Every month, the crime fiction blog Past Offences collects posts about crime fiction written or filmed in a particular year. This month it’s 1957. Reading the great contribution on The Young Don’t Cry at Noirish for the collection of posts, I was motivated to join the fray, writing on another 1957 late original-cycle noir:

1957 is quite late in the classic noir cycle, and Crime of Passion illustrates not the ramping up of intensity but more the drop in quality and interest. To be sure, the central cast is strong:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Kathy Ferguson Doyle
  • Sterling Hayden as Police Lieutenant Bill Doyle
  • Raymond Burr as Police Inspector Anthony Pope
  • Fay Wray as Alice Pope

Hayden, not one of my favorites of the genre (sorry fans) plays kind but dull husband Bill, whose lack of ambition vexes his new wife Kathy, who has quit her career as a newspaper advice columnist to marry him, in traditional Hollywood 1950s fashion. Because she is stuck at home with no intellectual stimulation or a feeling that she is doing something important or even rewarding personally (an anxiety Betty Friedan would term “housewife’s syndrome” in 1958 in her second-wave liberal feminist starter The Feminine Mystique, she competes with local housewives and then meddles, first annoyingly and then criminally, in hubby’s career. Bill is comfortable just doing his job and earning his pay, but she wants him to climb the ladder and never stop. She wrangles a meeting with Police Inspector Anthony Pope (Raymond Burr) that eventually leads to an embrace; Kathy hopes seduction of the Inspector will lead him to recommend hubby Bill for promotion. When it does not, she resorts to drastic measures, shooting Anthony Pope dead.

The middle-class 1950s housewife (Barbara Stanwyck, complete with white gloves) proves capable of much more than we might think her in Crime of Passion.

In this less than thrilling tale for all actors concerned, Kathy does hold historical interest. In America of the 1950s, women were expected to quit their jobs — however rewarding or even vital to family finances they were. If Kathy is unsympathetic, her plight is at least understandable, and that’s what makes Crime of Passion noir rather than just a thriller. We see from Kathy’s perspective. A little feminist consciousness lets us see how Kathy’s drive to murder is the noir version of anxiety attacks and drug use (“mother’s little helpers”) of the era. Or, as Dan Callahan puts it in a 2006 review for Slate, Stanwyck here is a “’30s star railing potently against ’50s conformity.”

Such a reading helps me ultimately to recommend rather than pan Crime of Passion, an otherwise forgettable little tempest in a teapot film that gives too many stars too little of interest to do.

Damn, I need to do more Westerns.