How To Murder Your Wife Review

Mr Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is a rich, unmarried playboy who with his faithful valet, Charles (Terry-Thomas), runs all sorts of exciting crime capers across town – purely in the service of obtaining photo-references for his successful syndicated newspaper comic strip, Bash Brannigan. Mr Ford is a confirmed bachelor, a condition that both Stanley and Charles are keen to preserve, both having reached a comfortable equilibrium devoid of feminine influence. However, after one particularly drunken night out with the boys celebrating one of his friends’ broken engagement, he wakes up to find himself married to the attractive young lady (Virna Lisi) who popped out of a cake, barely clothed.

While many of his friends are happy that Stanley has been finally nailed and is now part of the married men club, subject to the demands and orders of their wives, the situation is not to the satisfaction of Stanley, who has seen his orderly life turned upside-down, nor to Charles who won’t countenance a woman taking over duties he has faithfully carried out over the years. However, since it transpires that the new Mrs Ford can’t speak a word of English, getting her to understand that the marriage has been a big mistake proves impossible. Faced with the loss of his freedom and the loss of his faithful manservant, Stanley feels he has only one option – inspired by the activities of his Bash Brannigan character, he plots an elaborate scheme to get rid of his wife ...and dispose of the body.

How To Murder Your Wife is a brilliantly funny film – it has long been one of my favourite Jack Lemmon films and I personally think that Terry-Thomas has never been as good or as perfectly cast as he is in this film as Mr Ford’s haughty and uptight misogynistic English manservant, with the glinting hint of the rogue about him in his dedication to the cause of bachelorhood. The film is wonderfully scripted by George Axelrod (The Manchurian Candidate, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and tightly structured with lots of symmetrical plot devices and repetitions of themes that combine to enhance the comic exaggeration. Recounting Stanley’s marital misadventures in the ‘Brannigans’ comic strips, for example, not only underlines Stanley’s humiliation, rendering his downfall even more pathetic in comic form, it parades him as the laughing stock of the whole of America. The comic-strip effect is also well used in the onomatopoeic descriptions that illustrate the comical exaggeration – the ‘gloppida-gloppida’ machine on the work-site next door and the ‘brrrrrppt – blaaaaap’ effect of the drugged drink Stanley administers to his wife.

The casting of Virna Lisi is also an inspired move, allowing the film that touch of foreign Italian exoticism that would have been so attractive on 1960’s film screen (and her beauty is no less alluring today, it has to be said). As a supreme exaggerated example of the Italian female, she embodies everything that virtually any male is powerless to resist – physical attractiveness and maternal cosseting – presenting Stanley with the dilemma of being affectionately loved and cared for by an exotically beautiful woman, yet being fed and cosseted into brain-numbing submission and capitulation into the bland domesticity and conformity of the unthinking, feeble-minded boob that is the married man – whose ultimate condition is brilliantly incarnated in the form of Stanley’s lawyer, friend and fellow hen-pecked husband Harold, played with comic brilliance by Eddie Mayehoff. This transformation is superbly illustrated in the film through a series of incidents that fade into camera blurs, each one opening up again on Stanley’s growing girth or the increasingly feminised décor of his formerly functional and meticulously organised bachelor-pad.

The film plays up all these male/female stereotypes to their ultimate exaggeration, resulting in the wonderfully funny battle of the sexes being taken to the courts, where the poor down-trodden male is forced to face-up to the reality of his circumstances. Yet for all the grandstanding and chest-thumping expressions of masculine independence and the diatribes against the degenerative effects of the female conspiracy of institutionalised conformism known as marriage, the film never causes offence, never stoops to loutish or malicious behaviour, and never goes for the cheap laugh at generalised stereotypical male or female characteristics at the expense of the integrity and believability of its individual characters. Some more politically-correct viewers might not however get the joke.

How To Murder Your Wife is released as part of MGM’s back catalogue, which means it’s disappointingly slapped onto a barebones DVD with no thought or attention whatsoever. Like the Region 1 release, the UK release encoded for regions 2 and 4, is non-anamorphic. Being mass-produced for wider European release however, it has gone through the usual process of a dumbed-down, all-purpose and rather ugly menu consisting solely of obscure icons rather than words.

The picture quality is awful – the film retains its 1.66:1 aspect ratio, a ratio that MGM inexplicably feel needs no widescreen enhancement. Blocky compression artefacts are visible and large dustspots and marks intrude on the image now and again. There is an overall softness and not a great deal of shadow detail. Although the film looks bold and colourful, the colour schemes are completely shot – overly red, over saturated with skin tones looking smeary and ochre-orange coloured as the colour-timing fluctuates wildly from scene to scene. The audio is just about adequate, doesn’t have any problems with background noise or hiss and dialogue is reasonably clear, but it is fairly flat and lacking in dynamics. There are no extra features.

How To Murder Your Wife is a fantastic and very funny film, very much in the style of the best Doris Day movies from this period with Rock Hudson and James Garner – a clever and appropriately silly plot, an intelligent and incisively witty script, full of colour and glamour with a terrific ensemble performance that doesn’t just rely on the comic greatness of Jack Lemmon, who is in fact virtually upstaged throughout the film by the supporting cast. Unfortunately it’s been treated to a very poor DVD release, with a transfer that is far less than this great film deserves.

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