Monday, August 14, 2023

Mistrust, Distress and Murder: Common Elements of the Adultery Film

Today, let us take a brief look at nine lesser known adultery films.

In Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), a tavern keeper's wife (Googie Withers) poisons her husband (Garry Marsh) with strychnine so that she can inherit his money and marry her rascally boyfriend (John Carol).  The plot gets more complicated when the wife attempts to incriminate a young man (Gordon Jackson) for the murder. 

Shock (1946) also involves a murder.  Margaret Cross (Ruth Nelson) catches her husband, Richard (Vincent Price), in a hotel room with his sultry lover, Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari).  Richard, a highly regarded psychiatrist, panics when Margaret threatens to ruin his reputation.  In anger, he strikes her over the head with a candlestick, inadvertently killing her.

Strange Intruder (1956) has a bizarre plot.  An army doctor, Dr. Adrian Carmichael (Donald Murphy), learns while incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp that his wife is divorcing him to marry another man.  He becomes angry and unstable.  He punches the camp commander, who punishes him by tying him to a tree and savagely whipping him.  As the ravaged man lies dying, he asks his friend Paul Quentin (Edmund Purdom) to murder his children so that they won't be raised by the man who stole his wife.  Odder than the request is his friend's willingness to comply.  Helen Fowler, the author of the source novel, does offer an explanation.  Paul feels unquestioning love and devotion toward Adrian.  From the novel: 
Paul had marveled that a woman could reject the strength and the beauty, the wit and the grace of Adrian, and give herself to a man so much less important, so crude and cheap as this Howard seemed to be.
Also, Paul has been so traumatized by his war experiences that his sense of morality has become muddled.    

Rugantino (1973) is loosely based on a 1805 melodrama by the British writer Matthew Lewis.  The story is set in Rome in 1800.  It is a grim comedy.  Rugantino (Adriano Celentano) is a silly young man who becomes captivated by a married woman, Rosetta (Claudia Mori).  Rosetta's jealous husband, Gnecco (Guglielmo Spoletini), is unhappy to learn to that Rugantino has been following around his wife.  He grabs Rugantino by the hand and breaks a finger.  

Gnecco flees after murdering a pharmacist who he caught flirting with Rosetta.  Rosetta is happy to be free of Gnecco and embarks on an affair with Rugantino.  Gnecco is fatally stabbed by a friend of the pharmacist.  Rugantino is accused of the murder and beheaded by guillotine.

So, the four of the nine films involve a murder.  This was a common theme of the adultery film.  Rugantino also relies on a second adultery film theme: the man-child.  The foolish Rugantino is very much childlike.  Both themes are extensively addressed in my new often-mentioned book, Unfaithful: The History of the Adultery Film

Three Into Two Won't Go (1969) addresses two adultery film tropes: the midlife crisis and the interloper.  Steve Howard (Rod Steiger), a middle-aged sales executive, becomes captivated by a teenage hitchhiker, Ella Patterson (Judy Geeson).  The couple stops at a hotel for sex.  Weeks later, Ella turns up at the Howards' home pregnant and tells Steve that he is the father.  Steve, who has been unable to have a child with his wife Frances (Claire Bloom), is surprisingly excited by Ella's pregnancy.  But it turns out that Ella isn't pregnant.  Did she lie or did she lose the baby?  This point is never made clear.  Frances tells Steve that she never loved him and leaves him.  Ella despises Steve for his blustery and controlling nature and rejects him when he turns to her for comfort.

Steve is not an entirely unsympathetic character.  He loves his wife, but she is cold and gloomy.  He has worked hard to make her happy, but she has remained distant from him.  Frances' parting speech to her husband is cruel.  Meanwhile, a question remains if Ella was motivated by treacherous desires and deliberately destroyed the Howards' marriage.  

The dark and ugly elements of the film are absent from the novel.  The film shows Ella to be capable of devious behavior, which puts her motives in question at the end of the film.  But, in the novel, Ella is not devious at all.  She is confused, needy, and distressed.  Steve and Frances end their marriage amicably.  Steve packs his bags and leaves.  Frances and Ella, who have developed a close friendship, agree to live together.  

ABC Television rejected the film due to its dreary ending.  The producer had new scenes shot to give the film a happy ending.  This infuriated Steiger and the film's director, Peter Hall.  

Should we move on to a lighter film?

A Lesson in Love (1954) is a Swedish comedy directed by Ingmar Bergman.  The characters that we meet in the film have difficulty being faithful to their spouses.  David Ememan (Gunnar Björnstrand), a gynecologist, is having an affair with his pretty young patient Susanne Verin (Yvonne Lombard) while his wife Marianne (Eva Dahlbeck) is having an affair with an old boyfriend, Carl-Adam (Åke Grönberg).  A womanizing gynecologist is, for sure, a farcical figure.  

David and Marianne reminisce about their marriage during a train ride.  Before they reach their destination, they find reason to reconcile.  But, in the final scene, Marianne is still doubting David's fidelity.

This was a minor work by Bergman.   The film was made three years before the filmmaker achieved worldwide fame with The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957).

Strictly Unconventional (1930) was adapted from W. Somerset Maugham play called "The Circle."  The play was previously adapted into a silent film, The Circle (1925).  Significant plot changes occurred along the way.  Elizabeth Champion-Cheney (Catherine Dale Owen) is unhappy with her stuffy and neglectful husband, Arnold (Tyrell Davis).  Arnold is a prominent member of London society.  He is the son of a lord and a member of parliament.  But Elizabeth has lost interest in the status and material possessions that Arnold has given her.  She wants love and intimacy.  She plans to run off with her husband's friend, Ted (Paul Cavanagh), who owns a plantation in Malaya.  

The filmmakers make it clear that she is making the right choice.

The Husband

The Lover

Still, Elizabeth develops doubts.  She knows that Arnold's mother, Lady Catherine (Alison Skipworth), abandoned her husband and young son to run off with a lover thirty years earlier.  She sees that the once romantic couple has gotten fat and grim.  

Will she and Ted end up like this?  But, though the old couple is no longer young and glamorous, it becomes apparent to her that they are still very much in love.  This convinces her to run off with Ted as planned.  In the end, marriage loses out in this pre-Code film.  

The lovers happily leave for Malaya.

Harrison Reports found this story of unfaithful wives to be "unpleasant."  The reviewer reported, ". . . [T]he characters presented are endowed with weak natures, so weak that they do not arouse very much sympathy at any time."  

Skipworth provides the melodrama with comic relief.  Lady Catherine hasn't been around the Champion-Cheney home for years.  It is shocking for everyone to see how poorly she has aged.

The Circle had an identical scene.

The earlier film was different in other more significant ways.  It ended with Arnold punching Teddy and forcing Elizabeth to return home with him.  At that point, Elizabeth could see that Arnold had passion beneath his dull exterior and was happy to resume their marriage.  

Reuben, Reuben (1983) introduces us to Gowan McGland (Tom Conti), a drunk and lazy poet who is in the habit of seducing the bored wives of his well-to-do patrons.  

McGland embarks on his latest affair with Lucille Haxby (E. Katherine Kerr), the wife of a prominent dentist.  

The dentist, Dr. Jack Haxby (Joel Fabiani), learns of the affair and is determined to exact revenge.  

Haxby lures McGland to his office with the promise of free dental care.  Once he has McGland in his chair, he gleefully applies his extracting forceps to tear out a perfectly healthy tooth.

The Lost Zeppelin (1929) was an effort to dramatize the 1928 crash of an Italian zeppelin, Italia, but a love triangle was added to the adventure story to widen the film's appeal.  Donald Hall (Conway Tearle) is the commander of a zeppelin named The Explorer.  Hall is preparing for a dangerous flight to the South Pole when his wife, Miriam (Virginia Valli), approaches him for a divorce.  She has fallen in love with Hall's dashing young co-pilot, Lieutenant Tom Armstrong (Ricardo Cortez), and is desperate to marry him as soon as possible.  The Explorer reaches the South Pole, but it becomes caught in a storm and crash lands.  Every member of the crew dies except for Hall and Armstrong.  Search parties are dispersed to rescue possible survivors.  A biplane pilot locates Hall and Armstrong, but he only has room in his craft for one passenger.  Hall, who cares only for Miriam's happiness, insists that Armstrong take the seat on the plane.  Miriam is distraught to learn that Hall was left alone to die.  She now realizes that she still loves her husband and made a mistake asking him for a divorce.  Hall is unexpectedly found alive.  Miriam is overjoyed by the news and looks forward to their reunion. 

Should a husband be willing to sacrifice his life so that his wife can live happily ever after with her lover?   Should a husband trust having the suave and roguish Cortez around his wife?  The Lost Zeppelin, a low-budget early talkie, is insufferably clunky and stiff.  It is not a film upon which these questions can be sufficiently pondered.  Hall's questionable nobility is shared by the jilted husbands of better films, including Other Men's Women (1931) and A House Divided (1931).  And Cortez played a homewrecking cad in better films, including Illicit (1931), Transgression (1931) and A Lost Lady (1934).  These films are discussed at length in Unfaithful.

Ricardo Cortez works his sultry charm on Mary Astor in Behind Office Doors (1931)


Thursday, August 10, 2023

The 39 Steps (1935): 7 Minutes of Aching Extramarital Lust

The 39 Steps gives us a glimpse of adulterous longing.  

Richard Hannay (Robert Donay) has been wrongly blamed for murdering a young woman and must find the real murderer before the police catch up to him.  While fleeing across the countryside, he stops at a farm cottage for a meal and a rest.  The farmer has an unkindly disposition and is wary of strangers, but he is willing to accept the man as a guest for a fee.  

Hannay chats with the farmer's wife, Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft), while she prepares dinner. 

Hannay notices a newspaper with a headline about the police manhunt.  Margaret sees his reaction to the headline.  The two exchange urgent glances.  Margaret has sympathy for her desperate guest and is determined to help him the best that she can.  The farmer can see that something is going on between his wife and the stranger.  This makes him bitterly jealous and causes him to keep a close watch on them.  

He spies on the couple through a kitchen window.

He is so agitated that he is unable to sleep.

Margaret hears a police car coming up the road in the middle of the night.  She awakens Hannay to warn him and help him to escape.

In a 1962 interview, director Alfred Hitchcock admitted to François Truffaut that the shy and quiet Margaret has sexual interest in the handsome and gentlemanly stranger.  We see an undeniable longing and desolation in her expression after Hannay kisses her goodbye.  

The scenes at the cottage are undoubtedly elevated by Ashcroft's sensitive performance.  It is a brief segment of the film, but it leaves a strong impression.  

Peggy Ashcroft is seen by many Shakespeare aficionados as the greatest Juliet of the 20th century.