Classic noir has many “dangerous spouse” films, from the black widow scheming for hubby’s life insurance to the sadist who just wants out of a poor choice. Such films often have an equally wicked lover spurring on the action from the sidelines or an innocent cutie who knows nothing about her/his paramour’s marriage in the first place. There are many variations on these domestic (melo)dramas, but all are scripted and filmed to use characteristic noir cynicism and paranoia to raise tension and suspense as high as possible.
One of my favorite types of dangerous spouse films is what I think of as the husband-having-midlife-crisis picture. A plain, aging man is unhappy with his homelife (and usually worklife, but not always) and he gets the brilliant idea that being with a younger woman will rejuvenate and make him happy. But there’s a wife in the way. In the best of these, she’s intolerable, written so nastily that you sympathize with the poor schmuck of a man. The young woman (aka fetish object) may be sweet and innocent or she may be a femme fatale on the make, but in either case the film does not come to a happily-ever-after unless its a satire. We may delight when hubs gets his comeuppance or feel bad for the old dumbass, but there’s a lovely feminist tinge to these flicks at their best that I heartily enjoy.
Two of the best of this genre are Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Both star Edward G. Robinson as the man with the midlife crisis and Joan Bennett as the crisis bait. Scarlet Street in particular, by far the better of the two films, also features the remarkable Rosalind Ivan as the most cartoonishly bitchy wife in the history of film.She is a widow who not only compares her mealy-mouthed hubby to her virile sea-going first husband at every opportunity, but she overtly emasculates him by making him do the housework–in a delightful little apron. And she dismisses his one pastime, painting, as a waste of time. How could he not run into the arms of young, sassy Kitty and never want to leave?
This brings us to Sunday’s film, Robert Siodmak‘s The Suspect (1944), set at the turn of the century and starring Charles Laughton as the poor schmuck opposite Rosalind Ivan in an earlier incarnation of the shrewish wife that leaves us breathless with her vitriol. The lovely Ella Raines — Phantom Lady (1944), Impact (1949) — is Laughton’s fetish object, but not of the fatal variety and certainly not in the red dress shown in the poster! Siodmak — who would follow this film with noir classics The Killers (1945), The Spiral Staircase (1946), and Criss Cross (1949) — is far kinder to his naive protagonist than is Lang, resulting in less feminist critique and more nostalgic chivalry. Still, it’s Charles Laughton, and the noir ride is delightful. Plus, it’s loosely based on the Dr. Crippen case of 1910, so you get History creds just for watching.
Come and live tweet this noir adventure in domestic hell on Sunday, Feburary 27 at 9pm via the #BNoirDetour hashtag.
YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB25E3DD17F8AE7E4
Watch or download via Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/TheSuspect1944