Matty: “I’m a married woman.”
Ned: “Meaning what?”
Matty: “Meaning I’m not looking for company.”
Ned: “Then you should have said I’m a happily married woman.”
[Kathleen Turner to William Hurt “Body Heat” (1981)]
Infidelity! A subject that is a popular one in every form of art. Whether it was just thought to have occurred in William Shakespeare’s “Othello” or actually did occur in Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, cheating is as popular as apple pie (Although I’m a pecan pie fan, myself!). For theater, films, television, even opera, this subject never grows old. Hopefully, at least, it won’t grow old right now because that is what this month’s post will discuss. However, before I begin I want to make one qualifier: I am not going to discuss infidelity in opera! I’d rather see Maria Carey acting in “Glitter” first (Well, maybe I might not actually go that far!).
As a subject, Infidelity is not so serious that it can never be portrayed as a comedy. Perhaps the greatest director of sophisticated film comedies concerning infidelity was director Ernest Lubitsch. His urbane comedy style was unique and special consisting of witty dialogue and a cultured laissez-faire attitude among his film characters while incorporating a European flair. Some examples are the comedies “Design for Living” (1933) with Miriam Hopkins not being able to decide between two suitors (Gary Cooper and Fredric March) so the three of them decide to cohabitate where cheating soon ensues, “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” (1938) with seven times married businessman Gary Cooper marrying Claudette Colbert who immediately keeps him distant to ensure that he will remain interested in her even if she has to fake adultery, and “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) with the lead “ham” actor (Jack Benny) of a Polish theater trope trying to arrange his company’s escape from Poland after the Nazis invade while dealing with his wife’s (Carol Lombard) constant infatuations with a young Polish airman (Robert Stack). These films along with additional classic romantic comedies like “Trouble in Paradise” (1932) and “Ninotchka” (1939) made Lubitsch films as unique and as special as watching an Alfred Hitchcock film. Sadly, Lubitsch, who suffered from poor health, died in 1947 at the age of 55. Upon leaving Lubitsch’s funeral, famed director Billy Wilder, who helped write the screenplays for “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” and “Ninotchka” said to famed director William Wyler “No more Lubitsch.” Wyler immediately responded “Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.” Infidelity or not, Lubitsch was one of a kind!
Two other fine comedy films that include different aspects of infidelity are “The Captain’s Paradise” (1953) and “Who Was That Lady” (1960). “Paradise” starred Alec Guinness as Captain Henry St. James who, as the film begins, is being escorted by a platoon of soldiers to a fort to be executed. As the shots of his firing squad ring out the movie flashes back to how his predicament started. What unfolds is that St. James, who is the owner and captain of a small passenger ship that ferries individuals to and from Gibraltar and the North African port of Kalique, is a bigamist with his domesticated English wife Maud (Celia Johnson) and their two children in Gibraltar, and with his hot-blooded, passionate, and nightlife loving wife Nita (Yvonne De Carlo) in Kalique. As time goes by (I know you are about to say, “Here he goes again…”) complications ensue!
“Paradise’s” screenplay by Alec Coppel (who also would later write the screenplay for “Vertigo”) was nominated for an Oscar and it is a delight. Both Johnson and De Carlo give some of the best performances of their career. However, once again, the movie is anchored by the wonderful comic performance of Guinness. As a character actor, Guinness was well known for having the great ability to completely disappear into various different roles and make them his own. When he previously starred in the dark film comedy, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949), he even played nine different characters (both male and female) consisting of an entire aristocratic family who were each being eliminated one by one by a scoundrel who wanted to obtain a dukedom. In “Paradise” he had it easier because he only had to play two different roles: (1) a quiet, sober, early to bed family man with Maud, and (2) a wild, loud, nightlife loving bon vivant with the exuberant Nita. The film was a hit but it caused such controversy because of the way that it celebrated bigamy and infidelity that it was originally refused approval by the U.S. Production Code for distribution until additional scenes and dialogue were added to meet the Neanderthal U.S. censors approval. Even with these changes, when it was released in the states it was still a hit. If you ever get a chance to see it, whether it is edited or not, definitely see it. You won’t be disappointed!
“Who Was That Lady” was a slapstick sex farce about infidelity which starred Tony Curtis as David, a straight-laced Columbia University Assistant Chemistry Professor who, when caught by his wife, Ann (Janet Leigh, Curtis’s actual real wife at the time) being kissed by one of his female students, she runs off to start divorce proceedings. Distraught, he seeks help from his close friend, Michael (Dean Martin), a TV mystery writer to help him win his wife back. Michael’s great idea: David is actually an F.B.I. secret agent and the girl that he kissed was a Russian spy. Surprisingly, the ruse actually works, so much so, that Ann even actively encourages David to continue his secret agent work with his fellow agent Michael. This allows womanizing Michael to actively involve David in his never ending sexual antics by having them later pick up the two blond wannabe actress Coogle sisters. Since the sisters are played by sex bomb actresses’ Barbara Nichols and Jo Lansing, they probably should have been more aptly named the “OGLE” Sisters. Needless to say, by then, you have the F.B.I., the CIA, and actual Russian KGB agents getting involved in this mess with David’s deceptions sinking faster than the Titanic attached to the Great Pyramid of Giza as an anchor.
Whatever your opinion may be of Tony Curtis and Dean Martin as serious dramatic actors, one thing you cannot deny is that both could do light comedy roles very well. This was their only movie together and they are hysterical. They play off of each other effortlessly and it’s truly a wonder why no one ever thought of teaming them up together in another comedy ever again. They are equally matched by Janet Leigh who jumps full comic throttle into the overall silliness of the film along with able assistance provided by James Whitmore expertly underplaying as an ulcer induced FBI agent along with Larry (“F Troop”) Storch as a frantic KGB agent. If you are going to make a light weight sex farce about infidelity, the one thing that you have to be sure of is that it will really be funny. In “Lady”, the laughs keep rolling on one after the other from the beginning till the very end.
On a more serious note, infidelity in films was something that, too often, was a subject where the cheating individuals involved had to face punishment or retribution for their actions. It was also a prime subject that was perfect for representation or misrepresentation in numerous and varied film noirs. The stereotypical sultry femme fatale luring a married man into trysts as well as criminality or the handsome cad using and then discarding a married woman after she served his cruel intentions was always popular among the general public even if, too often, it was simplistic or fanciful. Also, all too often it involved murder as a means to an end. However, better dramatizations involving infidelity had protagonists both morally/ethically flawed with right and wrong not so clearly defined. This type of noir infidelity fell into a subset of noir entitled “roman noir”. Writer James M. Cain wrote two fine examples of this theme which were made into the top notch films “Double Indemnity” (1944) and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946).
Three other fine “roman noir” films involving infidelity were “Deception” (1946) with Bette Davis driven to murder when her ex-lover, Claude Rains (who completely steals the entire picture), threatens to tell her husband, thought originally dead, of their past affair; or “The Fallen Idol” (1948) with the young son (Bobby Henrey) of a French diplomat at the London Embassy mistakenly trying to protect his idol, his father’s butler Baines (Ralph Richardson), when he mistakenly thinks Baines killed his shrewish wife after she discovered his affair with a younger woman (Michele Morgan); and lastly, “Pitfall” (1948) with married insurance adjuster Dick Powell unwittingly drawn into an affair with unlucky Lizabeth Scott and with both individuals soon menaced by a creepy detective (Raymond Burr at his sleaziest) who wants Scott at any cost. With regards to “Pitfall”, this might be the most honest film about adultery that I have ever seen with career best performances by both Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell and a special tip of the hat to Director Andre de Toth and the great (and uncredited) writer William Bowers who wrote the terrific screenplay. Fun fact: Bower’s screenplay violated the Hays (censorship) Code because the adulterer was not sufficiently punished (you know, like having him boiled in oil). De Toth personally met with two senior Hays Code jerks that he selected with care and revealed to them that he knew that they were both married and both had mistresses. After that, amazingly, the problems with the Hays Code bunch mysteriously disappeared! Hmmm!
Moving right along, some directors can do noteworthy films depicting infidelity. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are any good. As a case in point, let’s look at Director Adrian Lyne. Lyne falls, once again, into the directing category of “style over substance” in that he hides his lack of depth in all of his films with a gaudy visual style accompanied by an eardrum splitting pop/rock music score hoping that the viewing public will, like a little baby reaching for a bright shiny object, not notice that his films are pure trite crap. Some of his output consists of garbage like “Flashdance” (1983) which probably should have been called Trashdance, and “9 1/2 Weeks” (1986) with sexual and sadomasochistic scenes so boring that doing one’s income taxes would be more titillating.
However, least I forget, regarding infidelity, Lyne did three other real winners. The first, and his most critically successful film, was “Fatal Attraction” (1987) with married lawyer Michael Douglas who, after illicitly canoodling with editor Glenn Close, discovers: (1) she’s Bat S*#t Crazy, (2) she doesn’t want to quit canoodling with Mikey, (3) she’s pregnant too, (4) she really doesn’t like bunnies, and (5) SHE’S BAT S*#T CRAZY MIKEY! When this movie first came out, a number of critics labeled it, “Psycho for Yuppies!” which is a direct insult to all self respecting psychopaths everywhere. His next artistic effort was “Indecent Proposal” (1993) where the only two reasons for wasting your time watching this fantasy about a Gazillionaire willing to give a husband one million bucks to sleep with hubby’s wife for one night was: (1) To see who gave the worst performance, Robert Redford or Demi Moore, and (2) Whether Woody Harrelson’s toupee would fall off. Lyne’s last infidelity classic was “Unfaithful” (2002) where in this one, in a switch, you now had wife Diane Lane as the cheater and husband Richard Gere as the cheatee. Supposedly, an early draft of this film’s screenplay was for the couple to have marital problems due to a dysfunctional sexual relationship as a justification for the wife having an affair. It’s too bad they didn’t use this storyline instead. By having Richard (Gerbil) Gere around, anyone would have had a dysfunctional sexual relationship by always having to worry about someone who was attracted to both men, women, and small animals. Anyway, other than Lyne using infidelity as an excuse to inject some cheap soft core pornography into all of his films, these are movies to just flat out avoid.
However, Woody Allen, a far better director, did a couple of really excellent serious movies about infidelity. Those two movies were “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), and “Match Point” (2005). “Crimes” consists of two storylines: (1) a humorous one, starring Allen as a documentary film maker in a failing marriage who has to make a documentary celebrating his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a successful but obnoxious TV producer whom Allen despises, and (2) a serious one, starring Martin Landau as Judah, a married ophthalmologist in an affair with a flight attendant (Anjelina Huston) who threatens exposing the affair to his wife along with some of Landau’s shady financial dealings once she realizes that he will not leave his wife. Although the movie was a critical, not a financial success, it is an excellent picture that captures a difficult balancing act of two different types of storylines, comedy and hard drama both involving infidelity. Both characters, Allen and Landau, self-rationalize their actions regarding infidelity in different ways. With Landau, he utilizes his gangster brother (Jerry Orbach) to help him get rid of his problem and is ultimately happy and finally at ease with what he has done. With Allen, even though he never actually succeeds at infidelity, he ultimately finds himself left depressed, alone, and burdened with thoughts of his “crimes and misdemeanors”. Neither one can ever see who they really are. One is a criminal and the other is a failure with a false belief in his own superiority.
“Match Point” stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris, a retired tennis pro working as an instructor at a high-end club in London who becomes friendly with Tom (Matthew Goode), a rich pupil, and whose sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) starts to date Chris upon meeting him. Their dating becomes serious and he is slowly accepted into their family where marriage and his future career are being considered. The only problem, Chris is seriously attracted to Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Tom’s struggling actress fiancee who is also attracted to Chris. After Chris marries Chloe and Tom breaks up with Nola, they connect again and begin an affair. Unfortunately, like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” when Nola gets pregnant she wants Chris to leave Chloe or she’ll reveal their affair destroying his marriage and a chance for a better life. Also, just like in “Crimes” Chris decides to take murderous action to solve his problem. However, Chris is a far different character than Judah in “Crimes”, and “Match Point” is a far different picture too.
Besides one being in America and the other in England, “Match Point” is a dead serious drama about infidelity with no comic overtones at all. Meyers’ Chris is a social climber originally from a poor background who tries to fit in with the rich and cultured world of Tom and Chloe even affecting an interest in opera and Strindberg. However, his murderous self-rationalizations are closer to author Patricia Highsmith’s classic sociopathic character of Tom Ripley in that: (1) he’s a brooding loner, (2) shows little guilt about his actions, and (3) while realizing what he is doing is wrong, he still considers his own interests superior to those around him, even if he has to kill innocents to achieve it. It’s a Damning portrait of a shallow and immoral opportunist aided by sheer luck rather than his own cleverness and Meyers (an underrated actor), is excellent in the role. This was Woody Allen’s favorite film, and it was a critical and box office success too. In “Match Point,” never has infidelity gone wrong been so murderously portrayed.
Another movie with the theme of infidelity leading to murder, and one that I definitely want to discuss is the terrific neo-noir film “Body Heat” (1981) starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Hurt plays Ned Racine, a two-bit cheap, libido-enthused, sleazy Florida lawyer who is not only lacking in scruples but also lacking in competency. One night at an outdoor concert he meets Matty Walker (Turner) and is immediately sexually attracted to her but quickly rebuffed (“You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”) when he tries his pickup lines on her. Turns out that she’s the wife of a rich, and possibly crooked businessman constantly out of town which allows her to prowl around at night whether to go to an outdoor concert or hang out at a local cocktail lounge near her home. Thinking with his loins rather than his brain, Ned shows up a few nights later at the lounge and after more weak bantering he manages to follow her home where they begin a torrid sexual affair. Deep into the affair Matty then tells Ned that actually she wants to divorce her husband but unfortunately, she signed a prenuptial agreement that would give her next to nothing and she wishes he was dead. At that point, Ned suggests they go to the nearest church to confess their sins and… (If you believe that, I’ve got some Lysol throat lozenges to sell you!)
First time director Lawrence Kasdan wrote the wonderful hard-boiled screenplay which packs a sardonic punch. His direction was also greatly influenced by the movie, “Double Indemnity” and to which “Body Heat” was a direct homage (He even tried to hire famed composer, Miklos Rozsa, who did the original score for “Indemnity”, to do “Body Heat” but Rozsa turned him down). However, “Body Heat” is much, much better than a blatant ripoff of “Double Indemnity”. Although both Ned and Matty are actively plotting murder and Ned appears to be the leader, you never lose sight of the fact that Matty is way smarter than Ned and is subtly manipulating him. This was Kathleen Turner’s first film role, and it’s a star-making breakout of a performance. She radiates a dangerous, erotic sexuality and her sex scenes with William Hurt could melt the Polar Ice Cap (and folks, this was before climate change.) Kasdan’s direction is exceptional too in presenting a portrait of two amoral individuals during a hot and sweaty heat wave where murderous intentions can easily be put into motion. However, for all of the praise that I am heaping on this film, maybe the thing I should mention most is the terrific performance of William Hurt as Ned.
There are a handful of great male actors like Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, James Stewart, Robert De Niro, etc. who can convey great inner complexity and emotional turmoil without saying a word. It’s a real skill that only the very best can do convincingly. William Hurt is also one of them and at the time of his acting in this film he just might have been the finest actor of his generation. As the film moves along you see him, without saying a word, slowly, bit by bit, realize that his perfect murder plan is falling apart along with his slow recognition that, bit by bit, his partner in crime, Matty, might be setting him up for his own downfall. Whether it’s his jumpy flinch when he hears a jail door slam shut (It tolls for thee?) or the shocked look on his face when he sees the driver in a car near him dressed up as a professional clown in makeup (Maybe Ned’s one too, just without the makeup!), he’s so constantly surprising that you can’t take your eyes off of him. By the end of the film, the resignation on Hurt’s face when he finally discovers, after looking through an old high school yearbook, who Matty Walker really was is more powerful than anything he could have ever actually have said.
The last example of infidelity that I want to highlight is a classic and acclaimed episode of the successful and long running Network TV show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-62). Each of the show’s 267 episodes were only 25 minutes long and only 17 of them were actually directed by Hitchcock although he always appeared at the beginning and end of every episode to provide a bit of gallows humor to the proceedings. The Emmy nominated episode about infidelity that he directed is “Lamb to the Slaughter” (Season 3, Episode 28, April 13, 1958) starring Barbara Bel Geddes and based on a short story by famed writer Roald Dahl.
Spoiler Alert: I am going to tell the whole storyline now so if you have never seen this episode and do not want me to spoil it for you, stop here right now (I won’t be hurt but if any of you feel like you have hurt my feelings, well I always accept cash… Oh, that’s right, I already tried that in last month’s Post!)
Pregnant and happily married housewife Mary (Geddes) is waiting for her police husband to arrive home before making dinner. Unfortunately for her, he arrives home and acts cold, distant, and after a few drinks announces that he is leaving her for someone else and turns his back to her to look in the phone book for a place to stay for the night. Unfortunately for him, Mary, in shock, takes a large frozen leg of lamb that she just took out of the freezer to cook and bashes him on the back of the head with it, killing him instantly. Still partially in shock but now thinking more clearly she puts the leg of lamb in the oven to slowly cook, goes out to buy some groceries with a noticeable smile on her face, and when she returns drops the groceries on the floor, upsets some of the home furnishings, and with tears in her eyes, calls the police to report that she just came home and found her husband murdered. The police arrive and immediately analyze the crime scene. They secretly know that her husband was a known philanderer and that the disheveled furnishings in the home were staged to make it look like an intruder broke in and killed him with a heavy blunt instrument but they cannot find a murder weapon on the premises. Then, one of the detectives notices the leg of lamb in the oven and Mary offers to serve it to the detectives since it’s past dinner time and she was just going to throw it out anyway. As the detectives sit around the dinner table consuming the meal, Hitchcock films Bel Geddes sitting alone in a chair against a wall showing no emotion with the camera slowly moving closer to her face as you hear one of the detectives exclaim, “Basically, I think it’s (the murder weapon) here on the premises. Well, for all we know it might be under our very noses.” At that moment, Bel Geddes starts to smile and giggle! The end!
Two years later for Hitchcock’s “Psycho” he would film a similar ending with Anthony Perkins sitting alone against a wall and with a little smile say,
“Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…”
So dear readers, if any of you now, or in the future, want to cheat on someone and dinner is about to be prepared, just make sure that the choice is “PASTA!”