In Crime of Passion, Barbara Stanwyck plays Kathy Ferguson, a San Francisco-based advice columnist. She is approached by two homicide detectives who request her help tracking down a fugitive who they think might read her column. Charlie (Royal Dano) is aggressive and outspoken. When he first meets Kathy, he tells her, “You’re work should be raising a family and having dinner ready when your husband comes home from work.” His far more passive partner is Detective Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden).
Kathy writes a column that convinces the fugitive to turn herself in. (The power of Kathy’s column is shown in an amusing montage where woman after woman is seen reading the column aloud. Significantly, no men are seen to ever read anything that Kathy has written.) The resulting fame leads to Kathy getting a job offer in New York.
However, before Kathy can leave, she gets a phone call from Bill. He asks her out on a date and, one scene later, they’re getting married in the shabby office of a justice of the peace. Kathy sacrifices her career to be a suburban housewife.
From the minute that Kathy first looks at the small and anonymous house and the boring neighborhood that she’ll be sharing with Bill, it’s obvious that things are not going to work out well. Even though Kathy even tells Bill, “I hope all your socks have holes in them and I can sit for hours darning them,” the life of domestic servitude is not for her.
Every day, she stays home while Bill goes to work. At night, she reluctantly plays hostess to the constant gatherings of Bill’s colleagues and their wives. The women stay in one room while the man gather in another. Kathy is quickly bored with the inane chattering of the other wives but whenever she tries to go into the other room, she finds herself treated like an unwanted intruder.
And worst of all is the fact that Bill has absolutely no ambition of his own. He’s got his house. He’s got his wife. He’s got his friends. And he doesn’t feel that he needs anything else.
Kathy takes it into her own hands to advance Bill’s career, first by having an affair with Bill’s boss (Raymond Burr) and finally by trying to find a spectacular crime that Bill can solve. And, as the suburbs continue to drive her mad, Kathy is not above creating a few crimes on her own…
In many ways, Crime of Passion reminds of another 50s film, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life. Both films use the conventions of melodrama to present a surprisingly subversive look at the horrors of suburban conformity. Unfortunately, Crime of Passion never quite reaches the heights of Bigger Than Life, largely because Sterling Hayden gives such a dull performance as Bill that you never believe that Kathy would have married him in the first place. (The film would have been far more impressive if Bill had started out as an apparently dynamic character whose dullness was then revealed after Kathy married him.) However, Barbara Stanwyck is well-cast as Kathy and Raymond Burr plays up his character’s ambiguous morality. If nothing else, Crime of Passion is one of those film to show anyone who is convinced that nothing subversive was produced in the 1950s.