Posted as part of the Breaking News: Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood.
As everyone knows, career women (especially in classic films) are a rare breed of diseased characters who need to be cured through domestication. Once married to a good man, a (former) career woman presumably lives a normal life, inoculated against her unnatural occupational fixations with the wholesome combination of kids and dogs and bacon and eggs and draperies.
However, not many films explore how this domestication might actually play out. Crime of Passion (1957) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, and Perry Mason (Raymond Burr, that is) takes the career woman character to her logical–and tragic–end.
First a Synopsis
Our story begins with a newspaper truck barreling through San Francisco. On the side we see this advertisement.
So we see this picture of our protagonist, Kathy Ferguson, and we see she’s one of those “Dear Abby” type columnists, and we’re probably supposed to think she’s all soft and feminine and sympathetic and all that.
And then we cut to the newsroom, where Barbara Stanwyck is Barbara Stanwyck-ing around, wearing practical clothes, trading wry witticisms with coworkers, and generally showing she’s not as prissy as we might imagine a ladies’ columnist to be.
Her editor sends her out to get a scoop on “the Dana woman”–a woman accused of killing her husband in Los Angeles and holing up someplace in San Francisco–and write a piece from some lady angle. She at first does not want to go because she’s got other stuff to do, but he says they can just run some of her trash from last month and nobody will notice. She reluctantly goes to the pressroom at the police station or wherever, and everybody’s on a personhunt for “the Dana woman,” including two detectives from Los Angeles–Captian Alidos and Lieutenant Doyle (Sterling Hayden). Alidos tells her point blank, “Your job should be raising a family and having dinner ready for your husband.” This is her response:
I, for one, would not want to be on the receiving end of that look.
Her next response is to write a series of open letters to “the Dana woman,” the first of which reads thus:
Dear Mary Dana,
I write from the heart of one woman to the heart of another. Now you are deserted by him in whom you have placed all your faith and all your love, when we are alone, woman tortured by fate, betrayed by all men, where can we turn except to the heart and understanding of another woman who knows what you’re suffering?
I feel for you. I suffer with you. I want to help you. Let me stand by your side in your fight for justice and compassion in a world made by men and for men.
Call me, Mary Dana, and we will face the world together. Call me.
A montage of of different women read this, and the montage ends with a phone ringing a lot. So, her ploy works, and Mary Dana tells her where she’s been hiding. The detectives ask her about this, and Alidos wants to hold her in custody until she tells what she knows. She sends him out on a wild goose chase and attempts to give the intel to Doyle, but he’s a goody two-shoes. He explains himself with this little speech:
But I just try to do my job the best way I can, try not to poke the other fellow in the eye with my elbow while I’m doing it.
She says he’s never going to get very far this way and wonders how many times he’s been elbowed in the eye. But his goodness wins out, and he and his partner collar the woman.
Later, Doyle and Ferguson go out on a date and discuss murder (which is how all good dates go, right?). Ferguson–hard-bitten career spinster–is convinced Dana just didn’t use her brains about murdering her husband, but Doyle contends that murder isn’t about brains but passion. Bum bum bum!
Ferguson also goes on to say that she’s never going to get married because she wants more out of life than second mortgages.
Two scenes later, she and Doyle get married.
And they move into his place, which has a plethora of awful wallpaper, but Kathy doesn’t mind because she’s so in love with him (read: wants to get in his pants big time, according to all the innuendo about not needing more than one suitcase of clothing).
They immediately settle into domestic life filled with cops-and-cops’-wives parties, which, according to this movie, are the worst and consist of idle gossip about Chief Inspector Pope and discussions about pensions, which has never been the case at any cop party I’ve ever been to. Every cop party I’ve ever been to has been mostly stories about being undercover in ridiculous situations, jumping out of helicopters, and beating up gangsters. I digress.
Several scenes of her hating domesticity and having anxiety attacks over the mundanity of beaded tops and poker games ensue, and she finally–in the middle of the night, smoking in a gorgeous robe–lashes out at him:
Don’t you have any ambition?! . . . I want you to be somebody! Not for my sake but for yours!
And, of course, she decides to take matters into her own hands.
She begins her insane plot by getting into a car wreck with the Inspector Pope’s wife, thereby forging a friendship that gets her invited to all the best parties.
Next, she begins flirting with the inspector, who suspects she engineered the car wreck.
Then, she has manicures with Mrs. Pope, who divulges that she’s not in good health, and begins planning surprise birthday parties with her.
Her plan continues by not inviting Captain Alidos and his annoying, cloying, suck-up wife.
At the birthday party, she flirts more with Inspector Pope and has a weird see-through purse that came back into style again for a minute in the late ’90s.
Inspector Pope totally has her number on not inviting the captain, and he banters with her about her being a career woman at heart:
Inspector: Doing anything now?
Kathy: Only what every other wife does.
Inspector: Not you . . . That [former career woman] you isn’t going to make a very easy settlement with life.
They’re all flirty about it, but it’s kind of ominous and thematically relevant, of course. They then agree to meet and look at files of “normal people” who have committed horrible crimes. Kinky.
The next scene, they’re looking at these files of people pushed to the brink, and Kathy notices they’re mostly women. Inspector Pope comments, “Women only reason with life just so far. Frustration often leads to violence.” They flirt ominously a little more, and they both seem to know that the other is ruthless. Again they bring up the “change” thing, and Pope claims he’s changed a lot since he first started on the force, but Kathy says he hasn’t and that he’s always known who he is and what he is.
The next stage of Kathy’s plan is the most manipulative yet. She implores Doyle to leave the LAPD and go to Beverly Hills because it’s “less dangerous” and she super worried about him all the time.
And, of course, he ends up being asked to stay on the force personally by Inspector Pope. Cha ching!
He gets kind of a promotion thing and has to be out of town a lot, and when he gets home one day, Kathy makes sure to leave this note lying around for him to see, which implicates her and Pope in some kind of affair. We don’t know whether this note is real or fake (I think it’s probably bogus), but she says she doesn’t know who wrote it but she suspects either Captain Alidos (who’s been pissy with Doyle since he wasn’t invited to the birthday party) or his wife (who’s admittedly pretty terrible).
Doyle gets all upset about it and storms into the squadroom where he punches Alidos square in the eye.
They have a little trial in Pope’s office, with Alidos, Doyle, and the two cop witnesses, who both saw Alidos reach for his gun before Doyle was even through the door.
Pope decides the whole thing would just make everybody look bad, so he considers the matter closed because they both acted equally like idiots. The next day, Captain Alidos is in a different division, and Lieutenant Doyle is the acting captain of homicide. Cha ching!
And finally the last phase of Kathy’s plan kinda sneaks up on her. One night when Doyle’s gone detecting, Inspector Pope shows up at her door telling her his wife’s in the hospital because of tension. The only cure is for him to retire.
Which means he needs to name a successor to his job.
So Kathy does what any good conniving wife would do: sleep with her husband’s boss to get him a promotion! Cha ching!
Except not cha ching. The next day, she finds out Pope’s putting Alidos on the list of replacements because he doesn’t think Doyle’s good enough. He suggests they forget all the unfortunate extra-marital shenanigans ever took place.
Later, Kathy and Doyle are at the fights, and she looks pretty crappy–consumed with guilt and all that. He’s suddenly called away to interrogate some people, and they go to the station, where the two guns from the robbery/murder are just kinda hanging out on a cart because they haven’t been taken to property and evidence yet.
So, of course, Kathy steals one of the guns and goes to Pope’s house. She begs him to, at most, mention Doyle’s name for the promotion or, at least, not mention Alidos’s name. She needs him to do this to justify her own odious actions, but he’s not having any of it.
So she does what any good conniving wife would do.
Yep, she shoots him dead and drives crazily home and hops into bed at the last moment to pretend she’s been sleeping all night.
Doyle is in charge of the ensuing murder investigation and ends ups CSI-ing the slugs from the robbery/murder and Pope’s murder. He’s questioning the arresting officer and the desk sergeant, etc. about how there should be two guns in property and evidence from that robbery/murder but there’s only one.
Meanwhile, Kathy is milling around in her housedress looking awful and feeling awful because she remembers that she was friends with Pope’s wife, who must be feeling super, super awful right now.
And then as Doyle is sitting questioning everybody, it dawns on him who had the most immediate access to the missing gun.
He goes home to question Kathy, and she cops to it. She tearfully pleads with him that it was all for him and that now they all know what a great detective he is and she kinda wants him to maybe not turn her in, but he says he’s “the same cop you met in Frisco.”
Of course, nobody’s changed. He’s still a goody two-shoes.
And they take the walk of shame down the homicide corridor.
Throughout the movie, we get a lot of commentary on what careers women should have and what roles women should play.
We start with how Kathy Ferguson is a ladies’ columnist. She disdains this job. In her first scene, another journalist is talking to her about the people who write to her, using pseudonyms like “Lonely in Atlanta” or whatever. The dude asks her something to the effect of, “Aren’t there any ‘Joyful’s in the world?” She says, “Not if I can help it.”
She sees her position as one that makes money. She doesn’t care so much about helping these people as perpetuating her own column. She is ruthless in this way.
When her editor asks her to go out on what might be seen as a larger story, a better story, she also disdains this assignment. She doesn’t like being assigned. She likes doing what she wants to do in the way she wants to do it, and her own column gives her a small freedom in this way.
She also doesn’t like being told what she ought to be doing by Captain Alidos. Many of her later spiteful actions stem directly from this first interaction.
But when it comes down to actually writing the story that helps capture the murderess, she does exactly what her editor had suggested: write from a woman’s angle. However, he had suggested she write about how Dana had killed the man because she loved him or loved him because she killed him or some sentimental hogwash.
Instead, Kathy goes for the feminist jugular: We’re in this together, sister. Men suck, and I get you, girl.
She follows her editor’s rules in some ways, but bends them to her will. She has a plan, and she uses whatever tools she has in her arsenal (feminist rage and a way with a pen) to enact said plan.
So what Inspector Pope later says to her is exactly right. Marriage hasn’t changed her. She’s got a new plan, but she’s up to her old tricks: playing by some rules, bending some rules, outright breaking others.
And two things she had said in the beginning turn out to be right, too. When she’d been talking with that other journalist, one of the letters was from a girl who wanted to run off with a married man. Her flippant advice was that the girl should run off with the wife instead. Kathy figures out too late that she really did have feelings of camaraderie and friendship with Pope’s wife. She might’ve even contemplated that maybe she should’ve worked that angle longer.
The second thing is the feminist stuff she was feeding Dana: it’s a world made by men and for men. Kathy’s plan was going so well until she slept with Pope. She thought her body could be bartered, and if things were fair, it could’ve been. But he decided it wasn’t worth anything. Even when men set up an exchange rate, they can change it at any time. Women can’t even set the price of their own bodies, Kathy realizes. Just like she couldn’t set the price of her own columns, which her editor publicized on the sides of trucks but thought was essentially garbage literarily.
Kathy Ferguson was a career girl. She said all the regular career girl stuff. And she got married to a nice man, whom she loved very much. She sacrificed for him and did all the regular wife stuff. She should’ve been ok.
But she still had that driving career girl disease, the disease that kills not only the infected but those around the infected.
Don’t be a career girl. Be a nice girl who likes to bake pies and bead lavender chiffon gowns and not think ever.
PS I’d like to see the sequel to this. It could be a women-in-prison movie, and Ida Lupino could play the evil warden, and Lana Turner could be another murderess who bonds with Barbara Stanwyck and tries to plan an escape, but then the evil prison doctor (Vincent Price) finds out and holds Lana Turner’s son hostage until she sleeps with him, and then Ida Lupino figures out what’s been going on and kills him because she’s in love with him and jealous of Lana Turner. It could be called Crime of Passion 2: Prison of Passion. Actually, no. That sounds like a porno. Gross.