient spouse. The show wasn't really controversial. Uptight wives in the audience might feel threatened and howl that the show is a rigged misogynist fantasy that reinforces male chauvinist ideas - but in 1965 that charge described 99% of entertainment at the movies and on TV.
Like most mainstream farces, How to Murder Your Wife reinforces the American Domestic Imperative. The Seven-Year Itch, approached the subject of adultery via the exact same kind of fantasy displacement. Both comedies work because Axelrod honestly reflects what the American male is thinking. Tom Ewell can't deny that he wants to leap into bed with Marilyn Monroe. Stanley Ford has attained a playboy paradise, but it is incompatible with the standardized love 'n' marriage setup that non-swinging society wishes to promote.
Stanley Ford is never really made to 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. Stanley's accidental marriage is equally exaggerated -- how many men are going to wed exotic love objects whose only desire is to serve their husbands? Beyond "Miss Via Veneto", the writing on her beauty contest banner, Mrs. Ford isn't even given a name. She communicates with her husband solely in terms of physical affection, stemming from a gloriously glamorous love-at-first-sight fantasy. Stanley attends a grim bachelor party for his friend Tobey (Max Showalter). When Tobey's fianceé sends back the ring, the party turns into a celebratory bash. The drunken Stanley is smitten by the Venus-like vision of Virna Lisi rising from a cake. They and we instantly know they are Made For Each Other. He marries her with Tobey's discarded engagement ring.
Axelrod's story makes bachelorhood into a solemn fraternity, but reveals its lack of honor with a detail noticed by only a few viewers. What caused Tobey's fianceé to bolt? She's the very same girl Stanley took to bed the night before. Our hero Stanley casually sleeps with his best friend's girl, and neither he nor the movie has anything to say about it. We see the woman later at the Fords' party, and Stanley just ignores her. At the moment, he's busy hauling his unconscious wife upstairs. We don't know if this is meant to be business as usual among fellow playboys, or if Stanley is just an unthinking clod. The murder story is strictly for fun, but How to does have a hidden, darker side. Tobey and Stanley really expect women to be interchangeable toys.
This misogynistic streak is never far behind the laughs. Other than Ms. Lisi's Roman enchantress, the few women characters on view are old bats, bimbos, and Lampson's secretary, a weepy spinster (Mary Wickes). Note that Stanley never takes his wife anywhere. Stanley soon writes her into his Bash Brannigan cartoons as an irritating bozo-ette, an embarrassment. Since the comic strip is modeled after his personal life, he alters it to be about a married couple, with the husband constantly suffering the consequences of the wife's stupidity.
The show ends in triumph, with Stanley publicly promoting his selfish side ("I did it! Acquit me!") yet returning home to privately hope for the return of ... who? He never bothered to get her name. I like to think that the catatonic women in the courtroom will become militant feminists, primed to exact revenge for this outrage. Hiding under the idea that 'Love is a mystery that transcends logic and rationalization', we proceed directly to a harmonious fade out.
This is perhaps Richard Quine's last great picture. The director of Operation Mad Ball, Bell Book and Candle and The World of Suzie Wong gives the show excellent timing and a formal precision that tops the similar comedy work of Blake Edwards. Beautiful production values make How to Murder Your Wife's playboy fantasy almost tactile. Richard Sylbert's fantasy townhouse makes even the pads in Playboy look second-rate. Harry Stradling's slick photography highlights the film's contrasting, sexy textures, from Stanley's drafting table to Virna Lisi's sheer dresses ("She doesn't wear underwear!"). The Spillane-Bond-Peter Pan fantasies of Stanley's photo shoots achieve the comic-book feel that some filmmakers never quite manage, the kind of graphic reductionism missing from Philip Kaufman's Fearless Frank and perfected in Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik.
Jack Lemmon hadn't had a role as good as this since The Apartment. He's also better here than in Edwards' often witless The Great Race. I'm not a fan of some of Lemmon's more serious efforts, like The Days of Wine and Roses and Save the Tiger, where he always seems to be trying too hard. Frankly, he made comedies that fell equally flat, even a couple with Richard Quine. Virna Lisi has the perfect role for an Italian actress in an American movie, alternating between animated affection and spirited stubbornness. Lisi's new wife doesn't really adopt Edna's victimize-the-men indoctrination, as her character already seems pre-set, with a stereotyped Italian love of cooking and a desire to bring Mama into the picture. Of course, the character is also one of the '60s most appealing dream girls, beautiful beyond imagining yet not intimidating.
Eddie Mayehoff and Claire Trevor are the show's Fred and Ethel Mertz of the show. His eye rolling and her impromptu recall of the Italian language are hilarious. But the standout is of course English comic Terry-Thomas, in his best American role this side of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Charles Burbank is the best finicky butler in the movies since the 1930s. Until the last two shots Charles seems to be completely asexual. The pleasure he derives from keeping order in his ruthlessly masculine household is contagious, as is his delight that Stanley might really knock off his wife. Lisi's presence interferes with Charles's life much more than it does Stanley's. 1
Not quite a classic, but a very funny and satisfying comedy, How to Murder Your Wife is a great discussion picture. If your girlfriend becomes furious and won't even talk about it, you're in trouble. If you can see the dishonesty in Stanley's rigged paradise and his fantasy expectations ... well, you've got a chance.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of How to Murder Your Wife is the edition of this film we've been waiting for. The earlier MGM disc wasn't a winner, being flat-letterboxed and having an audio track that I call 'crunchy' -- slightly distorted and harsh. We appreciate the variety in the voice qualities of this particular cast, from Terry-Thomas' precise accent to Lisi's warm tones, to Eddie Mayehoff's bellowing laughter. Neal Hefti's wall-to-wall music score is a joy, a delightful lounge / cocktail mix that was probably meant to rival Henry Mancini, and instead goes him one better. Whenever there's action on screen the music takes on a circus-y P.T. Barnum feel.
The sharp transfer doubles the luxury factor of Stanley's townhouse, and showcases Harry Stradling's glamour photography of Virna Lisi. Some of the dresses she wears are stunning, and the close-ups of her eyes quicken the heartbeat. Ms. Lisi just passed away recently. She quickly graduated from starlet status to a long and accomplished career. In 1994's Queen Margot she plays a fantastically ruthless Borgia-like schemer during the historical War of the Roses. It's recommended.
Olive Films offers no extras. George Axelrod is a fascinating, somewhat kooky writer; everything I've read makes him seem a complex eccentric. His next picture was the bizarre Lord Love a Duck, a satire of cultural vulgarities that introduces at least one new perverse angle in every scene.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Since Stanley and Charles' finicky life together is jokingly presented as a superior alternative to marriage, it suggests a ripe asexual (?) or homosexual (?) reading of the film that Savant's not qualified to approach.
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