An Analysis – Wives in Jeopardy

Gaslight (1944):

Gaslight is easily the best of the three films discussed in this article. Young singer Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) returns to London with her new husband (Charles Boyer) to live in the house where her aunt was murdered. Her husband, Gregory Anton, dotes on her and becomes more and more concerned at her erratic behavior as time goes on. She becomes more and more forgetful, loses things, moves things around the house without remembering, and hears sounds in parts of the house that are closed off. To protect her, and their reputation, her husband isolates her from the outside world, allowing no one to visit and forcing Paula to stay safely inside the house. As time goes on, her increasing madness wears on him and he lashes out in anger at her actions. Paula’s descent into madness is hard to watch, and Bergman’s performance is excellent.

Of course Paula is not really crazy and her husband is not so very loving. He has married her for the same reason that he originally killed her aunt: he wants her aunt’s hidden jewels. His interest in the jewels appears to be motivated less by their monetary value and more by his fascination with the stones as an object of desire. He wants them because of their intrinsic, not monetary, value. A Scotland Yard Inspector, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), who knew her aunt, takes an interest in Paula after seeing her in front of her house. He becomes, of course, infatuated with Paula, and wants to know why she is not allowed to enter society. The police have long given up trying to solve her aunt’s murder or find the jewels, and he is told to leave the case alone when he inquires about Paula’s situation. His investigations lead him to discover what is happening, and he informs Paula that she is not really crazy and demonstrates how her husband was driving her mad. Before Anton can abscond with the jewels, he is arrested and Paula is left to rebuild her life. (With the implied help of Inspector Cameron, of course!)

Dial M for Murder (1954):

Of the three movies, Dial M for Murder is the most complicated and pushes the boundaries of the Wife in Jeopardy genre the most. Unlike the other two movies, husband Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) plots his wife’s murder with the audience’s knowledge. Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly) had an affair in the past, and he is afraid that she may stray from him permanently, taking her money with her. He blackmails an acquaintance from his university days to murder her, but she kills the intruder instead. Wendice then arranges the situation to look like Margot knew her attacker and murdered him because he was blackmailing her. She is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.

This movie is interesting because the wife is not the main character. Most of the action concerns Wendice and how his plans are foiled by Margot’s lover Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) and Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams, who, coincidentally, played the main policeman in Midnight Lace). Margot is not portrayed as sympathetically as the other wives because she has had an affair, and a letter from that affair is one of the major plot points. At one time in the past, Wendice stole that letter and sent his wife anonymous blackmail letters to see if she would come to him with the whole story. It is this act that parallels the crazy-maker in the story. Not only does it cause her a certain amount of mental anguish, it causes everyone to believe that she is lying about what happened when she was attacked, because her husband made it look as if the would-be-murderer was the one blackmailing her about the letter. The purpose of the crazy-maker is to make others doubt the heroine and this letter does that, in spades. Chief Inspector Hubbard does not believe that Margot is innocent, but Wendice’s hinky behavior after she gets convicted makes him accept that there may be something else going on. With Halliday’s help, he proves that Wendice is the guilty one and Margot gets set free, presumably to start things anew with Halliday.

The women in these three movies all have something, money or property, that their husbands will do anything to get. Even though this gives the wives some sort of power over the husbands, the women do not act in their own stories so much as react to the actions of the men around them. Regardless of how a modern viewer might feel about the wives needing to be saved by their new beaus, these movies are still a lot of fun to watch. While all of them are similar in their obedience to the genre’s conventions, they are very different films and worth searching out.

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Adelaide enjoys watching all kinds of movies, but is never going to see Titanic unless there is a sizable amount of money involved.

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