An Analysis – Wives in Jeopardy
Lately, whenever I watch Dial M for Murder, I get a craving to watch Midnight Lace, which really makes me want to see Gaslight. What do these movies all have in common? They are a special variety of thriller, sub-genre “Women in Jeopardy,” sub-sub-genre “Wife in Jeopardy.” To get sillier with it, I could break it down even further to “Wife in Jeopardy from a Seemingly Loving Husband,” as opposed to a psycho husband (The Two Mrs. Carrolls) or alien husband (I Married a Monster From Outer Space).
Every genre has its conventions and Wife in Jeopardy has clear rules. The husbands in these movies seem like loving spouses. Their concern for their wives is palpable, so much so that it comes as quite a shock to the wife when he tries to drive her insane or kill her. Invariably, at some point in the movie, he employs what I refer to as a crazy-maker. This is some device used throughout the film to make the wife, and others around her, doubt her sanity or intentions. This can be the end goal, or it can be a step on the way to something worse. This goes hand in hand with the doubting policeman. The wife tells her story regarding the crazy-maker (missing items, mysterious voices, etc.) but the police usually have the opinion that wife is lying or unconsciously acting out some other psychological drama. The husband invariably has a monetary reason for needing his spouse out of the way. He is, of course, thwarted in his end goal, and there is often a new possible romantic partner waiting in the wings to whisk the heroine to safety before the final curtain.
The conventions of this genre create a story that is powerful enough to get repeated over and over again. An unsuspecting wife is endangered by her husband, his only real interest in her pecuniary. This story has such power because historically wives have been dependent on their husbands: financially, emotionally and physically. (Women now may be less dependent on their husband for financial security, but are still vulnerable to violence.) Each of the women in these films feels completely secure in knowing that her husband loves and protects her, and the betrayal of that is what gives even the most hackneyed Wife in Jeopardy story its drama.
As a side note, another reason these three movies feel similar is because they are all based on plays. The sets are mostly limited to a house or apartment, giving a claustrophobic aura to the films, which helps to increase the tension.
I am going to discuss important plot points, but I will try to be sensitive and not spoil everything.
Midnight Lace (1960):
Not currently released on DVD in the States, Midnight Lace is the story of newlywed Kit Preston (Doris Day). She has been married for three glorious months to businessman Anthony Preston (Rex Harrison) before she starts receiving threatening phone calls and hearing strange voices in the London fog. Of course, no one else has heard the threats on the other end of the line, and everyone, including her aunt and the police, believe that she is trying to get attention from her husband, who has been inattentive lately, not even taking her on a honeymoon. Her housekeeper’s ne’er-do-well son, a handsome but always-there-when-something-bad-happens contractor, and a mysteriously disfigured man provide possible sources of danger. This is the least of the three films, but it is a personal favorite of mine. Doris Day’s histrionics are over the top, and the tinny voice coming over the phone is sometimes silly rather than menacing, but it’s a fun movie and worth seeking out.
It adheres pretty clearly to the conventions of the genre. Kit is deeply in love with her husband, and he appears to return her devotion, albeit a little distantly. His real motivation, however, is money. He has embezzled one million pounds from his company, and marrying heiress Kit is the best way he can see of paying that money back. Of course, she needs to die before he can get his hands on that money. With the assistance of his mistress, he sets up the crazy-making phone calls and a few dangerous situations. The police do not believe Kit when she tells them about the phone calls, because the situation makes her look mentally unstable. Throughout these events, handsome contractor Brian Younger (John Gavin) appears whenever she is in danger to save the day, including the final scene. After Kit escapes certain death, she needs Younger to help her scale the girders of the new building outside her window. It is not a certainty they will get together, but he is there to provide a strong arm to lean on as she moves into her post-marriage life.