1960s comedies are known for their rather frank discussions of romance and women. As the 1950s housewife persona slowly eroded and Women’s Lib inched along the horizon, the movies of the 1960s showed the joys and perils of the single and married man, and the burden that women could provide. How to Murder Your Wife works all those angles although there’s something worth watching in the worthwhile performances by Jack Lemmon and Virna Lisi. That’s if you can get through all the flagrant misogyny and near glorification of murder.
Stanley Ford (Lemmon) is a happily married bachelor with a successful comic strip about a gentleman spy. During a drunken reverie Stanley meets a beautiful Italian girl (Lisi) – she’s the party’s “entertainment” – and the two get married. The next morning, Stanley knows he’s made a terrible mistake, but he can’t get divorced without justifiable grounds. Complicating matters further, the new Mrs. Ford doesn’t speak English. As the two try to live together, Stanley’s frustration comes out in his comic as he contemplated murdering his wife.
There’s a lot wrong with this movie, particularly with regards to the story. But, first off, we have to praise the actors. Jack Lemmon’s played comical villains, like in The Great Race, and he’s also played men plagued by the issues of the real world, see Days of Wine and Roses, but it’s hard to make Jack Lemmon an out-and-out cad. Stanley Ford is a man bound to his bachelorhood and can’t think of any compelling reason to give it up. For him, only an evening of drunken debauchery would compel him to tie the knot…and that’s exactly what happens. The focus on the gender gap, which would only increase as the years went on, is where the movie gets its comedy. This puts Lemmon in the precarious position of being a man whom, in a few decades, looks like a jerk. Thankfully, he sails through some rather ridiculous sequences, including putting him on trial for murder. The culmination of said trial: Stanley proving justifiable homicide! You couldn’t have someone smooth, like Tony Curtis or Frank Sinatra, play this role because they would come off like heartless cavemen. Lemmon’s comic sensibility and everyman looks make him a source of frustration; you hate to love him! The audience goes along with his antics because only a man like Lemmon would believe they’d make sense.
His better half is Italian actress Virna Lisi. If this were a more serious romantic comedy, she’d be the unattainable goddess Lemmon would fight to keep. She’s gorgeous beyond compare and, outside of her lack of English, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her. If anything, the audience turns against Lemmon for his treatment of her. Lisi is the typical “exotic wife” we’ve seen continue in film and television today (look at Sofia Vergara in Modern Family). The comedy comes from her lack of English and misinterpretation of American ways. It is only through our media, television, that she learns English in the first place. The script does her a disservice by making her the object of derision throughout, not even giving her a name as means of furthering her as nothing more than an object. It’s a testament to Lisi’s acting – much of it silent or while speaking Italian – that you like her so much.
It’s also shocking seeing Claire Trevor, veteran star of Key Largo and Stagecoach, as the film’s best embodiment of a villain: Edna. Edna represents the shrewish woman emasculating men today. She corrupts Mrs. Ford like a modern-day snake seducing Eve, telling her how to “control” her husband. It’s certainly fun watching Trevor brought low because she’s such a harpy, but it’s a far cry from the legendary roles she immortalized in past films. (This movie shows the harsh circle of life for Hollywood stars: One minute you’re the femme fatale, the next you’re the shrew.)
But none of this matters when the story is so misogynist. Sure, there is a thin vein of satire here by how the movie presents fantasy and reality. Stanley’s comic strip starts out with the presentation of a fantastical James Bond character, the man every man wants to be. After Stanley’s marriage, he turns the comic character into a husband, finding the comedy in marriage but uprooting his fanbase. The women find the comic reality while being able to identify their own husbands, but the men don’t want a cartoonish representation of the life they live everyday. The movie presents, through an alternative media, what movies provide us with: a cartoonish summation of our reality that we can escape into and still identify with.
All of that would be great if the movie wasn’t so against the women it shows. Trevor’s character is the harridan, the epitome of everything men hate about women. That’s all well and good, but there’s little reason to treat Lisi’s character with such vitriol. She’s sweet, affectionate, and tries her damndest to succeed in a country that’s unfamiliar to her. I can’t stress enough, outside of her lack of English, we’re not presented with anything else to turn against her (other than her maybe taking Edna’s advice but that’s never tested). When Stanley sees his wife in a nightgown and curlers, it’s seen as a moment of truth: she’s no longer the naked, nubile woman…she’s a pig. Sorry, but Virna Lisi in a nightgown and curlers is still a gorgeous woman!
The ridiculousness comes to hand with the trial, which is rather funny for turning the tables on Stanley (he’s accused of murder because he feels the need to do the scenarios in the comics himself). But, by the end, the entire thing becomes one middle finger to women everywhere, with the judge himself being unable to tell Edna to just “shut up!” By the end, the jury, all men, actually believe Stanley’s life and wife were so terrible he had to kill her! It’s hard feeling for Stanley at all, but the ending just shows that all men, as envisioned by this film, are scumbags….and according to them, women suck too! The final image is a “cake and eat it too” moment with Mrs. Ford coming back to Stanley for reasons that stem from “It’s the end and we have to reunite them.” I didn’t buy it. Lisi’s too beautiful to stick with this numbskull.
How to Murder Your Wife’s woefully dated approach to women and relationships will only appeal to you if you hate women. The satirical argument is there, but the approach furthers it so far that it’s impossible to see it by the end. Lisi and Lemmon are good.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.