How to Murder Your Wife
George Axelrod’s 1952 smash hit play The Seven Year Itch ran for three years on Broadway and became a successful film yet (despite working closely with legendary writer-producer-director Billy Wilder on the screenplay) the limitations imposed by motion picture censors frustrated him greatly—making a sex comedy without the sex presented a tremendous challenge. Axelrod was even less enamored of Hollywood versions of his next two plays (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Goodbye Charlie); meanwhile, he won acclaim for two film scripts adapted from novels (Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Manchurian Candidate) that would come to be regarded as classics. The writer’s subsequent project teamed him with director Richard Quine: “He was sweet and highly talented,” Axelrod told interviewer Patrick McGilligan, “but totally insane, which made him exactly my kind of person. He and I produced a totally insane picture called Paris When It Sizzles.” Quine then directed Sex and the Single Girl (FSMCD Vol. 10, No. 13) before reuniting with Axelrod to co-produce How to Murder Your Wife (1965).
With the censors’ tight grip on film content loosening somewhat, Axelrod pushed the envelope with respect to salacious content and sheer outrageousness. How to Murder Your Wife tells the tale of Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon), a successful cartoonist living a playboy lifestyle in his magnificent Manhattan brownstone. Ford—whose womanizing extends to sleeping with his best friend’s fiancée shortly before her wedding—is pampered by a very British (and unapologetically misogynistic) gentleman’s gentleman, Charles (Terry-Thomas, in a typically delicious performance). When Stanley drinks too much at his friend’s bachelor party, he awakens the next morning to discover that he has married an Italian bombshell (Virna Lisi, in her American screen debut) who speaks no English whatsoever. This turn of events greatly distresses Charles and spoils Stanley’s carefree bachelor existence, compelling him to transform his comic-strip alter ego, Bash Brannigan, from a globetrotting secret agent into a kindred spirit of Dagwood Bumstead.
As a way of grounding Bash’s spy capers in reality, Stanley has made a practice of playing out these events on the streets of New York, assisted by a contingent of actors—plus Charles, who follows along to photograph the proceedings for future visual reference. After his marriage causes him to lose sleep, gain weight and become generally miserable, Stanley hatches a plan to launch another caper and act out the “murder” of Mrs. Brannigan as a means of freeing his fictional creation, if not himself, from the constraints of matrimony. When the flesh-and-blood Mrs. Ford catches wind of the scheme, she thinks Stanley no longer loves her and disappears, leaving the police to conclude from Charles’s photographic evidence that Stanley actually killed her. At the ensuing murder trial, even Charles and Ford’s own attorney (Eddie Mayehoff) fail to believe in his innocence, so Stanley opts to defend himself by confessing to a crime he did not commit and then convincing the all-male jury that it was justifiable homicide.
The overt misogyny of this climactic courtroom scene is perhaps the film’s most subversive element, even though Mr. and Mrs. Ford subsequently reunite and profess their love for each other. The film’s marketing campaign followed suit, with its first Los Angeles Times ad proclaiming, “Watch This Space for More Information on How to Murder Your Wife” and yet another calling the film, “One Of The Most Brutal, Fiendish, Sadistic, Bloodcurdling Comedies Of Our Time!” Both were censored by the paper’s Marvin Reimer; an appeal from United Artists publicity director Maurice Segal got the bans lifted on the condition the words “brutal” and “sadistic” be removed. The New York Times displayed no such timidity and ran the ads without alteration. Lemmon and Lisi promoted the film on a publicity tour that took them to 36 cities, a vote of confidence in the film from United Artists that served the studio well when the film went on to take in $5,791,000 in rentals.
James Powers of The Hollywood Reporter called composer Neal Hefti’s contributions to How to Murder Your Wife “one of the best scores in years, notable not only for the cleverness of the themes but the orchestrations with which they are worked out. Hefti’s music puts laughter in some scenes that would be mild without.” Richard Quine had introduced Hefti to the world of film scoring on Sex and the Single Girl and the two men would collaborate on two more films (Synanon and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad) and an unsuccessful television pilot (Catch-22); Hefti would also score George Axelrod’s initial directorial effort, Lord Love a Duck.
“How to Murder Your wife they shot at Paramount,” Hefti told Paul M. Riordan in a 1997 Film Score Monthly interview, “and we recorded it with the Paramount music department. Because it was United Artists, and an independent motion picture company, they didn’t have a studio of their own.” Hefti’s Murder score overflows with melodic invention: the 10 tracks on the soundtrack album include no fewer than eight separate themes, many of which have distinct “A” and “B” sections. One common approach among film composers of the day (Henry Mancini, for example) was to score a film and then make album arrangements of the musical material, often emphasizing source cues and sometimes writing new tunes expressly for the LP. As a relative newcomer to Hollywood more familiar with writing and/or arranging entire albums for big band artists like Count Basie, Hefti seems to have taken the exact opposite approach with How to Murder Your Wife (and with his score for the 1966 western Duel at Diablo). The album tracks are fully developed compositions that appear to have been shortened or lengthened via cuts and repeats to fit scenes in the film. Hefti’s Murder score is delightful in context, but by necessity many cues are very brief or repeat material for comic effect. The soundtrack album he constructed for United Artists Records (UAS 5119) is, on the other hand, designed for a standalone listening experience while incorporating all of the major themes and set pieces of the score. (This is especially fortunate in that, as with many scores represented in this box set, only the album masters survive today.) For greater clarity, the album tracks are discussed below in (approximate) film order.
- 1. Prologue—Main Title
- The film opens with darkly dramatic “murder” music (not included on the soundtrack album) over the initial credits, followed by this “Prologue” heard during the balance of the credit sequence as manservant Charles Burbank (Terry-Thomas) treats the audience to a tour of the residence of his employer, Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon). Except for the coda, this opening track is nearly identical to the film cue, a medley of six of composer Neal Hefti’s themes for the picture, each of which is later treated to a more extended development on the album: “Bash Brannigan” (0:00–0:28 in this “Prologue”) kicks things off, followed by “Virna” (0:29–1:28), “Stag Party Blast” (1:29–1:57) and “Here’s to My Lover” (1:58–2:55), then a brief transitional passage leads into “Cartoon Capers” (3:03–3:46) and the sequence concludes with “How to Murder Your Wife” (3:47–5:23).
- 6. Bash Brannigan
- This album-only cue presents an extended version of the theme for Stanley’s fictional alter ego, secret agent Bash Brannigan, and by extension Stanley himself. The breezy melody (which anticipates Hefti’s Odd Couple theme written three years later) kicks off the “Prologue” (track 1) and is heard soon thereafter as Stanley embarks upon the first of several capers in the guise of Bash with brief statements of the theme bookending “Cartoon Capers” (track 9). As the film progresses and Stanley sinks deeper and deeper into married life, Hefti treats the theme in increasingly defeated fashion; it only regains its vitality when Stanley hits upon the idea to “murder” the fictional Mrs. Brannigan.
- 9. Cartoon Capers
- Stanley (as Bash) races through the streets of New York chasing (and being chased by) a troupe of actors in his employ while Charles follows along behind to document the proceedings by means of a camera mounted on a shotgun handle. (In the film it is not revealed until after this sequence that Stanley is a cartoonist and that these escapades are designed to add realism to his hit comic strip, Bash Brannigan—Secret Agent.) Hefti treats the madcap sequence like a circus act, capturing the silliness as well as the mock-heroic moments, culminating aboard a freighter with “Bash” retrieving “the Fabergé diamond” from a belly dancer’s navel. In the actual film cue, various segments of this album version are repeated to accommodate the action, and at one point an extended drum solo (not on the album) vamps while the actors wait for Charles to get into position with his camera.
- 4. Here’s to My Lover
- This stylish melody is heard as source music while Stanley dresses to attend a friend’s bachelor party and Charles holds forth on the drawbacks of marriage. The cue heard in the film (called “Hi-Fi #1” on the cue sheet) corresponds to the album track for the initial statement of melody, but while the album version continues with a “B” section and then a vocal reprise of the “A” section (featuring female chorus), the film cue segues to a jazz piano development of the theme and is then dialed out at a scene change. The tune returns later in the film when Charles is repeatedly interrupted by deliveries for the new Mrs. Ford—Hefti’s reprisal of the melody for this sequence brings to mind Charles’s earlier admonitions about the dangers of married life. While the album features a vocal rendition of the song, the lyrics are not heard in the film, nor is the lyricist identified on the film’s legal cue sheet or in ASCAP records—they may have been written by Hefti himself.
- 10. Requiem for a Bachelor
- Likewise, the authorship of the lyrics for this brilliantly miserable song that serves as a lament for the loss of bachelorhood is unclear (they may also have been written by Hefti). While the album presents the theme sung by a gloomy male chorus (contrasting starkly with the positive sentiments about marriage expressed in the lyrics), only instrumental variations of the composition are heard in the film. The first of these introduces the bachelor party for Tobey Rawlins (Max Showalter), a “mournful occasion” at which Stanley commiserates with Tobey’s other guests about the loss of their friend’s domestic freedom. Hefti references the melody later in the film, at times transforming it into a theme associated with Charles and his disbelief at discovering Stanley is a married man.
- 5. Stag Party Blast
- At the party, Tobey reveals that his fiancée has just jilted him, immediately transforming the event from a morose affair into a festive celebration. Rawlins plays and sings “Happy Days Are Here Again” at the piano, not sure whether he should be lamenting his lost future or celebrating his newly regained freedom, and then segues into this original Hefti composition. For the album version, Hefti added wordless female choir to his Keystone Kops-style instrumental arrangement of the theme. Like “Requiem for a Bachelor,” this melody reappears during the first part of the film to reference the circumstances resulting in Stanley’s whirlwind marriage.
- 3. Virna
- A stunningly beautiful woman (Virna Lisi, making one of the most impressive entrances in screen history) emerges from a giant cake at the bachelor party clad only in a bikini constructed out of some judiciously positioned whipped cream. She locks eyes with Stanley, who is under the influence of alcohol and in possession of Tobey’s abandoned wedding ring. Hefti’s captivating theme is informed by Lisi’s ravishing looks—and named for the actress rather than the character she plays (this was a routine practice in Hollywood at the time, but here perhaps something of a necessity, as the name of Lisi’s character is never revealed). The theme recurs throughout the film whenever Stanley is entranced by the woman’s beauty, beginning the next morning when he wakes up to find her naked in his bed with a wedding ring on her finger—she is now “Mrs. Ford” and the cartoonist’s life has been turned upside-down.
- 2. Suspicion
- Stanley pleads unsuccessfully with his attorney, Harold Lampson (Eddie Mayehoff), to arrange an annulment, but soon finds himself thoroughly ensconced in married life—as does Bash Brannigan, whose comic strip has morphed from an espionage adventure into The Brannigans, a domestic comedy. Hefti introduces an Italian-flavored theme for Mrs. Ford on concertina when she serves Stanley lunch. Later in the film Lampson’s wife, Edna (Claire Trevor), apprises Mrs. Ford about a clandestine meeting at “the club” between Stanley and representatives of the syndicate that publishes his comic strip. Mrs. Ford’s Italian theme (now played by full orchestra, as it is for this album version) accompanies her as she pays a visit to the club, much to the surprise of its all-male membership.
- 8. Scene of the Crime
- This extended jazz riff on Hefti’s “How to Murder Your Wife” melody (see track 7, discussed below) is heard as source music during a party hosted by the Fords. Stanley slips his wife a “goofball” pill, which initially causes her to engage in a wild dance (much to the delight of the male party guests) before dozing off. Stanley carries her upstairs, where she rests peacefully while he (dressed as Bash) steals away and “murders” a mannequin dressed in Mrs. Ford’s clothes. Meanwhile, back at the party, Edna Lampson unwittingly ingests a goofball and carries on with her own provocative dance. In the film, this cue is divided up into several segments and interspersed with music adapted from “Cartoon Capers” as the action switches back and forth between the party and the murder mission.
- 7. How to Murder Your Wife
- This album version of the tune from “Scene of the Crime” features lyrics not heard in the film (by Lillian Mattis, who had previously provided lyrics for Hefti’s “I Must Know” from Sex and the Single Girl). Mirroring the irony employed in “Requiem for a Bachelor” (track 10), a fun-loving female chorus here delivers a recipe for murdering one’s wife with great enthusiasm. —