First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then, at least in the lurid world of film noir, comes the inevitable murder attempt (check out Husbands from Hell for a few examples). Classic noir usually held the institution of marriage at arm’s length. Cops and detectives—almost all of whom were men—rarely went home to see the wife and kids. When they did, the wives either smiled guilelessly and cheerfully whipped up dinner, or they fretted about on-the-job danger. This picture of martial bliss could be so sugary it made your teeth hurt.
When noir turned its full attention to the home front, however—when marriage was the subject of the film rather than a backdrop for a couple of scenes—things took a decidedly nasty twist. The home front, it turned out, was a battlefield of disappointment and recrimination. The sunny suburbs of America were breeding grounds of resentment and infidelity. And, sometimes, violence.
The most famous bad wife in classic noir was, of course, Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity. Playing Mrs. Dietrichson, star Barbara Stanwyck practically invented archetype of the evil wife. Mrs. Dietrichson is the sexy young wife of a rich older man. When insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) comes to her door she seduces him into helping her kill her husband. Wilder adapted the script, from James M. Cain’s novel, with the help of Raymond Chandler. The two men hated each other, but they gave real fire to the character of Mrs. Dietrichson. “We’re both rotten,” she tells Neff. He nods and says, “Only you’re a little more rotten.” Poor bastard doesn’t know the half of it.
Stanwyck continued to torment her onscreen husbands: Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Robert Preston in The Lady Gambles, and Paul Douglas in Clash By Night. In 1957’s Crime Of Passion she played a reporter who settles down with cop Sterling Hayden and then begins a desperate affair with his boss Raymond Burr. It takes one hell of a woman to bring down those two mountains of masculinity, but, well, Stanwyck was one hell of a woman.
She was hardly alone, though. Due respect should also be paid to Audrey Totter’s chilling turn in director John Berry’s underrated 1949 Tension. Totter plays Mrs. Claire Quimby, the bored housewife of a milquetoast soda jerk played by Richard Basehardt. She’ll eventually drive her husband to the brink of murder, but Totter never plays Mrs. Quimby as an evil caricature. Rather, she is a woman with a large sexual appetite and a hunger for the easy life. Even as the plot progresses and Mrs. Quimby becomes more of a monster, she never completely loses our sympathy. She may be no damn good, but when she tells her husband what a schmuck he’s become (“It was different in San Diego—you were kind of cute in your uniform. You were full of laughs then. Well, you’re all laughed out now.”) it’s difficult to miss the disillusionment that’s driving her. Femmes fatales are always most effective when their evil derives from a real emotional place, in Mrs. Quimby’s case her violent reaction to the postwar suburban utopia. She prefers the speed and movement of the war years over her husband’s enthusiastic promise of a house with a garbage disposal. Hell, who can blame her?
Joining Mrs. Dietrichson and Mrs. Quimby on the bus heading for Tehachapi is the notorious Mrs. Jane Palmer. Maybe on the ride to the women’s prison, she can tell her story: how she and her husband, Alan, were driving home from a party one night when a bag full of money was tossed into their backseat from a passing car. The next day, they discovered that the money was the payoff from a botched extortion drop. Alan wanted to turn it over to the cops. Jane, alas, did not. That pretty much meant the end for Alan.
Mrs. Palmer is played with a precise combination of sympatric sadness and coldblooded conviction by the exquisite Lizabeth Scott in Byron Haskin’s brilliant 1949 Too Late For Tears. Scott makes Jane Palmer both a touching figure—a woman drowning in the banality of what is supposed to her happy life—and a truly scary creation. We follow her as moment by moment she inches closer to the conclusion that she’d rather have the money than her boring husband.
With all respect to the lethal ladies above, the Queen of the Wicked Wives was undoubtedly the great Marie Windsor. She tormented befuddled husbands in Force of Evil, City That Never Sleeps, and Hell’s Half Acre. Her evil triumph, though, came in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) as Mrs. Sherry Peatty. There’s never been a relationship in film noir quite as acidic and downright nasty as the one between Sherry and her pitiful husband George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.). Played with sadistic glee Windsor, Sherry is a nightmare vision of the domesticated woman. Lazy and contemptuous, she spends her days lounging in bed and spitting mouthfuls of poison at her doltish husband like a viper with a blonde dye job. On the side, she cheats on him with a handsome young thug, and when she learns that her beleaguered spouse might be in on something big, she tells the thug about it. Lives are ruined and people die because George Peatty had the bad luck to marry the meanest woman in the world.
The irony of Windsor’s title as world’s worst wife? Read Eddie Muller’s invaluable book Dark City Dames, which profiles several noir goddesses including Windsor and Totter, and you’ll discover that Marie Windsor was happily married to the same man for nearly fifty years. Muller’s moving account of the ailing Windsor gently caring for her dying husband Jack Hupp as they both neared the end of their lives is an ironic tribute to a great, and greatly undervalued, actress.
Other Wicked Wives of Note:
- Faith Domergue in Where Danger Lives
- Jean Simmons in Angel Face
- Gloria Grahame in Human Desire
- Arlene Dahl in Wicked As They Come
- Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven
- Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai
- Googie Withers in Night and the City
- Peggie Castle in 99 River Street
- Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice
- Joanne Dru in 711 Ocean Drive