How to Murder Your Wife. Yes, it is a comedy.
Living in an epic townhouse in New York City, Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is a well to-do cartoonist without a care in the world. He tries to enact his own strip, Bash Brannigan, a James Bond-like secret agent, while living the ultimate bachelor's life. At his side is his butler and friend, Charles (Terry-Thomas), who helps him at every step. It's a perfect, unmarried, bachelor life...or at least it was. At a friend's bachelor party gone awry, Stanley drinks far too much and in an absolute state of feeling no pain, marries the dancer/stripper, (Virna Lisi). He of course doesn't remember any of this until the next morning when a hungover Stanley wakes up next to his new bride. His bachelor life is about to be thrown for a loop, especially when his wife absolutely refuses to get a divorce. Okay, so what now? Well, Stanley may only have one option left.
Well, this was an interesting one for both good and bad reasons. From director Richard Quine, it is a polished, funny, stylish comedy with an obviously pretty dark story basis. I think the biggest thing going for 'Murder' is that it is different. It tries to be different, and that's more than you can say for a lot of 1960s screwball comedies. Now that attempt at being unique does provide some uneven moments and some plot holes, but the end result is worth it. Quine films in New York City for some cool backdrop shots with Stanley's man cave of all man caves -- his posh NYC townhouse -- providing the main set. The camera zips in and around the maze-like rooms and floors, giving 'Murder' a unique visual look. This is no one camera set-up. The comedy is there, but that's not all. It's the rare comedy that's fun to actually just look at and watch.
Quine's dark comedy sets the tone early with a great opening sequence that keeps you guessing as to what exactly is going on. Thomas' Charles -- ever the English gentleman -- wakes up Stanley and they whisk off to another "crazy caper." What follows is Stanley enacting all the future adventures of Bash Brannigan with hired actors filling out all the parts from the damsel in distress to the dastardly villains, Stanley playing Bash with Charles taking pictures so Stanley can use them later for inspiration to draw the strips. It's a great opening sequence, one that is equal parts fun and mysterious while also showing off the close friendship Stanley and Charles have. Things are off and running from there with a story that covers a lot of ground, some sequences working better than others but always seemingly getting back on track.
With each passing movie, Jack Lemmon climbs higher and higher on my favorite actors list. Comedy, drama, he does it all. With parts that could easily be overdone, he finds ways to keep it funny without trying too hard. His Stanley (and his quasi-Bash alter-ego) finds himself in quite the predicament but because it's Lemmon you never completely turn on him. He has some great laughs with Thomas' Charles and his chemistry with the very beautiful Virna Lisi is spot-on too, especially as his unnamed wife -- only Mrs. Rogers -- reveals she only speaks Italian. Now that's a morning wake-up call! Also look for Eddie Mayehoff as Stanley's lawyer who's shrill wife, Edna (Claire Trevor), has quite the impact on the new to marriage Mrs. Ford in the manipulation department. Sidney Blackmer and Max Showalter also have key supporting parts.
If there is a weakness in the 1965 dark comedy, it's in the last 30 minutes (a 118-minute total running time). When Stanley finally brings up the idea that maybe murder is his best option, I thought things were heading in the right direction. There are some laughs as his plan is put into play, but we're never quite sure what he's up to. Does he really intend to kill Mrs. Rogers? Is it a plan for something else? It all plays out in a goofy, over the top courtroom sequence that feels forced and too gimmicky. Basically, all the things you'd expect out of lesser screwball comedies.
Still, as a whole, it's definitely worth a watch, especially for Jack Lemmon, Virna Lisi and Terry-Thomas.
How to Murder Your Wife (1965): ***/****