Monday, June 11, 2012

"How To Murder Your Wife"- 1965 Dir: Richard Quine

What I remember: 

This was a film that was released at the height of the British invasion. I was 10 or so, and like all kids my age, obsessed with the Beatles, Carnaby Street, Petula Clark, the Mersey beat. Oh yeah, and the early James Bond movies! Vietnam and civil rights were on the radar, but I was 10. Bachelorhood was being celebrated with vigor, thanks to the Playboy phenomenon.  The overriding idea was that single, wealthy men could have all the nubile starlets they wanted. If you were married, then you were stuck with Bertha and her curlers and rolling pin. To quote Richard Pryor, " I'll be standing in that LOOOONG mufuckin' line"!"  

               The story I remember is that Jack Lemmon plays a wealthy cartoonist (impossible, unless you were Charles Schulz). He is perennially single, a New York bachelor, with a "man's man" as a servant, played by veteran Brit actor Terry-Thomas.  He gets drunk at a party, and ends up eloping with a gorgeous blonde from Italy,  who it turns out speaks no English. Upon waking up, and seeing all the detritus from a hasty honeymoon, he freaks and realizes that he has blown his happy bachelorhood. The rest of the film is him plotting the perfect murder of his gorgeous wife, played by Virna Lisi.  Even in my almost pubescent state, I could only shout at the screen in my mind, saying, "Are you crazy? This woman is sexy and willing and indulgent, and best of all, you don't have to listen to a thing that comes out of her mouth! This is the perfect woman! And you want to knock her off?"  Yeah I was frustrated! And jealous! 

               So why did I love this movie so much? Besides the fantasy stuff that obviously would appeal to someone in my age group, there was a lot of comedy, that great Lemmon-y self-effacing humor that he mastered. Also, his comics tell the story of what he wants to do, and you're not really sure I he's going to really kill her, or if it's just for his comic strip. It was almost like they liked the story-board so much, they put it in the film.  Anyway, this is a completely forgotten '60's treasure. Or at least the 10 year old me thought so.

After re-watching:

“Been married 38 years myself. And I don't regret one day of it. The one day I don't regret was... August 2, 1936. She was off visiting her ailing mother at the time.”-
Judge Blackstone.


Syndicated cartoonist Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) has a happy bachelorhood, living in a midtown Manhattan townhouse with his man-servant Charles (Terry-Thomas). His comic strip is about a James Bond type hero named Bash Brannigan.  Ford acts out all of Bash’s capers before he draws them, while Charles takes pictures that help him capture the story visually. One night at a friend’s bachelor party, he falls in love at first sight with a girl (Virna Lisi) who comes out of a cake. He wakes up the next morning to find that he is married to her, and he and his butler are horrified. As he becomes domesticated, so does his cartoon alter-ego, and he begins to plot how the cartoon can knock off his wife and regain his previous studly lifestyle.


Well….isn’t this a misogynist piece of work? Yet there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Obviously, the concept of a “Tender Trap”, a woman using matrimony to enslave a man is not only dated, but horribly incorrect. Back in the days before the Women’s Liberation movement, it was of course the women who were slaves, so many stuck in loveless marriages with unfaithful husbands. But there were also men who felt imprisoned by the concept of family and domestication. This movie speaks directly to them. Comically, of course.

George Axelrod wrote and produced “How To Murder Your Wife”. Yes, the same man who co-wrote “The Manchurian Candidate” with Director John Frankenheimer. However the rest of his output seems to reflect our film, in that the majority of it is RomCom, or at least what used to be considered Romantic Comedy. “HTMYW” was a cute piece of fluff, meant to be in the mold of some of Axelrod’s other breezy products; “Secret Life of An American Wife”, “The Seven Year Itch”, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter”.

The Stanley Ford/Bash Brannigan duality of the lead is fascinating in a lot of ways. Ford constantly says that he would never ask Bash to do anything he hadn’t done himself. So Ford acts out the capers that he eventually draws, with Charles photographing all the action. Of course Ford isn’t actually risking his life at any time, and it all feels like a spoiled little boy who hasn’t given up playing spy well into his 30’s. Again, the entire concept appeals to the tween male.

When Ford marries, he is quickly domesticated, and all the foibles of the henpecked boob that he has become also become part of the comic strip. "Bash Brannigan" becomes “The Brannigans”, sans sexy vignettes that the film audience gets to infer. His readership booms, because now women enjoy the strip. Ford finally decides to take a stand when his wife crashes the all-men’s athletic club he belongs to. But he takes a stand as Bash, not Ford.

So when the plot to kill his wife is illustrated clearly in the strip, and of course, she sees it and leaves him, he gets accused of the murder he only committed in make-believe. Her disappearance causes Ford to be on trial (despite there being no body), and he manages to acquit himself by appealing to the all male jury, ADMITTING that he killed her, but explaining it as “Justifiable Homicide”.

EXCUSE ME? He admits he murdered his wife, and gets off scot-free? I mean, I know this is a fantasy, but that’s pretty horrific, if you ask me. Sure, we know he didn’t ACTUALLY do it, but the jury doesn’t know this. What seemed kind of edgy, quirky and charming back then, is today kind of repellant, now that we have seen the terrors of domestic violence all over our TV and Movie screens.


Yes, I have been a tad harsh on this cotton candy of a movie, so let’s praise what really is good about it. There are a lot of very quick sight gags throughout, and set design has a lot to do with it. The single man’s pad, and it is quite a place, right near The Warwick Hotel in midtown Manhattan, is decorated in a very leather, chrome and mahogany style. Basically it’s a Cadillac Fleetwood up on the blocks, and on steroids. When the wife takes over, it quickly transforms into the typical married household. But it’s the artwork that really does a 180; paintings of medieval soldiers and the like become big-eyed children. These changes are subtle and hilarious for the observant audience members. There is another artwork moment that is priceless; when Mrs. Ford is going wild at the big party, Lemmon is observing mouth agape, exactly mimicking the expression of someone in a painting right above his head.

The humor of drunkenness is also beautifully done. The bachelor party that starts as a wake (all mourning the man’s loss of bachelorhood) and turns into a wild bash (pun intended) when he realizes that his fiancĂ© is calling things off, has a great scene with the Judge and Ford both bracing themselves with wide stances on opposite walls.

The funniest of these scenes comes when Ford drugs his wife to induce unconsciousness, and at first she gets so high that she dances on the piano before passing out. After spiriting her away from his party, his lawyer’s old henpecking wife gets nosy, and Ford slips her the Mickey too. When SHE gets up on the piano, imitating the scene the young sexy wife just enacted, it is sidesplitting.

Virna Lisi is photographed so alluringly, that there is never a question of why Ford succumbs to her charms. She is a goddess, and her eyes in particular are highlighted by the camera and light work of the crew.  

There are some really inane moments however, and none quite so dumb as the cement mixer that makes a “Gloppita-gloppita” sound. Rather than just using the natural sound of the mixer, they dub in some guy’s voice actually saying “Gloppita-gloppita”, and it is simply annoying and puerile.

The finale (spoiler alert, right?) when Mrs. Ford (we never actually learn her first name) returns and Stanley succumbs back into marital bliss, seems so forced and unreal, that it reminded me of the recent bomb “The Switch”. That Aniston/Bateman vehicle wasn’t too awful a RomCom,  until the pasted on happy ending that destroyed the movie in a mere 30 seconds. Why does Mrs.Ford forgive Stanley? Why does he want to slip back into the domesticated state? It’s all very sloppy and obviously was just there to mollify the studios and the women in the audience. 

The score, by the great jazz composer and arranger Neal Hefti, predates his classic music for “The Odd Couple”, and sounds very much like it. There is a lot of jazz throughout, which, for me makes the movie much more watchable.


What can I say about Jack Lemmon at this stage of his career? He was the Chaplin of his time? Not really. He was the Cary Grant of his time? No, not anywhere as handsome. He is definitely his own man. The same great comic delivery and physical timing that made him so perfect for two Billy Wilder classics, “The Apartment” and “Some Like It Hot”, is on display here. There are moments that are very Wilder-esque, thanks mostly to Lemmon. The question remains as to whether he is believable as the action-ready playboy. We know he pulls off the henpecked boob rather easily.

Terry-Thomas has his moments, especially when he can barely contain his glee on the witness stand and off when he realizes that it is actually possible that Ford may have killed his wife. The opening of the film has Terry-Thomas addressing the camera/audience and describing exactly how ideal the life is that he and his boss have. It seems forced from a plot/exposition point of view, but his aplomb and demeanor pull it off effortlessly.

  Lisi does a fine job with the role of cute and endearing language mangler, and is simply drop-dead gorgeous throughout. She has a scene that is a direct forerunner to Darryl Hannah in “Splash”. Both use TV to learn English, and both begin spouting dialogue from commercials as if that is the way normal people speak. It is funny both times, but I wonder if the great ‘80’s screenwriting team of Ganz and Mandel that brought us “Splash” had seen “HTMYW” and stolen this idea from it.
Lisi, by the way, is in full make-up at all times. Her amazing eyes are even more lustrous than would seem possible. It’s also interesting to observe that what passed for normal eye make-up back in 1965, is only acceptable on a porn-star in 2012. Her mascara looks like it was applied by the “gloppita-gloppita” machine.

Wonderful support is given by the lawyer and his wife played by Eddie Mayehoff and Clare Trevor respectively. Mayehoff is doing his best Jim Backus, complete with “Lovey” Larchmont lockjaw. Trevor, who has played some great moll roles in films like “Key Largo” and “Murder My Sweet”, does a superb send-up of the spoiled suburban wife, reminiscent of a type we saw in tons of sitcoms during the period. Like I said, she is amazing in the party scene, and also has some great outbursts in the courtroom scene.


I have certainly outgrown this film, and probably outgrew it by the time I was 16. As a piece of era-centric comedy, it still has its moments. Gazing at the beautiful Virna Lisi is an added benefit, as is the lively score by Hefti. Unfortunately the movie is so very dated, and all of its hipness seems faded and lowbrow nowadays.

On First Look:  ✭✭✭          On Second Look: ✭✭