“How to Murder Your Wife” - Richard Quine (1965)

Film comedies, despite their high frequency at your local theaters, don’t appear much on listings of all-time greatest films, especially if you focus your coverage on the sound era.  Those that do appear on such listings often feature other dramatic elements in addition to comedy (such La Dolce Vita (1960) and My Fair Lady (1964)).  What about out-and-out farces?  Well, there is one film from that category that I would nominate – How to Murder Your Wife (1965).

The film, directed by Richard Quine and based on a script by George Axelrod, is very much a showcase of Hollywood production values, featuring high-quality studio camera work, editorial pacing, and Neal Hefti’s lilting background music.  Although the excellence of such Hollywood films is often more attributable to the studio than to a single auteur, How to Murder Your Wife does carry the authorial stamp of script writer George Axelrod.  Axelrod wrote a number of energized and highly successful plays and film scripts during this period, including his play, The Seven Year Itch (1952), his 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), his adaptation of Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Lord Love a Duck (1966). 

In the case of How to Murder Your Wife, we have a broad satire on a male fantasy – how wonderful life would be if only men could avoid the fetters of married life.  In this story a wealthy bachelor who is a successful newspaper cartoonist finds himself unexpectedly married after a drunken carouse at a friend’s bachelor party.  His new wife is beautiful, but his old, carefree lifestyle has suddenly vanished.  He finds himself quickly descending into the life of a henpecked frump, American style.  His problem, then, is how to extricate himself from this disastrous situation.

Because of the film’s burlesque characterization of married life, it has naturally brought mixed reactions and accusations of misogyny [1,2].  You will need to suspend your political and cultural correctness meters for a bit in order to appreciate the farcical goings-on in this story.

One of the aspects of How to Murder Your Wife that makes it particularly interesting concerns the multiple-level narrative perspectives in the story.  And this comes about due to the main character’s occupation as a cartoonist. 

We can think of a normal play or story as having two narrative levels, which I will call Narrative-level-0 and Narrative-level-1:
  • Narrative-level-0 is what we might call the “real world” of the viewer.  Of course this real-world perspective is fashioned out of the viewer’s own narratives and all the shared narratives of his or her social environment.
  • Narrative-level-1 is the main narrative perspective presented in the story.
Narrative-level-1 and Narrative-level-0 can be relatively close, in which case we would consider the story to be highly “realistic”.  Or the two levels can be quite self-consciously separated from each other in terms of “reality’, such as when the Narrative-level-1 is a cartoon.  In that latter case the viewer is clearly aware that the story presented is a fantasy.

However, in How to Murder Your Wife, there are four narrative levels.  This is because the cartoonist, Stanley Ford (played by Jack Lemmon), always carries out (and has photographed) a mock staging of the narrative he is about to draw in his daily newspaper cartoon strip.  In these mock performances, Ford always plays the role of his cartoon protagonist, the secret agent Bash Brannigan.  And Ford’s many readers are aware of this.  As Ford reminds at one point his friend and lawyer Harold Lampson,
Bash Brannigan is enjoyed by millions, because my readers know it’s absolutely authentic. I’d never ask Brash to do anything I hadn’t already done, myself.”
So we have the following four narrative levels in How to Murder Your Wife:
  • Narrative-level-0.  Again, this is the real world of the viewer.
  • Narrative-level-1.  This is the narrative level of Stanley Ford, who suddenly finds himself married.
  • Narrative-level-2.  This is the mock staging of the Bash Brannigan cartoon strip by Ford and his hired actors.  We and Ford’s readers know that Ford is only playing the role of Bash Brannigan.
  • Narrative-level-3.  This is the narrative world of the heroic secret agent Bash Brannigan.  (Newspaper comic-strip narratives, such as Little Orphan Annie, Flash Gordon, and Dick Tracy, have long been popular in the US and offer an escapist fantasy world for readers looking for distraction.)
Note that here in How to Murder Your Wife, the realism separation between Narrative-level-0 and Narrative-level-1 is considerable, becausethe presentation of Narrative-level-1, even though it represents the film’s ground truth, is still very cartoon-like.  This brings the narrative levels 1, 2, and 3 closer together.

The story of How to Murder Your Wife moves through six phases that incorporate at various points these narrative levels.

1.  Stanley Ford’s Bachelor Paradise
The story opens with Stanley Ford’s loyal British valet, Charles Firbank (Terry-Thomas) directly addressing the camera (already there is a narrative-perspective confusion between Narrative-level-0 and Narrative-level-1) and telling the viewer about Ford’s blissful life.  Ford is rich, lives in a posh Manhattan townhouse, has many girlfriends, is attended to by his diligent butler, and always can do exactly what he wants.  Firbank is then shown photographing from a distance Ford staging one of his Bash Brannigan capers (Narrative-level-2) that will be made into a cartoon.

2.  Ford Gets a Wife
Ford attends a bachelor party for one of his friends and, in an inebriated state, he becomes enamored of a beautiful girl who emerges from a large papier-mâché cake that has been wheeled out.  The next morning he wakes up to discover that he married the girl that night and has brought her back to his townhouse.  The girl (Virna Lisi), whom we can call the Wife (she is never named), is extraordinarily beautiful, but is Italian and cannot speak English.

Ford immediately wants to annul his marriage and consults his lawyer, Harold Lampson (played by Eddie Mayehoff, who was famous for the TV series, That's My Boy (1954-55)).  Lampson informs him that now that Ford has sampled the goods, he cannot get an annulment and that a divorce won’t be easy, either.  Lampson, who has a nagging wife, Edna (Claire Trevor), represents the typical browbeaten chump that Ford doesn’t want himself to become.  Since Edna knows Italian, as soon as she meets the Wife, she starts privately counseling the young girl on how to manipulate her new husband and make him her pawn. 

3.  The Brannigans
But the Wife is not manipulative; she is innocent, affectionate, and loving.  However, her womanly ways and fattening recipes can’t help turning Ford’s life upside down.  Very soon the misogynistic Firbank walks out. Acknowledging his new circumstances, Ford changes his cartoon strip to The Brannigan – the Hilarious Misadventures of America’s Favorite Henpecked Boob and begins cartoons about his new circumscribed domestic life.  This turns out to be a big hit with his newspaper readers, especially from female readers. So at this point we have Narrative-level-3 directly connected to Narrative-level-1. 

Increasingly alarmed, Ford goes to his all-male club, his one masculine refuge from his connubial life, and talks to his male friends.  But his Wife, on the advice of the scheming Edna, innocently barges into the club, bringing about Ford’s loss of club membership.

4.  The Plan
Desperate, Ford decides to alter his comic strip and have Bash Brannigan murder his wife so that he can go back to being the heroic secret agent that he used to be.  Naturally, Ford has to photograph a mock staging of this murder in preparation for the drawing of the cartoon.  So we have narrative levels 1, 2, and 3 interlaced here.

However, when his Wife discovers the planned comic strip sequence, she is so offended that she departs from Ford’s townhouse and disappears.

5.  The Murder Trial
Because some people witnessed the mock staging of the latest Bash Brannigan comic strip (Narrative level 2), and now that it has been published (Narrative level 3), and with the Wife nowhere to be found (Narrative level 3 – the cartoon strip had a drugged Mrs. Brannigan being dumped into a huge cement mixer, and so that no body could be found), Ford is quickly arrested on murder charges. 

At the ensuing trial, the circumstantial evidence against Ford is so great that a guilty verdict seems inevitable.  So Ford takes over his own defense from Lampson and falsely confesses to the all-male jury that he did indeed murder his wife.  But, he tells them, if the jury would free him on the grounds of justifiable homicide, it would send a message to all the nagging wives out there to give more scope to their husbands.  In a hilarious court scene, the jury and judge are quickly convinced by Ford’s impassioned argument and immediately declare him innocent.

6.  Coming Home
Ford comes home, with Firbank again onboard, but he misses his Wife.  He realizes that he really does love her. When he finds her waiting for him in his bed, we get the resolution that we all want, including something for his loyal valet, Firbank, too.


Throughout the course of How to Murder Your Wife, the film is invigorated by supportive production values.  There are musical leitmotifs for the main characters and also for the Bash Brannigan caper scenes that make the film almost a musical.  And the energetic performances of Jack Lemmon, Terry-Thomas, and Eddie Mayehoff push the cartoonish flavor without going too far.  Lemmon, in particular, was known for his exaggerated performances, and he enthusiastically, but dangerously, performed his own stunts on Narrative-level-2 [3]:
“Doing his own stunts, Lemmon narrowly avoided being killed when a pipe he was swinging on broke. As he plummeted toward the ground along a fire escape, Lemmon saw a pipe sticking out from the building and ‘I threw out my arm and hooked it right at the elbow. It stopped my descent and I just swung there like a pendulum.’" 
All the way along, narrative levels 1, 2, and 3 reflect a boyish self-centeredness that resists being reined in by womanhood.  This, of course, is what some political-correctness-oriented people object to.  But these kinds of things often come with the territory in black comedy and bald satire.  Around this same time there were other excellent films that satirized male presumptions along these lines, such as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and My Fair Lady (1964).

And we must remember that there is another, parallel theme that permeates Narrative-level-1 in the story besides boyish self-centeredness.  This is embodied by Stanley Ford’s Wife. She is at all times a person enthusiastically offering unconditional and all-embracing love. Of course her beauty is what originally attracted Ford.  But it was her love that gets him over his selfabsorbtion and wins him over in the end. This is something that hopefully every boy learns at some point.  How to Murder Your Wife tells this story very well.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Bosley Crowther, “' How to Murder Wife' Opens at 2 Theaters”, “The New York Times”, (27 January 1965).   
  2. Tony Mastroianni, “Lemmon Effective in Marriage Spoof”, Cleveland Press (7 February 1965).  
  3. Bill Goodman, “How to Murder Your Wife”, Turner Classic Movies, (2015).   

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