Gerd Oswald’s Crime of Passion is a warped film noir from 1957. It features a screenplay by Jo Eisinger and the cinematographer of Laura’s Joseph LaShelle. While some critics have questioned the noir qualifications of Crime of Passion, it’s safe to say that this number contains some sinister elements and contends with a twisting web of crime, punishment of temptation.
At the core of this picture is a subverting of the American Dream, especially as seen through the eyes of a typical housewife. Eisinger’s screenplay takes an independent woman and transports her to a sort of housewife hades, complete with jabbering acquaintances and a husband who lacks the ambition to climb that corporate ladder. And there’s sex. Man, is there sex.
Barbara Stanwyck stars as newspaper columnist Kathy Ferguson. She works the advice beat, but her interest in crime perks up when she’s asked to check out a fugitive woman on the run for killing her husband. She meets LAPD detective Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden) on the case and falls for him in a hurry, going against her strong independent principles. They get hitched.
Kathy drops the gig at the newspaper and sets herself to becoming the best little wife she can be. She participates in all the lame parties and tries to behave herself, but she can’t stand it. Eventually, she meets the entrancing Inspector Pope (Raymond Burr) and believes that she can help ease her husband up the corporate ladder if she spends a little special time with the Inspector.
Crime of Passion is brimming with sex. When the audience first meets Kathy, she’s a professional with no interest in getting married. She considers Doyle’s traditionalism to be a form of propaganda and she can’t stand his lack of get-up-and-go, but something else draws her to him and makes her sign her life away. When she finally gets what she’s after, the flames are already licking at the door.
Oswald helms the scene of Kathy’s arrival at her new digs in flawless fashion, with a cluster of kids playing in the street and the distant wail of cop cars. There’s danger in the city’s neon expanse, just over that hill, but it’s a hell of a walk to get some action.
Stanwyck really picks up her game when the parties start. After dealing with Doyle’s charms and getting what she’s after in the boudoir, the time comes to really play at being Wife of the Year. Kathy subjects herself to the segregated gatherings of Stepford life, with squawking women carrying on about olives and cheese and the menfolk safely sequestered in their poker games.
But Kathy, bless her heart, can’t stand it. LaShelle’s lens dives close and the picture distorts. The audience feels the room spinning under the heft of mundanity. Kathy wants it to be worth it and she wants something more. When she catches the eye of Burr’s Pope, she has the hook.
Pope knows who Kathy is. Doyle never did. Doyle trawled to make a good woman out of a bad seed, while Pope recognizes the disruptive heart and goes for the jugular. There’s indicted sex between Kathy and Pope, drifting like smoke in the lights, and their relationship progresses to the point of moral haggling.
Crime of Passion is not without issues. Kathy takes a really severe turn to get to where the plot takes her and it’s difficult to believe the crinkly Doyle would serve as such a sweltering bedchamber draw. She enters her nuptial jail with far too little prodding and the picture’s ordinary expedience makes this change implausible.
Still, there’s a lot to like about this sordid little tale. Stanwyck is dynamite in her jagged way and Burr steals scenes with composed charm. Hayden is the wet blanket, but he’s supposed to be, and Fay Wray has a slight turn as Pope’s eternally bothered wife. And there is a homicide about 70 minutes in, one that comes with a bang and leaves with a sizzle.