Hollywood was selling an image of domestic bliss in the forties and fifties. In this soft-lit world of virtue and goodness, the husband was often a figure of stolid manliness, an affable fellow who went to work at the same time every morning, came home at the same time every night and was always on hand to dispense wise advice to youngsters or give the wife a little good-natured ribbing about her cooking. That was the image of the American husband that Hollywood invented and sold to the world.
Even most crime films did little to challenge this perfect picture. If the detectives and cops in these movies had families, those families tended toward the ideal. Noir films, however, weren’t the average crime films. They focused on the sinister side of human nature, often putting the criminal at the center of the film. And it is these movies that give us some of darkest portraits of domestic terror from the classic era.
The Husband As Scumbag
Sometimes a man goes wrong. Other times a man is just a natural born asshole. Either way, you don’t want to find yourself betrothed to any of the heels who make up this category of bad noir husband. These guys aren’t violent. They aren’t insane. They’re just really terrible at being human beings.
The King Heel of them all is surely Monte Beragon in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 Mildred Pierce. Played with sleazy relish by Zachary Scott, Monte marries hardworking Mildred for her money, bleeds her dry and then puts the moves on her teenage daughter. The movie starts out with somebody pumping Monte full of lead, and while by the end you have to admit the bastard had it coming somehow he still emerges as the most charismatic person in the movie. Scott was so good in this role it basically sidelined the remainder of his career and condemned him to a lifetime of playing slimy charmers.
Not far behind Monte in the sleaze department is the serial philanderer Larry Ballentine in 1947’s They Won’t Believe Me. This guy beds women about as often as most men change their socks, all the while keeping a rich wife dangling on the line. Like Monte Beragon, Larry ends up paying a heavy price for his indiscretions but not before he’s ruined a few lives. This vastly underrated film—surprisingly up front about the sexual nature of its storyline—is all the more interesting because Larry Ballentine is played by none other than Robert Young, the future star of Father Knows Best. The same quality that served Young well as the perfect sitcom dad, namely his total self-assurance in his own moral compass, here makes him wholly convincing as a man lacking all moral compunction.
Perhaps the best classic film noir about adultery is Andre De Toth’s 1948 Pitfall starring Dick Powell as John Forbes, a self described “average American” who is bored with his wife and kid and house in the suburbs. When he meets sexy Lizabeth Scott, he sees a last chance for some extra-martial adventure. Unfortunately, Scott is being stalked by a whack job private eye played by Raymond Burr who decides to either ruin Powell or kill him in order to get the girl. This film takes Powell’s iconic smugness and has it implode on him. This is a hard to find movie, but it’s one of the great unsung masterpieces of film noir.
The Husband As Psycho
Whereas the scumbag husband will sleep with your sister and steal all your money, he pales in comparison to the psycho. This guy is full-tilt batshit crazy. If you marry him, bring a gun to bed.
Interestingly, most of noir’s great leading men took a turn at playing the nutjob husband role. No less a star than Humphrey Bogart gave it a couple of go rounds. In 1945’s Conflict, he plays Richard Mason, a man who sets out to kill his unsuspecting wife, Alexis Smith. If the film is a little goofy in its plot machinations—the big twist at the end is so logically absurd it renders the whole thing slightly ridiculous—Bogart is great as the flinty-eyed husband. He’s equally good in the equally uneven 1947 thriller The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Here he plays a painter out to kill his wife, Barbara Stanwyck. The pairing of Bogart and Stanwyck sounds enticing but the film meanders rather than thrills. Still, when he gets that twitchy I’m-gonna-kill-her look, Bogart shows he could pull off crazy with the best of them.
Likewise, the über-cool Robert Mitchum is clearly having a grand time as the wife-murdering preacher in Charles Laughton’s 1955 The Night Of The Hunter. With LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, Mitchum would seem like a bad marriage prospect. But good old Shelly Winters (an actress preternaturally gifted at playing needy women) is the widow of a bank robber with two kids to care for. What she doesn’t know is that Mitchum is a sex-hating psycho who is just after some money her husband stole. He marries her and then goes after her kids. The film is a kind of dark fairy tale with Mitchum as the Evil Stepfather.
Noir had no greater leading man than Robert Ryan (he was recently dubbed by the Film Noir Foundation as the King of Noir), so it’s only fitting that he delivered one of the scariest psycho husband performances on record. In Max Ophüls great 1949 Caught, he plays a sadistic Howard Hughes-type millionaire who marries poor girl Barbara Bel Geddes, gets her pregnant, and then proceeds to turn her new life into a gilded prison. It’s hard to think of a darker film from the Hollywood Dream machine, with Ryan fearless in the role of the ultimate nightmare husband.
Other Men Not To Marry:
- Lawrence Tierney in Born To Kill: Has problems with impulse control. Wants to sleep with your sister.
- Steve Cochran in The Chase: Head case of the I’ll-Kill-You-If-You-Ever-Leave-Me variety.
- Charles Korvin in The Killer That Stalked New York: Will make a criminal out of you. Will also sleep with your sister.
- Van Heflin in The Prowler: Will murder your husband, then marry you to get at some money. Will leave you pregnant in a shack in the desert.
- Orson Welles in The Stranger: Ex-Nazi and Hitler’s BFF. Will kill your dog. Will try to kill you in a church.
- John Payne in The Boss: Will marry you when he’s drunk one night and spend the next twenty years telling you you’re ugly. A real charmer.
- Dana Andrews in Fallen Angel: Marrying you for the money. Wants to sleep with the girl who works the counter at the diner.
- Kirk Douglas in Detective Story: Rage-aholic. Has issues with the whole “You mean you’re not a virgin?” thing.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor