Sometimes when you see a movie from the 1960s with all of those glamorous costumes, elaborate sets, and live animals, you think, wow, they would never make this today! Then there are times when you see a movie from the 1960s with those glamorous costumes and those scenes where a man drugs two women for a bit and convinces a jury that murder should be legal if your wife is really annoying, and you think thank God they would never make this today! Related: check out this authentic movie poster for How To Murder Your Wife, complete with the insinuation that you poison women via the vagina? Or try strangling! There are five great options, starring Jack Lemmon; in Technicolor!
In 1965 the best way to lure a woman to a movie theater was with threats! A second tagline for this movie was, “Bring the little woman. Maybe she’ll die laughing!” This makes perfect sense as a marketing strategy for this movie because its thesis is that women aren’t afraid enough of men.
Society would be better if only women were more afraid of men. Who would write that? A maniac on the inside of a used pizza box in Times Square? No, How To Murder Your Wife is the first feature film from the screenwriter who adapted Breakfast At Tiffany’s and The Manchurian Candidate into movies. Unpleasant fact: both of those movies featured white men playing Asians in ways that had even the ancient people of the ’60s saying, “Hold on, whoa, wait a second.”
How to Murder Your Wife is categorized as a dark comedy, but it’s way darker today than in 1965. If there was a This Has Aged Poorly Olympics, How To Murder Your Wife would steal all of the medals and smelt them into a golden statue of a man slapping a woman on the ass while winking.
It’s also, and I’m used to using this term as only the highest compliment, extremely gay. The main character, Stanley Ford, is a bachelor who lives with, as the movie constantly refers to him, “his man.” Every day his man greets him after work with a martini in a chilled glass. His man cooks for him, cleans for him, and otherwise does all of the things a bachelor would normally need a wife for. How can Stanley Ford afford a man? He’s in the bustling media business, which will surely never collapse.
Stanley draws spy cartoons, but he always acts them out first, which is why the first woman we see in this movie is being removed from a shipping container. She’s a storage device for a belly button diamond that contains spy microfilm. “Women: Better than Tupperware Because You Can French Them” was another proposed tagline for this film.
Stanley Ford’s bachelorhood is interrupted when he impulsively marries the stripper from his friend’s stag party. Her name is, hahaha, she doesn’t get a name. What is this 1996? Stanley never asks. Not at first, and then never for the entire movie. Everyone addresses her as Mrs. Ford and that’s how she’s credited.
Cake Woman has the most insane backstory in movie history. She’s an Italian Miss Universe contestant whose clothes were stolen, and she was somehow forced to find a job wearing only a bathing suit and speaking no English. So stripper was the only job she could get? It feels like the studio bristled at the idea of an actual stripper involved in the plot of this movie, so they made her a silly Italian virgin who accidentally found herself covered in whipped cream and dancing as if Mr. Bean slipped on a banana peel into an erotic photoshoot.
Stanley is immediately trapped in this marriage. His lawyer says his wife hasn’t given him grounds for divorce, and they already consummated the marriage, so his evil nemesis/beloved bride has Stanley right where she wants him. Because he’s so invested in acting out all of his comics, Stanley has his spy main character get married too.
I really wanted to know how people reacted to this movie when it was released. I got that it was supposed to be a dark comedy but I couldn’t tell if it was criticizing the feminist movement in the U.S. or men’s reaction to the movement? It’s hard to tell who the butt of the joke is in this movie, but maybe it was more apparent in 1965? I’ve googled How To Kill Your Wife so many times this week that if I were to disappear in a mysterious accident, my husband would be in big trouble.
I found a review from the New York Times, and it didn’t help. It was mostly obsessed with how hot the actress who plays Cake Woman (Virna Lisi) is. They end by saying, “wait until the women see this picture-especially those who are not yet wed and those (alas, their name is legion) who haven’t got what Miss Lisi has!” Which essentially translates to, “hoo boy ugly women will hate this movie, and there are a lot of ugly women out there.” I think that provides the needed context for how things were going for women when this movie came out.
Stanley’s life is turned upside down by his new wife, and so is his comic, which has changed from Bash Brannigan Spy to The Brannigans, a cute domestic story where Stanley is a bumbling idiot. He’s miserable, but there’s nothing he can do about it aside from something insane like, talk to his wife, maybe ask her name? MADNESS. The only thing a man should know about his wife is her blood type in case he ever needs a kidney.
Eventually he decides to regain some control over his life by murdering his wife in the comic. Since he always acts out his comics to make sure they are plausible, he has to plan the perfect murder. There’s this big deal about what a good murder he’s come up with and it turns out he’s just going to drug her and toss her in a cement machine at a construction site. This is the vanilla ice cream of murder plots and he’s so proud of himself.
He even walks by a store with a mannequin that looks like his wife, runs inside, and buys it. It’s not a mannequin store. He walked into a normal clothing store and was like, “I’ll give you any amount of money for the mannequin in the window. It looks just like my hot, hot wife.” That’s how committed to this fake murder he is. He’s willing to make some poor store clerk the first person to look up mannequin fetish in the dictionary.
Then he drugs his wife with a fun party drug called “goofballs” that doctors in 1965 gave to any middle-aged white men who looked trustworthy. You know, the exact description of all serial killers. He also drugs his wife’s shrill friend as a joke. He thought it would be funny, and he had the extra drugs, so why not! They both do silly dances on top of a piano and then pass out.
Stanley carries his wife out of the party, then switches her for the mannequin and crawls out the window of their townhouse to throw the dummy into a cement mixer while his man films the whole thing for non-mannequin fetish purposes (supposedly). Stanley stays up all night drawing the murder into the cartoon and then falls asleep next to it. Unknown to Stanley, his wife wakes up, sees the cartoon, and leaves him. He later tells his lawyer she must have gotten angry about “some little thing,” AKA the fact that he murdered her in effigy.
Unfortunately, publicly debuting a murder plot for your hot wife right before she mysteriously disappears is not a great look. Some crazy people get it into their heads that Stanley murdered his wife, and they’re weirdly uncool about it. Stanley can’t prove his wife isn’t dead because he doesn’t seem to know a single piece of identifying information about her, including where she’s from beyond the nation of Italy. He can’t do much to find her beyond look in any big cakes he might run across, so he gets put on trial for her murder.
Now I’d like you to think of the darkest possible ending for this movie. It might be that Stanley gets the electric chair for murdering his wife because he couldn’t ask her one simple question about herself. It might be a reveal that Stanley has a rare STD called junky penis that makes his penis absolutely terrible. It’s still there, but it’s bad, and everyone knows it just by looking at him. Or, it might be that Stanley admits to murdering his wife but talks the all-male jury into letting him off anyway, as a lesson to scare their wives into behaving lest they also be murdered, because that’s what actually happens.
The men lift Stanley on their shoulders and carry him out of the courtroom in triumph, while the women, in one of the saddest scenes in cinema history, quietly stare into space and contemplate their mortality. The answer to how do we control these crazy women was right there all along. All we had to do was threaten to murder them! The world’s most effective negotiation strategy.
Stanley returns home to his happy bachelor life, only to find that his wife is back! His man points out that he can now legally murder her without being tried for the crime again because of double jeopardy laws. He also happens to have a gun on him, so he loads it up and hands it over, fully expecting Stanley to shoot this woman, but for some reason, Stanley doesn’t murder his wife!
That’s…a happy ending? I mean, he can still legally murder her at any time. That card is in his back pocket, but, yeah, it’s a happy ending, I guess. And they all lived…well, they all lived!
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