Murder is a dreadful thing. In real life, that is. But in a movie, a murder can save us from something dreadful.
For example, in the movie Kalifornia (1993), a couple, played by David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes, decide go to California, but they are a little short on funds, so they advertise for a couple to ride with them and share the expenses. Answering the ad is a low-class couple, played by Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis. The trip becomes a most unpleasant experience, and Forbes especially can’t wait for it to end. But then Lewis tells her that she and Duchovny are their best friends, threatening to be a part of their lives forever.
Fortunately, the movie provides a way out from this dreadful situation. Brad Pitt turns out to be a serial killer, resulting in a succession of purgative murders, the last of which is Lewis herself, before Duchovny finally kills him. Now Duchovny and Forbes will never have to socialize with Pitt and Lewis again.
In Play Misty for Me (1971), Clint Eastwood play a disc jockey that thinks he is going to have an uncomplicated fling with a fan played by Jessica Walter. She says she understands that he already has someone else and does not want to complicate his life, but that is no reason they can’t sleep together if they feel like it. But sex does strange things to people, and the next thing you know, Walter is madly in love with Eastwood. Worse, she assumes that he feels the same way about her, completely forgetting about the assurances she gave him on the first night. When he protests that he never told her that he loved her, she responds that there are ways of saying things that don’t involve words. When he tries to break off with her, she becomes suicidal. It looks as though he will never be free of her.
Fortunately for Eastwood, Walter becomes a knife-wielding psycho, who kills a police detective and threatens to kill Eastwood’s actual girlfriend. In the nick of time, Eastwood shows up at his girlfriend’s house where he is attacked by Walter. In self-defense, he punches her, knocking her through a glass door, over a balcony railing, and down a cliff to her death. Now he is finally free of her.
Think how unbearable these two movies would have been without murder to save the day!
In Suspicion, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1941, Lina (Joan Fontaine), a woman on the verge of being an old maid, falls in love with Johnnie (Cary Grant) and marries him without knowing anything about him. That she did not know he was a congenital liar, a compulsive gambler, and a thief until after she married him might be understandable, although there were rumors that he cheated at cards and was the corespondent in a divorce case; but that she did not even know that he had no job nor any intention of getting one is ludicrous. Soon she begins to suspect that he murdered his friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce) to get his money and that he will try to murder her for the same reason, especially when he brings her a glass of milk right after an author of detective novels has told him of a poison that is in every home and is undetectable. In the last reel, we have one of those unbelievable character changes for which Hollywood movies are notorious, in which Johnnie realizes how bad he has been and is prepared to go to prison for his financial misdeeds, after having given up on the idea of committing suicide. And when Lina realizes that Johnnie is not a murderer, the way is open to them to live happily ever after.
This might have been three different movies besides the one actually produced. In what could have been a great movie, Johnnie does murder Beaky, and he does give Lina a glass of milk with poison in it. She suspects as much, but she drinks it anyway because, if it does have poison in it, then that means Johnnie does not love her, so she does not want to live anymore. But before she does, she gives Johnnie a letter to mail for her, in which she includes incriminating evidence that Johnnie is a murderer. After Lina dies from the poison, Johnnie smugly drops the letter in a mailbox and walks away whistling, not realizing that he has sealed his doom. There is some debate as to whether this is the ending Hitchcock wanted, but that the studio imposed a happy ending instead, or Hitchcock intended all along to make the movie be about a neurotic woman’s overwrought imagination. It doesn’t matter who wanted what. This would have been a much better movie, because there would have been actual murders instead of just the possibility of murder.
The second movie that might have been would have had the same ending as the novel on which it is based, Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In this version, similar to the previous one, Lina knows the milk is poisoned, but she drinks it anyway because she does not want to live, once she realizes that Johnnie would want to kill her, making her an accomplice before the fact to her own murder. But there is no incriminating letter. She loves Johnnie so much that she hopes he will get away with it, and even imagines that he will miss her when she’s gone.
I can’t help but think that the novel is an expression of misogyny arising out of resentment. It is not uncommon for a plain, ordinary man to find himself longing for the love a woman who has given herself completely to some jerk that is unworthy of her affection. It exasperates him that he would be so nice to her, but she would rather be mistreated by this other guy just because he is charming, good-looking, and tall. In reading this novel, this forlorn fellow will have no doubt that if Lina is in danger of being an old maid, it is only because it would never even occur to her to accept the love of someone like him. In fact, in the movie that was actually produced, there is just such a character. At a ball that Lina attends, only because she expects to see Johnnie there, a homely, bald-headed man named Reggie, who is just barely an inch taller than Lina, reminds her of the dance she promised him, presumably having filled in his name on her dance card just a short time ago. She apologizes for having forgotten, saying, “Why, of course. Poor Reggie.” As she dances with him, she is clearly distracted, looking around the room, wondering where Johnnie is. When Johnnie does arrive, just as the dance has ended, Lina sees him and rushes away from Reggie without saying a word, leaving him standing there with a bewildered look on his face. As Lina comes up to Johnnie, who has just crashed the party, he takes her in his arms and starts dancing with her. As they swirl away to a Viennese waltz, a rejected Reggie sees the glow on Lina’s face and the excitement in her eyes, something he certainly never saw when she was dancing with him. In short, Lina would rather be murdered by the man she loves than be loved by someone like Reggie that she can’t be bothered with. In reading this novel, a man of that sort may get an imaginary revenge against that girl he loved when he was young, but who never knew (or cared) that he existed.
The third movie that might have been would have been one in which there is neither a murder nor suspicion of murder (requiring a different title, of course). It is a movie that would have been unendurable. There would have been no relief from the fact that Johnnie has married Lina for her money and is annoyed to find out it does not amount to as much as he thought it would, especially when her father dies and does not leave her anything more than her usual allowance. We would have been left with Lina’s being married to a compulsive liar, who hocks her beloved chairs so he can bet on the horses; who believes he was not meant to have to work for a living, and when forced to take a job managing an estate, soon gets caught embezzling funds; and who cons Beaky into investing in a real estate venture that we know will only result in losing money as Johnnie squanders the investment on loose living. And there would have been no relief from the fact that Lina will continue to put up with this because she loves Johnnie.
In other words, we need at least the possibility of murder to be introduced halfway into the movie as a way of making us forget about what a horrible marriage this is. That Johnnie is a despicable human being even if he is not a murderer goes without saying. But there is something irritating about Lina as well, what with all her mewing about love as she puts up with Johnnie’s abuse. Finally, Beaky’s attitude toward Johnnie, that we must all forgive everything that Johnnie does, because, well, that’s just the way Johnnie is, is also annoying. They all deserve to die.
Therefore, we have four versions of this movie, one actual, three possible. The one in which there are two murders, the one that should have been made, would have been a great movie; the one in which there is only one murder, as in the novel, might have provided for the venting of some misogynistic spleen; the one in which there is only the suspicion of murder, the movie that was actually produced, is only fair; but the one in which there is not even the possibility of murder, just a miserable marriage, would have been dreadful.