Crime of Passion

Released Jan. 9, 1957: CRIME OF PASSION, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, and Raymond Burr. Directed by Gerd Oswald (A Kiss Before Dying, Screaming Mimi, Agent for H.A.R.M.). CrimeofPassionThis is a somewhat unusual noir film that doesn’t make its true intentions known until halfway into the story. The film begins by establishing Stanwyck as a no-nonsense tough-as-nails San Francisco newspaper reporter. Fiercely independent, she is smart, savvy, and able to stand toe-to-toe with her male peers. While reporting on a story, she meets a detective from Los Angeles (Sterling Hayden) and ends up having dinner with him before he returns to LA. Despite their vastly different viewpoints on life and marriage, after he leaves, she comes to realize she’s attracted to him. Several days later, Hayden persuades Stanwyck to have dinner with him in LA. This time their mutual attraction is undeniable, and at the end of the evening, Hayden hastily proposes.  In an uncharacteristic move, Stanwyck accepts, declaring she is ready to give up her independence to fully embrace married life. The next phase of the film is perhaps the most fascinating because of its pointed commentary about 1950s society and gender roles. Stanwyck enjoys married life with Hayden, but she suffers when in the company of the other police wives, who embody the worst aspects of 1950s suburban housewife stereotypes – endlessly gossiping, obsessing over their appearance, bragging about the latest party they attended, and leaving all issues of substance to their husbands. It’s agonizing to watch Stanwyck, straight-jacketed in a chiffon dress, trying her best to fit into this vapid social circle that offers her nothing of relevance. When she tries to cross the invisible gender barrier and socialize with the men, she’s ignored and dismissed. These constricting social pressures eventually cause her to have a breakdown and confront Hayden. But instead of declaring an all-out rebellion against the confining shackles of societal roles, she claims that Hayden’s lack of ambition at his job is keeping both of them down on the lower rungs of the social pecking order, and she needs him to try harder to get promoted and improve their status. Story-wise, this is a somewhat disappointing plot turn. It would’ve been far more profound for Stanwyck to either leave Hayden or assert her independence within their social circle, but perhaps movie audiences weren’t ready for full-on societal upheaval in 1957. However, the story is now able to move into noir territory as Stanwyck hatches a devious scheme to clear a path for Hayden to move to the top of his department. With her reporter instincts intact, she easily deceives and manipulates the self-involved wives and oblivious detectives to achieve her goal.  In a sense, this is her way of rebelling.  But just when she’s on the verge of complete success, she herself is deceived and events take a tragic turn. Stanwyck is perfect in this role, and is still as charismatic, attractive, and energetic as she was 20 years earlier. It’s hard to imagine another actress pulling off this part as convincingly. This is her movie from beginning to end and the men in the film, including Hayden, really only serve as supporting characters. Crime of Passion is an unexpected film noir that offers a refreshing twist on the typical femme fatale playbook. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but Stanwyck’s powerful performance and the insightful jabs at 1950s society make it worth viewing, even if the plot sidesteps an opportunity to directly challenge stifling social norms. We give Crime of Passion 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

3.5 Fedoras

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