Monday, May 26, 2008

How to Murder Your Wife

I watched an old film over the weekend and learned a little something. The movie was a 1965 Jack Lemmon comedy, "How to Murder Your Wife." Like the Doris Day/Rock Hudson flicks of the period, its a breezy look at love (ably recreated in the recent "Down With Love"). It's a sophisticated New York comedy that's, well, made me a little uncomfortable about halfway through.

The plot involves Jack Lemmon as cartoonist Stanley Ford. Ford, a confirmed bachelor, writes and draws the popular "Bash Brannigan, Secret Agent" daily comic strip. A nut for authenticity, he acts out all the action sequences on location with some hired models, all photographed by his manservant Charles (Terry Thomas).

After a particularly rowdy bachelor party, Ford wakes up married to the girl who jumped out of the cake, the luscious Virna Lisi. Soon his well-ordered life is a mess, and he's well on his way to being just another middle-aged hen-pecked husband. Ford works out his frustration in his comic strip, which has the hero get married and turn into the domestic gag-a-day strip, "The Brannigans."

Eventually, he decides to regain control of his life. To symbolize his resolve, he has Brannigan work out a way to kill his wife and return to being a secret agent. True to form, Ford goes through all the steps of the plot that he has Brannigan do, including drugging his wife! (This is where it started to get creepy).

Photographed by Charles, Ford uses a mannequin to finish the sequence, throwing the "body" into a cement mixer. The next morning, Mrs. Ford wakes up and seeing the sequence on her sleeping husband's drawing board, sadly leaves.

Of course, as the strips get published, various people Ford got equipment from for the murder plot come forward, and -- with his wife really gone -- is soon on trial for murder.

Now the nature of these New York comedies is to do whatever's necessary to forward the plot, regardless of realism. This is especially true in courtroom scenes (like the finale to the James Garner/Doris Day "Move Over Darling"). This one, though, takes the cake. Ford represents himself and convinces the jury (all male) that they ought to find him not guilty because it would send a message to wives everywhere to think twice before pushing their husbands around (I was definitely creeped out at this point).

Of course, it all ends happily, with Ford renouncing his stance, but still. Usually, I can enjoy a movie on its own merits, watching it in context to the era it was produced in. This time, though, I couldn't quite move my sensibilities aside (perhaps it's because my wife works in social services and regularly deals with husbands who damn near murder their wives).

So this will remain a movie I won't recommend -- except for the curious link to comics. It turns out that for sequential art fans, "How To Murder Your Wife" is well worth exploring -- as I'll explain in my next post.

- Ralph

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