Barbara Stanwyck was an actress of formidable talent, she was subtle, and elegant, yet she could bluster and lose control and do it with so much grace and grandeur. In Crime of Passion a 50's noir potboiler, Stanwyck plays a popular San Francisco newspaper columnist named Kathy Ferguson. Fiercely independent, Kathy prides herself on the fact that she's a career girl, and that she hasn't resorted, like most other women of her generation, to settling down to cook and clean for a man.
All this changes however, when she meets and falls in love with hunky detective LA Police detective Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden). Whisked off to suburban Los Angeles, Kathy finds it hard adjusting to life as a policeman's housewife, and she's frustrated at her husband's lack of ambition. It doesn't take long for the droning petty misery of suburban life and the stifling social puddle of the detective's wives to steadily unbalance her.
Without her husband's knowledge, she uses her feminine wiles to help advance his career - cleverly conspiring to associate with Alice Pope (Fay Wray) so as to get close to Chief of Detectives Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), Bill's boss. Bill remains ignorant of Kathy's dangerous schemes even when they result in him being unfairly pushed ahead of his more-qualified Captain, Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano). Things really spiral out of control when Kathy starts to put the moves on the retiring Chief Pope, in the hope that he will place Bill first on the LAPD's short list for his job.
Although the story isn't remotely believable, and the Lady Macbeth-like themes are indeed quite bizarre, the film is mostly worth watching for Stanwyck's fine performance as Kathy. She starts out as a tough, wisecracking, and no nonsense newspaperwoman, who is quick to put male chauvinist cops in their pace, and then she quietly turns into this macabre, coolly manipulative woman, who will stop at nothing to advance the career of her straight-shooting but unimaginative husband.
Made in 1957 and in a time when there was much discussion over the role of women in the workforce, Crime of Passion brings feminist issues right to the forefront. Kathy's far too cool to be shaken by conservative detective Dano's assertion that she belongs in a home cooking some man's supper. But she's getting on in years and must be feeling the need to marry, because she lands a man of her own almost before she knows what's happened. And it's quite remarkable that she jumps into the role of dutiful wife without so much as taking a breath.
Director Gerd Oswald gives us a tough and uncompromising look at 1950's suburban middle class life. Kathy is forced to live in a wasteland - here's a woman who is used to working with intelligent and creative people, now all she has for company is her doltish but loyal husband - when she can get to see him - and a bunch of gaggling unsophisticated detective wives for company; they're shallow women that seem do little more than praise the big boss and butter up the hen at the top of their pecking order.
To give away much more of the plot would be to destroy the viewer's enjoyment of this compelling film, but suffice to say as Kathy becomes even more unhinged, and her straight-jacketed life becomes too much for her, she resorts to terrible ends to get her way; this intelligent and supposedly sophisticated woman just can't accept a man without ambition. You really believe that a high flier like Kathy could fall in love with a man like Bill and then imprudently push him beyond his limits.
Barbara Stanwyck and Sterling Hayden are terrific together and there's a real chemistry going on here. Bill loves Kathy unconditionally and just wants her to be happy, but Kathy's fatal mistake is that she can't accept her husband for who he is. It is to Barbara's credit that she plays the role straight, without resorting to camp. And Sterling Hayden is a revelation as Bill. He's a sort of a sensitive stalwart, a Mr. nice guy who knows he's just good enough to do his job and is comfortable with that.
Crime of Passion is bleak and cynical in its portrayal of the claustrophobic aspects of suburbia, especially in the way that women were stifled intellectually and creatively. Full of existential angst and fuelled by a sort of quasi-macho misogyny, the film is a powerful and commanding depiction of a middle-class 50's marriage gone terribly wrong. Mike Leonard February 06.