20/04/2010

How To Murder Your Wife (1965)


T-T with Lemmon? "I say, good show sir! Absolutely bang on!"

Actually, this silly Sixties comedy is badly dated by its sexual politics, George Axelrod's script appearing to argue, however ironically, for a world without women and propose that the ideal relationship, rather than marriage, is a platonic one between a bachelor and his Man Friday, as only a chap can really understand another chap's priorities. While the chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Terry-Thomas is indeed a delight, that's surely taking things a touch too far.

As in the playwright and radio scribe's earlier script for The Seven Year Itch (1955), all husbands here are controlled, conditioned and henpecked by wives who overfeed and emotionally manipulate them in order to secure their own comfortable existence at hubby's expense. It's the film's climax that really shocks though, with Lemmon's Stanley Ford mounting an extraordinary "button" defence at his trial for the titular crime (which hasn't actually been carried out) in which he envisages a glorious homosocial utopia entirely free from the meddling influence of Lady Eve, where a man would be able to stay out at his club as late as he likes and then get up at noon the next day to find the coffee ready and waiting courtesy of his loving valet. Heard by a rapt all-male jury, this chauvinist fantasy is greeted with cheers and handshakes all round and Ford is promptly acquitted, despite having pleaded guilty (!), on grounds of "justifiable homicide". The lad then returns home to his lavish pad triumphant, only to find the Italian sex bomb he married accidentally and erroneously confessed to having bumped off waiting for him in bed with open arms, into which he duly dives. So perhaps women do have something to offer after all.

In the interests of appearing not entirely humourless, I'd venture to suggest that it's best to treat all this as a satire of hypocritical misogyny rather than an exercise in it, but the overriding unpleasantness of the theme does rather irredeemably foul the air. Whatever Axelrod's intention, there are still titanic levels of period sexism on show (apparently it's definitely fine to slip "goofballs" into a girl's Martini).


This historical curiosity does have its moments, however, and Lemmon and Thomas do make for an endearing couple, it has to be said. Lemmon's syndicated comic strip hero Bash Brannigan (above) is a neat device and provides for a nicely surreal opening. There's sound support too from Eddie Mayehoff and Claire Trevor as case study couple Harold and Edna Lampson and from Virna Lisi as the wedge between this Manhattan Jeeves and Wooster. Part Debbie Harry, part Michelle Pfeiffer, Lisi is simply electric whenever she's on screen and dances the hell out of an elderly judge under the influence. Also worthy of note is composer Neal Hefti whose light, jazzy score sets the tone well. Hefti is best known for his memorable title theme to the contemporaneous Batman TV series (1966-68) but he also scored The Odd Couple (1968) for Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Director Richard Quine does a decent enough job but the bitterness of Axelrod, who also wrote Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and adapted Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's for Blake Edwards in 1961, sours the whole venture. One suspects that, rather like Stanley Ford, the writer was using his fiction as a creative outlet from his own domestic frustrations.

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