Barbara Stanwyck, Crime of Passion, and What Goes on (and Doesn’t) Behind the Eyes

Poster: The Sin... The Lie... The CRIME OF PASSIONNote: This is a detailed recap and review of a film now nearly 60 years old: I’m not going to be coy about spoilers (including stills from the film). If you don’t want to know what happens, I encourage you to stop reading right now. Every blogger loves getting readers, but only a bad — or deeply ignorant — blogger wants to anger them. Be sure to visit Aubyn Eli’s Girl with the White Parasol blog for much more about Barbara Stanwyck this week.

Barbara Stanwyck differed from most (all?) of her contemporaries in at least one regard: onscreen, she never seemed conscious of herself.

Much though I love Bette Davis, say, I can’t quite imagine her in a role in which she’s unaware of her — Bette Davis’s, not the character’s — own greatness, her superiority (on almost every scale) to everyone within a half-mile. She might dismiss it, she might crack wise about it, but in doing so she couldn’t help acknowledging and drawing your attention to it. Katherine Hepburn I’ll watch in anything, and I’ll laugh at or be heartwrenched by almost everything that issues forth from that Philadelphia Mainline throat. But Hepburn herself, although apparently modest in real life and dismissive of flattery, always radiated unapproachability by mere mortals. The planes of her face weren’t the only things those famous cheekbones cleft into separate regions of life.

But even when playing a character utterly out of the league of everyone around her, Stanwyck’s manner just said: Here I am. Take it or leave it. You’ve got your life, I’ve got mine, maybe they’ll intersect and maybe they won’t, and while I’m happy and maybe even delighted to meet you, I’ll survive if I never do.

In 1956’s Crime of Passion, she brings this manner to a role out of sync with the time.

The Story

K/dropcap]athy Ferguson (Stanwyck) works for a San Francisco newspaper, writing an advice-to-the-lovelorn and gossip column successful enough to be advertised on posters around the city. “Fergie,” her editor calls her, and her fellow “reporters” too seem to think of her as just one of the guys (despite her tasteful woman’s wardrobe).

But there’s something else going on under the surface, and the first sign of it comes early on, in the newsroom.

'Come over here, Fergie'The big story of the moment involves the murder of a man by his wife. Fergie’s editor, a man named Nalence, calls upon her for help — not in (gods forbid) investigating the actual crime, but what he actually calls “the woman’s angle.” (“I killed him because I loved him, or I love him because I killed him…”) Over there on the left you see the moment when Nalence actually summons Kathy to his desk. Click the image to enlarge it: note the look on the editor’s face, which suggests a huge effort even to look up from his clutter to ask a woman for something; note, too, the “get a load of the woman in a man’s job” look on the fedora’d newsman’s face. These guys take her seriously, all right — only within the scope of what she does: that small, trivial, cute but very easy little thing she does. Confirmation arrives when she reminds Nalence that she’s got a column to write and he tells her they can just fill the hole in the page with reprinted “cornball” copy: “Nobody’ll ever know the difference.”

Kathy (like the actress inside her) is no fool. She feels the sting of that last, dismissive gibe. But she’s a professional, and heads over to SFPD headquarters.

They haven’t found the wife yet, and because the murder took place in Los Angeles a couple of LA detectives are in town to aid the investigation. These are the gruff Captain Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano), and his more mild-mannered partner — and subordinate — Bill Doyle, played by Sterling Hayden. The two LA cops come into the press room to tell the reporters basically to leave them alone: they’re here to investigate a murder, not answer questions from the press.

'YOUR work should be...'Kathy objects that they’re just trying to do their jobs but Charlie cuts her off with a curt, almost sneering reply: “Your work should be raising a family and getting dinner ready for your husband when he gets home.” Stunned, Kathy looks from one cop to the other. Bill is silent — and so, tellingly, are all the male reporters. None of them seems the least appalled by the remark.

Now we’re getting the message in pretty unambiguous terms: Kathy’s alone in a mid-’50s wilderness. She’ll shortly swap one wilderness for another.

[dropcap]Bill Doyle, as it happens, has been smitten by Kathy’s spirit. They have a brief, passionate affair, and he invites her to LA. Within days, apparently, they marry in a civil ceremony, and Bill takes her home to his little bachelor house in a suburban neighborhood. They settle into the life of a loyal, unambitious working detective and his dutiful wife: entertaining and being entertained by other police couples, but otherwise pretty much just eating and sleeping together — when he’s not being called into the station to deal with one “squeal” or another.

Here’s a still from this portion of the story:

On the brink of crazyWe see Kathy (center) and the other wives in the dining room, while the men play cards in the background. Note how the attention in the foreground is placed almost entirely on the blonde woman sitting down: that’s Charlie Alidos’s wife Sara (Virginia Grey), who talks about almost nothing — in every scene in which she appears — but the couple’s warm friendship with the men’s superior, the Chief Inspector, and his wife. They go out together, vacation together… you get it. The other wives profess to admire her so much (even when their faces, as above, reveal something else).

Or rather, let’s say, almost all the other wives are focused like that. Look at Kathy there. She’s the only woman not absorbed by Sara’s assumption of center stage. Although graced by a half-smile, The horror, the horrorKathy is looking down at the tasteful, proper table setting, at the food which seems too trim and neat to actually put into one’s mouth. She seems on the brink of throwing up. If you’ve seen another poster/lobby card for the film (right), suddenly its central image makes sense: it does not depict a woman who’s discovered a crime so shocking and terrifying that she must scream; it depicts a woman about to commit such a crime, because she’s being driven crazy by her everyday life.

Given that she herself no longer works, Kathy comes up with possibly just one (rather daffy) way out of this terminal dullness: she’s got to get Bill promoted so she never has to spend another involuntary second in these people’s company.

She first worms her (and Bill’s) way into the life of Chief Inspector Tony Pope, by way of his wife Alice. Tony and Alice (played by Raymond Burr and Fay Wray) have not to this point appeared onscreen. It’s like they’ve been isolated offstage in a transparent bubble of respectability which the other characters — save the grating Charlie and Sara — cannot hope to penetrate. But Kathy manages the trick, and even schemes to separate the Popes from the Alidoses.

Kathy meets TonyBut she does more: she worms her (and Bill’s) way into the consciousness, specifically, of Tony himself. The first time they meet, at a cocktail party of sorts at the Popes’ home, Tony seems (see the still at left) rather weirdly intense. When The Missus and I watched the film, she thought Tony suspected something about Kathy and her motives. I wasn’t so sure — what I saw was a guy in the company of a woman hypnotist, imagining (haha) that he might hypnotize her.

'Hey, if I light your cigarette will you light my fire?'By the time of their second get-together, at any rate — this one a birthday party which Kathy and Sara have arranged for the police commissioner (ambitious enough for two, she is) — Tony’s much more genial. (See shot at right.) It doesn’t hurt that Kathy can finally break out of her “I buy my dresses and jewelry at Woolworth’s” rut.

(Stanwyck, who hadn’t quite turned 50 when the film came out, looks great throughout the film. In this scene, though, she really relaxes into herself. She even manages to charm Raymond Burr from his usual bug-eyed, quasi-sociopathic look into someone almost resembling George Clooney.)

So now we see what’s about to develop, although we can’t make out its details as a scheme: Kathy, Tony… uh-huh.

Crazily, it works. Bill starts getting assignments that would normally have gone to Charlie. When Bill thinks that Sara and Charlie have begun spreading rumors about Kathy and Tony, he decks his old partner in the squad room. They both get called on Tony’s carpet. In his questioning, the Chief Inspector clearly favors Bill’s version of events over Charlie’s; and although the nominal upshot is to “pretend the whole thing never happened,” it’s Charlie who gets transferred out — leaving Bill as Acting Captain.

Everything seems to be working out according to Kathy’s (evil, and again rather daffy) plans. Until, well, it doesn’t.

The kiss-offThe first thing that goes wrong: Tony — beset by guilt, or clearheadness — suddenly (in the scene at the left) pulls the plug on his and Kathy’s affair. She’d probably go along with this; she’s never seemed particularly infatuated, let alone in love, with the big man. But it brings with it other consequences. First, Tony’s retiring. Second, he’s recommending that Bill be passed over as his successor. (“He’s just not good enough, Kathy.”) And finally — the last nail in his own coffin, although he doesn’t know it yet — he’s nominating Charlie Alidos to take his place.

If you think of Kathy to this point as an evil genius of femme-fatale manipulation, you can be forgiven. But now she develops a new scheme — a revenge scheme — so loopy that…

Kathy (Kathy, Kathy...) lifts the gunWell, let’s just say that she “borrows” a gun used in an unrelated crime. She confronts Tony, because suddenly she’s consumed with the  unfairness of everything.

Tony and Kathy, one last time…and then (as you can see at left, and certainly not to keep you in suspense) she shoots him dead. In the head. In his own home.

I guess her thinking was, well, Bill is still the Acting Captain… and Charlie’s out of the unit for now… and so with Tony gone, well, surely Bill will—

Of course, she forgets one thing: surely Bill will now head the investigation into Tony’s murder. And whatever else you can say about poor dull Bill Doyle, you can’t deny that he’s a heck of a detective (even if not good enough to be Chief Inspector). When he at last arrests Kathy and takes her in for questioning, you know there is no way she’ll charm him into making the irrational choice.

Bottom Line

Crime of Passion works as a film — as a melodrama, as a crime story, as a sort of demi-noir — but it works unevenly in each of those dimensions. Despite the title, and despite the affair between Kathy and Tony, the crime at its heart comes not from passion but from bottled-up frustration and aggression. Kathy’s never convincingly in love with Bill (although she’s tickled by his initial infatuation with her, and by his invitation to LA in the first place). Tony has his wolf’s-leer moments, but to call him “passionate” would be a mistake. (When he finally gives in to emotion — and decides to stay with his wife — it represents a withdrawal from passion, not an embrace of it.) The other couples seem to function pleasantly enough as couples, but they’re going about their roles rather stiffly, robotically.

The only one with passion, indeed, is the one among them who doesn’t commit anything like a crime or even a passing insult: Sterling Hayden’s Bill Doyle. In the moment (captured below) when he bursts into the squad room, tosses aside a cigarette, blows out a puff of smoke, and grabs Charlie Alidos by the lapels — then, then (you think) finally somebody’s pulse is pounding.

Leave my wife alone, Charlie

It’s the kind of moment which I always liked about Sterling Hayden’s pictures. He was an odd, dangerous mix of rumpled schlub and attack dog, and you could never quite tell when he was about to turn from one to the other. (Luckily, most of us lived safely outside the frame of the movie screen, so we, at least, never had to experience what lay so clearly behind Charlie Alidos’s eyes in that still.)

But even more than with Hayden, it’s hard for me to picture anyone other than Stanwyck in this film, in that role. As so often with a Barbara Stanwyck movie, even the less memorable ones, I look back and remember clearly those eyes, that mouth, that level-headed, unself-conscious demeanor of hers: You’ve got your life. I’ve got mine. If nothing happens, if something does, I’ll be just fine.


[Thank you, Aubyn, for organizing such a great event!]


Send to Kindle


  1. WB Kelso says:

    You’re right, the film never really does find its legs as it juggles several genres but the cast just over-achieves and perseveres, kicking it several notches up for its like minded brethren. Great flick.

    • I’ll watch certain performers from back then in almost anything — Hayden and Stanwyck are way up in the pantheon.

      I see that you’ve looked at a couple of items for the blogathon. Good for you. Stanwyck’s career certainly offers an embarrassment of riches to sort through!

  2. Sounds like an intriguing combination of genres – yet another Stanwyck film that I haven’t seen, but I hope to do so soon. Enjoyed your review and I look forward to seeing the combination of Stanwyck and Hayden in this.

    • Crime of Passion‘s director, Gerd Oswald, had just done A Kiss Before Dying before this one. And the screenplay was by Jo Eisinger, who had also penned Gilda and Night and the City. So this film’s noir aspirations were probably going to be pretty well cared for no matter what. But it may have been a little too soon — at least for middle-aged American audiences — for a film to offer up a critique of the potential soullessness of suburban life. So yeah, I think it would have been a very tough balancing act in any case. Thank gods for the cast (as W.B. Kelso says above).

      Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the review of Always Goodbye (which I’ve never seen) for the blogathon!

  3. Wonderful and well-written review. I like your description of Sterling Hayden as an “odd, dangerous mix of rumpled schlub and attack dog” — so true! I also laughed out loud when you said Bette Davis was always aware that she was Bette Davis. I adore Ms Davis, but you are so right about that.

    I like this movie, although it’s a bit disappointing in spots. The performances, however, are top-notch. Stanwyck makes every movie better, no matter the script or direction.

    I’m glad you included this in the blogathon. :)

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and for the comments. I see that you took on The Strange Love of Martha Ivers — a mouthful of a film and performance as well as a title. Thank you for that, too!

      In our household, The Missus is the principal authority on Golden Age Hollywood (I tend to focus on the period of, say, 1968 and on); often I just tag along for the ride. But boy, the stars back then were something. I think one thing that makes Stanwyck “feel” so right to me is that she never seemed to be the focus of scandal; on a roster of Stars Behaving Badly in Real Life I can’t imagine she’d even be a footnote. So: no distractions. It’s all on the screen.

  4. Lisa Alkana says:

    Very good write-up on this film. For women of my generation the passion in this film is the desperate determination not to let this happen to you.

    I first saw the movie as a young teen and although then the 60s, those suburban cocktail scenes reflected with horrifying accuracy the world we saw our mothers living in, the future we couldn’t bear imagining for ourselves.

    Stanwyck’s face as the wives drone on and on show her fighting that mind-numbing barrage of banality, the future of unending inanity before her. I felt just as soul sick and terrified as she did turning white and running from the room.

    Of course you’d shoot someone to get away from that. This movie confirmed my resolve: As god is my witness, I’ll never be a housewife.

    • Thanks for coming by, Lisa. “Of course you’d shoot someone to get away from that” made me laugh; I imagine the marketing posters would’ve looked a lot different if the copywriters had come up with that line. :)

      Even though Kathy Ferguson’s column itself was kind of stereotypical women’s-work, and maybe even unfulfilling for that reason, if I’d known her in real life I’d probably wish she’d never met Bill Doyle. (Although if she’d met Charlie Alidos without Bill on hand, I can imagine noir sparks of a whole ‘nother kind flying about.)

  5. Thank you, John, for such an intriguing, well-thought-out entry for the Stanwyck Blogathon. After watching this movie, I really felt like handing a copy of it to anyone that believes people in the 50s were all innocent, smiling suburban chumps. The portrayal of housewives here is really more scathing and cruel than anything the post-Stepford Wife era would come up with. And it came out in the 50s so clearly the idea that suburban life was a trap was alive and well even at the time. Personally, I think it goes a little over the top, but then, it’s really just Kathy’s perception of the wives. The film never quite kicks into full gear but I do think Hayden and Stanwyck have a nice, quietly simmering chemistry that makes their relationship believable. Burr on the other hand, never seems passionately invested in the affair. I think you’ve done an admirable job of weighing the movie’s strong and weak points here. It’s an interesting little noir even if it doesn’t completely hit all its marks.

    • Wow, Aubyn, thanks, but… all I did was watch a movie and write about it. YOU actually had to manage the whole process for nearly 50 separate bloggers. :)

      (And of course, I know firsthand how generously you managed schedule changes.)

      I hope the ghosts of Stanwyck and Hayden do not interpret any of the review as criticism of their performances. It was wonderful seeing them together in this, and I thought they brought to their roles everything possible. Not once while watching it did I regret volunteering to review it!


  1. […] Anyway, I’ll be back later today with my writeup on Crime of Passion. [Edit to add: the review is here.] […]

Speak Your Mind