The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part 1
It’s instructive to study the work of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino in context with one another. Though at first glance, one might easily conclude that the only thing they have in common is that they were the only women who managed to direct films during the days of the classical Hollywood studio system, a deeper look into their work exposes a stronger connection between the two; an ability to decimate and undermine the values of home and hearth as they are offered in the union of marriage under the umbrella of capitalism and an expose of the hypocrisy of American gender roles as deeply sociopathic and destructive.
Dorothy Arzner’s bleak “women’s picture” Craig’s Wife (1936) a Depression era adaptation of a stage play – and I’d argue, a feminist horror film – made as a major studio project for Columbia Pictures, revolves around the sociopathy of a destructive female narcissist, while Ida Lupino’s darkly expressionist film The Hitch-Hiker (1953), is based on the true story of male serial killer independently financed, and combines elements of several genres: horror, noir, suspense, the home invasion film and the crime thriller. These films are from different decades and genres, and may seem, at first glance, to have little in common. What I find most interesting and full of critical potential is that both are dominated by sociopaths; characters who suffer from malignant narcissism who act as mirrors held up to America; and both have queer potential.
Though I must stress that they were unique as individuals and had very different directorial styles, Arzner and Lupino remain historically linked by the fact that they were the only two women in the sound era to direct films in Hollywood and the first two women to belong to the Director’s Guild. Women, who had once flourished as film directors in the silent era, had by the sound era been pushed out of the field.
Yet, both these filmmakers despised the special attention the media paid to their gender and they were equally vocal about their deep distaste for such attention, even when their uniqueness as female directors was routinely used as a selling point in the studio trades and publicity materials.
Arzner was openly gay and dressed very butch; Lupino, as far as we know, was straight but tended to act fairly “butch” (by 1950s standards) while she dressed very “femme,” no doubt to conform just enough to gender standards of the era to be able to direct and produce her own work. In the seventies, Lupino was criticized for admitting that she preferred the company of men, but what on earth would she have in common with domesticated women in the 1950s, and why should either woman be subject to such gender based criticisms? Both women expressed frustration with the attention paid to them by feminist critics who rediscovered their work in the seventies.
Lupino was frequently hostile and she had a very dour sense of humor. Unfortunately, her witty remarks are often taken at face value and some critics even portray her as specifically hostile toward women. But rather, like many artists, Lupino was hostile toward stupid men and women. I can understand their impatience with those who could not seem to get enough of their gender. I can also relate to those who are curious about the significance of gender and sexuality in the life and work of Arzner and Lupino. Their shared outsider status, allowed them a unique vantage point from which to analyze institutionalized sexism and enforced gender roles and sexuality, not to mention the hypocrisy of marriage and the rising culture of consumption.
Lupino worked independently, and had to arrange her own financing through her small company, The Filmmakers, while Arzner worked within the studio system, eventually settling down at Columbia. At first glance, their films may seem completely dissimilar. The Hitch-Hiker was shot on location in the desert, has the look and feel of a documentary style film noir, and centers on a serial killer; while Craig’s Wife has the look and feel of a studio film, is clearly based on a stage play, and centers on a female sociopath.
Because Arzner and Lupino happen to fall into the chronological order in the history if women as film directors, I often teach these films back to back; so for my students and myself, the similarities of these films and their makers rise in sharp bas-relief. It is striking, despite their differences, to notice how these films seem to be engaged with one another. One cannot help but notice that both films have a similar agenda and similar modus operandi: both films use the trope of narcissistic psychopathology to allow for an examination and subversion of things that obviously annoyed them as independent women who were resolutely nonconformist. Both women directly challenge gender roles, marriage, consumer culture and the American dream, and both connect these ideologies to the psychopathology of narcissism and a depraved culture of mass consumerism in America.
I assume many readers have at least some familiarity with the celebrated noir film, The Hitch-Hiker. Marketed as a “women’s picture,” Craig’s Wife is much less well known, so I will offer a bit more explanatory information for this film, which is remarkably still unavailable on DVD in 2014. Craig’s Wife is probably the least well-known of the available films in the Arzner oeuvre. Many critics find it inscrutable, or they cannot get past the fact that it critiques a female who herself upholds patriarchal values, even if they destroy her.
Indeed, Craig’s Wife generally receives much less attention than other, more widely available and more obviously feminist Arzner films. True, Craig’s Wife is a strange film and though it was sold as a “women’s picture,” it certainly doesn’t behave like one. Though it maintains a studio look, Craig’s Wife is an auteur film that queers the American home, especially the women who act to uphold and police patriarchy. I am amazed that it was even released, considering its subversive potential.
Craig’s Wife stars Rosalind Russell as Harriet Craig, a hyper-consumptive woman who is pathologically obsessed with her home and the “things” in it, a sadistic and manipulative narcissist incapable of love or empathy, a woman who admits to marrying her husband Walter (John Boles) not for love, but for her “independence.” Even her husband Walter is yet another “product” that is consumed and owned by Harriet; she has far more love for her mirrored mantelpiece. Her insane obsessive desire for a clean and spotless home is manifest before we even meet her character. Harriet is introduced as one would introduce the monster in a horror film; her off-screen presence is strongly felt through the commentary of the two maids who work for her (Jane Darwell as Mrs. Harold, the maid who has seen it all; and Nydia Westman as the new maid, Mazie).
We are frightened to meet her before she sets foot in the front door. Craig’s Wife feels very much like a classic horror film in which the off screen monster is often described as horrific by the help, the monster or vampire is feared well before their actual appearance in the film. But Harriet is ever present as a menacing figure even when she is absent, just as the serial killer is ever present in the chiaroscuro hell of The Hitch-Hiker even in the moments he is not onscreen. It may well be argued that it is when these horrific malignant narcissists are off-screen that they are most terrifying, because the audience knows that they are going to return and resume their abusive behavior. They are there even when they are not there.
Harriet oppresses and abuses her staff, who themselves act as a Greek chorus in the film. These very human maids stand in direct contrast with their plastic employer. They are warm with one another, they enjoy the company of men, they enjoy life, and they enjoy a good joke. Narcissists lack a sense of humor and are cut off from other people. It is easy to identify with the maids in the house. They are working class women with lower class Irish accents who tell it like it is, often using humor, but they clearly live in fear of their abusive employer, “Mrs. Craig,” who spends her time searching for anything she can criticize. She routinely badgers and verbally abuses her maids. To Harriet, they are mere objects that she owns. She regularly threatens to fire them and reminds them that they have no job security.
In the Depression era a relatively secure well-paying job as a maid was difficult to find and domestic workers put up with much abuse, as we learn from their discussions. Known for paying and feeding her maids well, Harriet uses money to control the people around her. Sadly, the promise of sisterhood is not even in the realm of possibility, though Harriet could desperately use a female friend. She does not view the maids as human beings, much less women with whom she may have things in common. Harriet, a self-isolated privileged white woman, displays behavioral characteristics associated with malignant narcissism. Such characteristics include outrageous and unrealistic expectations of other people, controlling behavior, and being endlessly cruel and critical to the people around them.
Harriet is clearly insane, and her maids recognize this well before anyone else in the film. She behaves like a heat-seeking missile searching for a speck of dust, or anything out of order in her dollhouse-like home, not so much to assure that it is a hyper clean, but more importantly as an excuse to terrorize and abuse her staff. Harriet behaves as if her home is a military theatre, and she expects her staff to adhere to her orders without question. Harriet is well known for her cruelty and controlling behavior; the people in town joke about how they would never want to be “Craig’s Wife.” The title of the film evokes this joke; both Arzner and the townspeople view Walter Craig as such an abused and castrated figure that he has become the butt of a joke.
Harriet’s privilege comes at a tremendous price, as we learn. The price for female privilege is insanity for Harriet. Harriet is a performing narcissist with grandiose fantasies of power, having long lost her tenuous grip on reality. In performing her invented self, as “Craig’s Wife,” whomever Harriet was as a child has been erased and replaced by a performance of a white, wealthy married woman who desperately tries to project confidence and authority over her dominion, the home as colonized space. The film is absolutely chilling in its observation of gender as a cage, the home as a coffin, and marriage as a colonialist prison: a complete sham in small town America. It is stunning to me that Arzner was able to make a film so critical of the marriage system and gender in America, much less a film that demonstrates the shallowness and danger of a culture of consumption and narcissism.
Few critics seem to notice that the Craig home is not all that unusual in this town. All the homes appear to contain desperate marriages, domestic abuse and cruelty between married people. It would appear that the only happy person who owns a home in town is Harriet’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Frazier (played by an incredibly sweet Billie Burke, most memorable in her role as Glinda, The Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz ). Mrs. Frazier tries very hard to reach out to Harriet and befriend her, but she is rebuffed and insulted repeatedly.
Harriet even accuses Mrs. Frazier of trying to steal her husband, a clear sign that she is overly possessive and has lost her hold on reality. In scenes such as this, the audience wonders how Walter could be so clueless about his own wife’s insanity. Mr. Craig only has eyes for Harriet, and Mrs. Frazier is also much older than the dazzling looking Harriet, and obviously is simply trying to be a good neighbor. Narcissists are often mischaracterized as self-assured, or in love with themselves, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Self absorption and the appearance of self love is a mere cover for deeply held feelings of insecurity and terrifying fears of being found out and narcissists sometimes experience a complete breakdown in the face of the removal of their mask. Narcissistic rage knows no boundaries and can be directed at others or the narcissist themselves. Clearly, Arzner was way ahead of her time in exploring the mind of the narcissist and her film is a cautionary tale for those who spend so much time staring at selfies and photos of themselves, surrounded by social media that promotes both narcissism and even more consumption of the self and selfishly consumed empty “things.”
Arzner famously insisted that the set for the Craig house be designed to look as cold and uninviting as a museum. She asked the art directors at Columbia to make the set of the house (a character in itself) appear to be very fake, like a giant overdressed dollhouse, but she was not at all happy with the results. She and William Haynes, (the uncredited production designer) a well known actor turned designer in the gay community, went to the studios after hours and changed the sets to make them more outrageous and stylize them as Greek and over the top.
In the end result Haynes, Arzner and the art directors outdid themselves by including a grand and opulent staircase, high ceilings, dramatic (theatrical) draperies, Greco-Roman pillars, mirrors and distastefully camp Greek statues. Deeply insecure, Harriet really does not have a clue how to decorate a home, and her decorating choices betray her lower classed background as much as they do her deeply held insecurities. The house is ridiculously camp, and though many sharp theorists such as Judith Mayne have noted Arzner’s camp feminist humor, many critics seem to be oblivious to the camp elements of the Craig’s Wife.
To borrow Laura Mulvey’s phrase, Harriet’s home is designed for it’s “to-be-looked-at-ness,” like the body of a woman on display, a set for Harriet Craig to give her daily performance as the lady of the house. This home is not designed for actual people to live in, and Harriet expresses a distaste for bringing children into the house. Her disgust for children is only matched by her distaste for other human visitors.
The Craig house has the funereal feeling of a mausoleum or a huge coffin, and the linear camerawork of Lucien Ballard underscores the clean lines of the Craig home with it’s abundant mirrors, Greek statues, floors that are polished to the point that they are also reflecting mirrors and furniture that no one is allowed to actually use. The house is a theatrical set as much as it is a military theatre. The only room that feels at all homey is the steamy, crowded back kitchen where the maids gather and spend time working and gossiping together, bringing a human element to the otherwise de-peopled space of the Craig home.
That Harriet is an emotionally and spiritually dead creature among the living is underscored by the frequent visits of the next door neighbor, Mrs. Frazier, who repeatedly offers Harriet oversized baskets of roses, the kind of gesture one would make for a woman in mourning at a funeral home. Mrs. Frazier means well, and in fact repeatedly tries to befriend Harriet throughout the film, but her flowers in Harriet’s hellish home conjure up images of a funeral, gesturing both to the idea of marriage as a form of death and the foreshadowing of the death of the projected image of Harriet Craig, whose mask will inevitably fall or be ripped from her face. Harriet is “dead and don’t know it,” as my Irish great-grandmother, Francis Mills would say, in her inimitable shanty style.
Mrs. Frazier’s frequent gifts of rather giant baskets of roses are met with Harriet’s scorn; roses are a painful reminder of love and Eros, Harriet reacts to the stunning and plentiful roses as a vampire reacts to garlic. Perhaps at a subconscious level Harriet realizes that she herself is already dead in a way. Thanatos and death horrify her even as she cozies up to them and pushes away Eros with every fiber of her being. Harriet instinctively instructs the maid to remove the flowers at once. They drop “filthy” petals on her pristine floor that she picks up one by one, an anal retentive gesture that is almost comical; the rose petals no doubt remind her of Eros and her repressed desires for love and sexuality.
Harriet openly despises romance and love, and she bars it from her fortress at every opportunity. All romantic overtures made by her loving husband are met with rejection. Every time Walter Craig (John Boles) tries to embrace his wife, Harriet makes sure that there is some item of clothing or some object between them. She pushes him away at every opportunity. He sits on the arm of a chair to admire and worship her with an almost school girlish adoring look, only to be scolded like a schoolboy and told not to sit on the furniture. Walter is unloved; he is being used by Harriet as a means to have a house and the appearance of a marriage. He merely provides the things that Harriet thinks define her as a woman of means.
In a strikingly poignant scene, Walter tries to woo Harriet by telling her how beautiful she is and how he could not live without her. He is almost sickeningly sweet, but he is genuine. At he same time, because of Harriet’s scorn, his cooing and excessive attentions toward Harriet as monster border on parody. Walter behaves like a very youthful and foolishly naïve romantic girl, as others have observed. It begins to dawn on us that in all likelihood their marriage hasn’t even been consummated. Harriet wants no one to touch her, or her vase, her metaphoric vagina. Only she is allowed to touch herself, or her vase. I interpret this Freudian alliance with the vase/urn as either a reference to female masturbation or self-castration. Either way we read it, the vaginal urn fetish functions as a visual reminder of Harriet’s withheld and self-denied sexuality and further supports the film’s myriad references to Harriet’s distaste for intimacy with any other human being, perhaps even herself.
Arzner artfully uses Freudian metaphors that were commonly used in film during this time to get away with discussing things that were not spoken about, such as female sexuality, in an era of close scrutiny and censorship. Arzner implies that no one has sex with Harriet except Harriet, and Harriet may well have castrated herself to become the cold statue she has become. She never lets herself experience pleasure, except in her sadistic behavior towards others. Narcissists, as psychologists note, often prefer masturbation to sexual intimacy with a partner, but they also commonly enjoy seducing a partner and sadistically denying them sex. Some narcissists even deny themselves any type of sex because it demands true intimacy, and this terrifies them. In denying both her husband and herself intimacy or sexual pleasure, Harriet maintains complete control of her body.
Sexually, Harriet is much like her funeral parlor of a home; as one character defines it, “this house is filled with rooms that are dead and laid out.” I suggest that for Harriet, orgasmic pleasure has been supplanted by sadistic pleasure towards others and possibly includes psychological self-castration, implied by the vase as an urn, a receptacle of the ashes of her sexuality and herself. In response to Walter’s romantic admiration, Harriet behaves as if Walter is very lucky to have such an exquisite and clever woman as herself as his wife, and she casually mentions how easily it would be to give him a divorce, just to cruelly remind him who is the boss of this ghostly Greek empire that she calls a home. For Harriet, sexual intimacy has been replaced by cruelty towards others and sexual self-deprivation. Harriet is a sadist, and this is one sick marriage, but the virginal and delusional romantic Walter seems sadly and hopelessly oblivious to this fact for most of the film.
Harriet is a good actress – she spends her whole life practicing acting, but instinctively turns her face away when he tries to kiss her on the mouth. In this rather jaw dropping campy scene, as Harriet unpacks her own things while her adoring husband watches, Harriet spends her time carefully rolling up phallic belts and ties to be put away in her vast walk-in closet, effectively and repeatedly castrating Walter with this Freudian emasculating physical gesture. Arzner apparently had a very twisted sense of humor.
While Harriet continually emasculates Walter, he, in turn, is blinded by his love for her. She will not even allow him to smoke cigarettes in his own home, implying from a Freudian perspective that he is also not even allowed to masturbate in his own house. Harriet makes Walter (and everyone else) very uncomfortable in her home, as if they have entered her bodily space without permission, as if they have entered Harriet without permission and that will not do. The home, like the body of Harriet, is a cold vast expensive crypt and Harriet is so closely identified with it that it is an extension of her body or a coffin for her phantasmal body. There is a shot in which Harriet approaches the camera, ending in an extreme close-up, in which she looms over the audience like Nosferatu in a gorgeous Greek dress, but wearing an expression of tortured madness.
I find it fascinating that this “women’s picture” features a home carefully lit to resemble nothing short of a burial crypt. Can Arzner’s message be any clearer? Marriage is often a death for women and men. Marriage can be a prison of consumption and an empty rite. Yet Arzner personally very much believed in romantic love. Harriet’s niece Ethel Landreth (Dorothy Wilson) is truly in love and the lighting actually becomes much brighter when she enters a room. Arzner herself knew real love; she lived with the same female partner for many decades.
But in Arzner’s version of Craig’s Wife, the typical heterotopic marriage is exposed as a mere front, a performed gender role. To some extent, George Kelly, the gay playwright (and uncle of Grace Kelly) on whose work the film is based, deserves credit for the invention of Harriet and her pathology. To his way of thinking, he created a woman who destroys her marriage through materialism and insane possessiveness. Arzner infuriated Kelly by jettisoning much of the play, and inserting moments in which we glimpse the terrifying things that happened to Harriet as a child which may have caused her to become a narcissist and crazed housewife, who does not seem to be able to distinguish any boundaries between herself and physical objects such as her urn, her mirror and her house. Kelly was livid, telling Arzner that “that’s not my play. Harriet Craig is an S.O.B.” (as qtd. in Heck-Rabi 1984: 83). But Arzner’s film remains the definitive version of the play, which was adapted again for the screen in 1950 by Vincent Sherman as Harriet Craig, with Joan Crawford in the title role, and Wendell Corey as Walter Craig.
It is significant, I think, that Arzner disrupts genre as much as she disrupts gender. Craig’s Wife combines elements of high camp, serious melodrama, horror, noir, and the women’s picture, while adding an element of radical feminism to the mix that baffled some of the critics and potential exhibitors. The publicity materials written for exhibitors emphasized that Craig’s Wife was a “women’s picture,” implying that it would find a vast audience of women looking for films that told stories about women for women, and included plenty of excess melodrama. To some extent, a familiarity with the play helped to pre-sell the film. But an anonymous writer for the Hollywood Reporter seems to recognize that Craig’s Wife is an art film (unorthodox) though he is optimistic about the potential of the film:
“Essentially a character study, lacking practically all the components of orthodox cinema, the box office fate of this will remain a mystery until the last booking is checked, depending, as it must, strictly on artistic merit, of which it has plenty. Well-directed, well-acted, handsomely produced, it is a deviation from the run-of-the-mill stuff that we believe will pay off, and on which any exhibitor should take a chance.” (Qtd. Heck-Rabi 1984: 3, emphasis mine.)
Never have I seen such a strong feminist queering of gender roles, outside experimental films, or a classical Hollywood film that so nakedly portrays the monstrosity that women often act as the gatekeepers of patriarchy. Craig’s Wife is a stunning critique of marriage; exposing how it is often a sham, an instrument to hold both women and men hostage to appearances and enforced roles, and perhaps most significantly, hostages to excessive consumption. The home and marriage of the Craig’s is an upper class hellhole of sorts, an expensive loveless space that is really a death crypt lorded over by a crazed woman who performs her whiteness, her class, her gender, and her role in life: a woman who obeys the rules of patriarchy and capital. Indeed, Harriet is so over-the-top that one may argue that she is actually “dragging femininity” and while there is a “campy” element to the film, camp here is not used for laughs.
Arzner used high camp in Craig’s Wife to force the largely female audience into an engagement with the curious institution of marriage under patriarchy. But Arzner was not the first female director to use camp to undermine gender. In the silent era, women filmmakers used camp humor and role reversals to critique gender roles at every opportunity: Alice Guy did so in The Consequences of Feminism (1906) and many other films she directed; Lois Weber flips gender roles in How Men Propose (1913), an unusually subversive comedy for Weber, and writer director Marguerite Bertsch also disrupts gender roles in 1914 in A Florida Enchantment (solely credited to her husband Sidney Drew), a funny little gem in which magical seeds turn characters into the opposite gender. Hilariously and subversively, a woman who takes one of these seeds becomes a rather butch lesbian, while her fiancé becomes an effeminate man.
But camp humor is almost impossible to render within the gloomy atmosphere of the Craig household where fear is the predominant emotion. What Harriet fears more than anything else, as she admits, is to end up like her Mother, who married for love and ended up being left by her husband for a younger woman and lost her home and status. In a world in which women were defined by their marital status and their ability to reign over the home and the private sphere, Harriet’s insane behavior makes sense in light of her background. She seems incapable of seeing any choices in life for women, never considering options other than marriage.
Arzner shows her female audience a woman who cannot even entertain such options as graduate education, employment, divorce, or anything that might fulfill her in any way. Harriet is completely unfulfilled in every way. She is a pathetic monster. Indeed, as many of my students have remarked, if Harriet had lived in a different era, she may well have recognized her options and even used her obsessive behavior and narcissism to her advantage. Harriet Craig would have made a fabulous surgeon, a scientist, an artist, or even a film director: there are actually many professions in which insanely driven narcissists and people lacking in empathy actually excel.
At the start of the film, the head maid, Mrs. Harold, warns Mazie, the new maid, that the only way to deal with their monstrous boss is to submissively go along with her outrageous demands. Before we even meet Walter Craig’s wife, the audience is just as frightened of Harriet Craig as are her employees. Arzner prepares us well for a monster and Roz Russell certainly delivers, she plays Harriet Craig as full of self-importance, ruling the home as if it was an an army or empire.
When she enters her home she looks at no one as she viciously barks orders and inspects the home with her index finger looking for any stray dust. Her wardrobe accentuates her appearance as a stage-managed performance of self, she is a drag act of femininity. Lon Anthony’s costume designs are notably theatrical, and Harriet appears adorned as a Greek Goddess in white gowns and classic lines that are zipped up high to her throat to keep away any human contact or the remotest possibility of sex or any kind of intimacy.
Russell has a beautiful tall feminine body, but she wears her collars up high, making her look as approachable as Erich von Stroheim as Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Her speech is clipped like that of a corporal. She is often viewed from below like a monster in a horror film. Even her make-up is designed to make Russell look like a beautiful corpse. In her close-ups, it is evident that even her eyelashes have been wrestled into submission; they are spaced out in a uniform fashion that is distracting and unnatural, each lash painted and placed in the exact same distance from the next.
Harriet’s anxious behavior is that of a classic narcissist. She strolls around her home like an officer in the army; she looks no one in the eye as if she finds all humans beneath her. The camera follows her strutting around her self imposed death crypt of a home as if she is at war with life, love, warmth and all things associated with romance and the fullness of life. Russell is brilliant in using her height and her tightly wound performance to create a monster of the house, she is a camp version of the domestic Goddess or the Victorian “Angel of the House.”
Along with the maids, we watch Harriet militaristically strutting around every passage of her domicile, compulsively and angrily pacing around in high dudgeon, as if somehow she can control every detail around her home with surveillance and physical ownership of space. Harriet’s closest relationship is with a mirror over a vase on a mantel. She obsessively checks her appearance in the mirror throughout the film, and she moves the Greek vase into a specific spot centered on the mantel and flies into a fit if is touched by anyone else or moved even a fraction of a centimeter out of proper alignment.
I’m particularly fascinated with Harriet’s relationship with this Greek vase, as the vase is a traditional metaphor for the vulva or the female herself, and it also visually conjures an urn for the ashes of the dead. For me, it is obvious that Arzner slyly uses the urn as a Freudian metaphor for Harriet’s vagina. The urn or vase is off limits and never to be touched by anyone but her, she is obsessed with it and spends a lot of time with it. It is placed directly before the mirror over the mantel. I suggest that the mantel itself is a ghoulish metaphoric reliquary where Harriet both worships her own image and mourns and her lost self. The mirror reflects back her performed self, but the urn contains her lost self and the death of any remote possibility of intimacy or sexuality. Harriet spends a considerable time worshiping and mourning her split selves, compulsively staring at her image in the mirror and obsessively touching her urn-like Greek vase. Arzner employs Freudian metaphors here to reveal the narcissistically split self of Harriet; and it is terribly sad that this monster has only herself for company. Harriet Craig is indeed “dead and don’t know it,” but her altar to her selves suggests that she perhaps knows this at a deeply subconscious level.
Craig’s Wife, I’d suggest, is a noirish feminist re-gendering of Ovid’s Metamorphosis with a female Narcissus who, like the legendary Narcissus, spends her life staring at a reflective pool, in her myriad mirrors and her reflective floor. Even when looking at others she can only see herself. Like Narcissus, Harriet cannot even see or receive the deep abiding love of Echo, who spends her life loving and adoring Narcissus, only to be spurned by the self-loving, but deeply tragic Narcissus.
In looking at Craig’s Wife, I am reminded of the 1903 painting Echo and Narcissus made by the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John William Waterhouse in which Echo tries to capture the attention of Narcissus, but he is tragically entranced by his own image reflected in a stream and is never able to experience the complete love, passion and deep sexuality that Echo, his soul mate, has for him. Arzner draws upon elements of Greek mythology but she successfully inverts gender here, and she explores the psychology of narcissism deeply and with empathy for the sociopathic narcissist here re-gendered as a woman.
In Arzner’s telling, Echo is brilliantly played by John Boles as Walter Craig, a romantic male version of Echo who is deeply in love with Harriet and repeatedly tells her so, until she is exposed as a madwoman who has imprisoned him in his own home. Walter is positively giddy with love for Harriet. He is so deeply enthralled and in love that he does not see that she not only doesn’t love him, but she despises him. Narcissists often despise those who love them because deep down, they are very fragile and lacking in any sense of self. They like worship, not love, because they don’t actually feel worthy of love.
Malignant narcissism is clearly demonstrated in Harriet Craig’s behavior. The manner in which Harriet pushes away people, cannot handle intimacy, and insists on perfection, suggests a grandiose but easily fractured sense of self. When her husband deliberately smashes her precious Greek vase, he metaphorically destroys Harriet’s carefully built facade of femininity, and her whole world immediately begins to crumble around her. All of Harriet’s controlling and sadistic behaviors, coupled with her lack of empathy, coupled with the fearful reaction shots of those in the gaze of Harriet, all support a reading of her as a deeply wounded narcissist. Malignant narcissism is associated with psychopathic behavior and sadism and a splitting of the self.
Throughout the film, Harriet behaves with a complete lack of compassion – indeed, a sense of complete detachment – for those around her. She has no feeling for her dying sister, she is revolted by her niece’s romantic love and tries to destroy the coupling, she fires Mazie for bringing a boyfriend into the kitchen, she tells her niece straight out that love is a waste of time and marriage is only a source of “independence.”
Harriet is particularly cold and unfeeling when she hears about the breakdown of another marriage through a newspaper account of a murder suicide; their neighbor Fergus Passmore (Thomas Mitchell) kills his wife Adelaide (Kathleen Burke) when he can no longer stand her brazen adultery, and then turns the gun on himself. Not only does Arzner demonstrate again that marriage is often a pathetic sham with this subplot, she also uses the subplot as a device to unravel the tightly wound theatrical production known as the Craig marriage. Fergus Passmore is a pathetic cuckold; Walter Craig is the only man who remains friends with him after his wife has been seen out cheating with other men.
In fact, we get a look at the other men whom had been pals with Fergus; they are themselves going off to gamble, seeing other women, and yet maintain the façade of the happy marriage at home. Walter is the last man to see Fergus alive before he murders his wife and commits suicide, so the police are interested in speaking with Walter. However, Harriet attempts to cover up Walter’s whereabouts during the crime, as she wants no part of the scandal. But her lies are exposed, and Walter finally wakes up to see that he has married a monster and a sociopath.
In a rage, Walter smashes Harriet’s precious vase, effectively signaling the end of the marriage. He spends the night smoking an entire pack of cigarettes; reminding the viewer subconsciously that Harriet absolutely forbid him to smoke, or engage in any type of sexuality or intimacy, even masturbation, in his own home. In the code of classic Hollywood, cigarettes are always phallic symbols that are used to suggest sexuality and power. In the morning, we dissolve to a close-up of an ash-tray overflowing with the evidence of his night of smoking. Walter will no longer allow Harriet to emasculate him. He is a visibly changed man. He will no longer play Echo to Harriet’s Narcissus. He leaves Harriet, moves into his club, and gives her the home and his keys; he won’t be coming “home” anymore.
Left alone, Harriet begins weeping uncontrollably, apparently experiencing a form of psychological splitting, unaware that Mrs. Frazier, her next door neighbor, has come to her aid. “I do sympathize,” she murmurs, but Harriet doesn’t hear her. She’s returned to the state of being an anxious, scared little girl, mirroring the time when her mother lost her husband and her home.
In this way, Harriet is humanized and given many dimensions in Arzner’s version of the story. Arzner makes us feel sympathy, even empathy for a sociopath at the end of the film. That she can make us identify with such a monstrous creature after making us hate her for most of the film is quite an accomplishment; indeed, the film was quite successful both with critics and audiences, scoring a solid hit for Arzner’s commercial track record as a director.
Kelly was particularly proud of creating a singularly one-dimensional female monster in his original stage version, but Arzner was far more interested in exploring female roles and what might cause a person to behave like a monster. Is it that Harriet is trapped in her home like a sepulchral coffin? Has Harriet so thoroughly absorbed patriarchal views that she has actually been driven crazy by playing this gender role too well and lost herself in the illness of sadistic and depressive narcissist? Is marriage an institute that oppresses women rather than liberates them? Why doesn’t Harriet just take up Billie Burke’s offer of female friendship? I have no doubt that women, the audience for this “women’s picture,” asked those very questions after leaving the theater.
Interestingly enough, though Harriet is emotionally destroyed at the end of the film, her maid Mrs. Harold (Jane Darwell) and Walter’s aunt (Elisabeth Risdon) leave the house together to go off on a world cruise. As Judith Mayne and others have pointed out, Craig’s Wife is not only an ironic assault on the pathology of consumption and gender roles, but it offers an alternative with a peek at the possibility of another quite healthy female centered world that is completely different from that of Harriet Craig. Darwell and Risdon refashion their circumstances into a world of female closeness; one that is independent of patriarchal rules, and show that it is possible to simply leave this hellhole called a home.
As they leave the Craig house, we naturally wonder about the relationship between the women and we are so very grateful that they escape and find close friendships with one another. There is even the possibility of a “Boston marriage” between the two older women. Queer or not, these women support and love one another. They offer a healthy queer alternative of a loving friendship rather than engaging in female competition, empty consumption, and self-oppression through loveless marriages. They escape the private sphere of the home and saunter into the public sphere without even looking back. So, in a sense, Arzner gives her female audience a choice, take the sad ending or the happy ending as you wish.
We can escape women like Harriet Craig only by leaving them and we can find female community and companionship, even across class boundaries, only when we stop trying to mirror the behavior of pathological notions of gender. Craig’s Wife is more than 75 years old, but it is still quite relevant. More than ever, women and men are inundated with messages that tell us that the only thing that will provide us happiness and security is a perfect home, a perfect marriage and most significantly, endless consumption of things and goods.
The media and social media terrorize us with myriad programs and advertisements that command us in the voice of Harriet Craig, address us as if we are less than female or male, less than human, we must buy before we die. If we don’t care about owning things and buying things, or we don’t really care too much about a house beautiful, or we dare to be less than orgasmic about getting married, particularly in a big expensive wedding paid for on credit, we are shamed into submission by societal standards. American women (and men) now more than ever, must reject the narcissism of materialism as well as the assumption that consumers are their home and the things that we consume.
It is clear to me that both Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino were capably infusing feminist examinations of gender roles into their work. Both tether the depravity of mainstream gender roles to a manifest and collective widespread mental illness that is expressed through enforced consumer culture under patriarchy and destroys pleasure for both men and women. Arzner in Craig’s Wife and Lupino in The Hitch-Hiker, explore territory that directors liked to explore in so-called “women’s pictures,” as noted by theorist Marcia Landy; “the abuses of patriarchal power, marriage fatigue, class misalliance, and physical and psychic illness ” (2006: 230). The subtle parallels between Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker (the subject of part two of this essay) are as fascinating and revealing as their blatant differences.
To Part 2.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is a Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Co-Editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema from Anthem Press, London. Her many books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and the second, revised edition of A Short History of Film (2013), both co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon; as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997).
Works Cited and Consulted
Dixon, Wheeler Winston (2009), “Ida Lupino”, Senses of Cinema, issue 50, April. Accessed February 28, 2014.
Dyer, Richard (1977) “Homosexuality and Film Noir”, Jump Cut, no. 16, pp. 18 – 21. Rept, (2005). from Jump Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 18-21. Accessed 9 March 2014.
Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey (1995), Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Greven, David (2014), “Ida Lupino’s American Psycho: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)”, Bright Lights After Dark, 27 February. Accessed 9 March 2014.
Heck-Rabi, Louise (1984), Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow.
Landy, Marcia (2006), “Movies and the Fate of Genre,” in American Cinema of the 1940s, ed. Wheeler Winston Dixon, Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers UP, pp. 222-44.
Mayne, Judith (1994) Directed by Dorothy Arzner, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Mulvey, Laura (1991), “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Patricia Erens, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Books 1 through 5, edited by William S. Anderson, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Posèq, Avigdor W. G (1991), “The Allegorical Content of Caravaggio’s Narcissus,” Source: Notes in the History of Art, 10.3, Spring, pp. 21-31.
Rabinovitz, Lauren (1995), “The Hitch Hiker” in Annette Kuhn (ed.), Queen of the B’s: Ida Lupino Behind the Camera, Westport CT: Praeger, pp. 90-102.