Barbara Stanwyck always seems to find herself in some form of a domestic nightmare. As the dark queen of noir, Stanwyck frequently donned the cowl of of the femme fatale in a litany of murder dramas: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The File on Thelma Jordan, No Man of Her Own, and, most famously, Double Indemnity. This morning I watched her in another suburban shit show, Crime of Passion. It was Stanwyck’s swansong with film noir, and boy howdy does she go out with a whimper. And a bang. A bang right through her husband’s slimy boss’ head.
As spirited newspaper advise columnist Kathy Ferguson, Stanwyck gets to lay down some biting dialogue as she goes toe to toe with the male driven atmosphere of a busy San Francisco newsroom. Ferguson caters to those forlorn housewives and misguided youths who want to run away with married men. She gets absolutely no respect from her editor, who calls her brand of writing the “Ferguson schmaltz.” If she doesn’t meet her deadline, he tells her, they can just rerun a column from last week and “no one will notice.” Ouch.
So when she gets the opportunity to write an open letter to a female murderer hiding out somewhere in the city, she pours all of the schmaltz possible into her column to draw the woman out. Her ruse works, which impresses one of the detective assigned to the case, Bill Doyle. He’s played by the man, the myth, the one James Ellroy referred to as the “poet brute of noirs”: Mr. Sterling fucking Hayden. Aspiring “masculine” hipster doofuses with your slicked back hair and tight jeans, take note. Hayden is machismo personified. And in Crime of Passion he delivers his most vulnerable performance yet. Yes, being vulnerable is part of being tough.
Now Ferguson, who has sworn off marriage and the trappings of suburbia, falls stupid in love with Doyle. The feeling is mutual and the two get hitched right away. She leaves her job and San Fran behind to plant her roots in the burbs of L.A. Her thrilling life of the newsroom is now devolved into a mundane existence of hosting cop’s wives parties where she has to endure meaningless conversations about clothes and finger foods. Before long, Ferguson is driven into psychosis by these hollow wives and their phony pleasantries. Without any ambition or hope, Ferguson shifts her focus to her husband’s career with the police. She’ll do anything to see he gets a string of promotions – even if it means setting up a little murder for him to solve.
Stanwyck is at her best during the first half of the film, when she gets to crack wise and match chest-beating with the cops and her editor. Once she falls into suburban misery, her performance begins to waver. The script really doesn’t leave room for much depth. She goes from pleasant wife to psychotic between frames. Raymond Burr delivers a wonderfully wicked performance as Doyle’s boss. He’s a real conniving bastard who gets in Ferguson’s panties with the promise of a promotion for Doyle. Then he kicks her to the curb and reneges on his deal. Burr does villain very well.
What the script, written by Joe Eisinger (who penned the remarkable Night and the City), infers that Ferguson would’ve been better off staying in San Fran, sticking to her plan to be single and happy for the rest of her life. Getting married and being driven down into suburban psychosis leads to tragedy in the world of film noir. Wedding bells lead to prison bars – Crime of Passion makes a decent case in point for that argument. It’s not a great film, but at least Sterling Hayden and Raymond Burr elevate Barbara Stanwyck’s stuffy performance.