The story begins simply enough: a man meets a woman and is seduced by her charms. The man does not realize the woman’s the woman’s true dangerous nature until it’s too late. Sometimes the story does not center on a man and a woman. Sometimes it’s a woman and her new roommate. Sometimes it’s a dangerous friend. However, the story of the Domestic Thriller always remains the same.
The Domestic Thriller sprang up over a period of time rather than becoming a genre all at once. In the thirty years before Fatal Attraction (1987) came out, a handful of films really spring to mind as inspiring the modern domestic thriller.
(Warning: the following Articles contain spoilers for many domestic thrillers over the years).
Strangers on a Train
Even though he never made a film that fit the genre perfectly, Alfred Hitchcock had a big hand in defining the genre. While Psycho (1960) would also help define the post-modern domestic thriller in later years, Strangers on a Train (1951) starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker probably serves as a precursor more than any other of his films. The film tells the story of Bruno Anthony (Walker) meeting professional tennis player Guy Haines (Granger) on a train and hatching a plan to kill his unfaithful wife in exchange for Haines murdering his father. It’s one of the first films that involves stalking as a menacing situation, almost forty years before it became a crime. Like many domestic thrillers, it has a happy couple and a charming creep willing to go to any lengths to get what he wants.
However, it also feels a little too grandiose to fit as neatly into the modern domestic thriller. All of the major characters are wealthy with a few exceptions. The Washington D.C. setting almost makes it feel like a political thriller. All of these aesthetic choices separate it from the modern version of the thriller.
Of all these films, Strangers on a Train also probably has the best visual style. This is a style that sets up everything in a playful fun way by presenting two peoples’ feet by walking towards the same spot and a great sequence in which Walker reaches into the sewer to grab a lighter. Even a simple scene at the beginning where Guy Haines confronts his conniving adulterous wife Miriam (Laura Elliott), Hitchcock makes it obvious that she has all the power in the situation by having the camera look up at Miriam while keeping all shots of Haines at eye level. Hitchcock’s mastery at camerawork helps sell the film.
A Kiss Before Dying
Before writing Rosemary’s Baby (1967), The Stepford Wives (1972), and The Boys from Brazil (1976), 23-year-old Ira Levin wrote his little-known debut novel, A Kiss Before Dying (1953), which follows the story of ruthless working class man Bud Corliss planning to marry his way into a copper baron Leo Kingship’s family one daughter at a time. When Kingship’s daughter gets pregnant, Corliss decides to take a deadlier approach.
Three years later, United Artists made it into a film starring Robert Wagner as Bud and Joanne Woodward and Virginia Leith as sisters Dorie and Ellen Kingship, his unsuspecting marks. Mary Astor (who played the Femme Fatale in The Maltese Falcon (1940)) plays Bud’s mother and Jeffrey Hunter plays Gordon Grant, who’s trying to help Leith discover who murdered her sister Dorie (Woodward) and recognizes Bud. Like the novel, the film builds up Bud’s menacing nature throughout the first half of the film. It’s not until Bud murders Dorie halfway through the movie when the story turns into a thriller. It acts almost as a character study up until then, in which the audience watches Wagner as he commits his crimes before switching to Ellen’s perspective.
It’s directed competently if unimaginatively by first time film director Gerd Oswald, a television director who went to have a successful career in both mediums. It has a great color palette, but a lot of the visuals seem a little bland. Oswald presents most shots at eye level rather than using the camera and shots to comment on the characters and story. It’s also a film that takes place mostly during the day. There are few chances for the eerie shadows and complex lighting set ups that Hitchcock excelled at.
All of the characters also act in a stilted manner. Like a precursor to The Stepford Wives, every line of dialogue feels a little too good to be true.
Unlike most domestic thrillers, it tells a good chunk of its story from the perspective of the antagonist rather than the main couple.
Six years later, Universal Pictures would release Cape Fear (1962) with Robert Mitchum as recently paroled Max Cady and Gregory Peck as lawyer Sam Bowden. Cady seeks revenge on Bowden for putting him behind bars for rape. Adapted from John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners (1957), producer Peck changed the name to Cape Fear after the Cape Fear river in North Carolina, which does not appear in the original novel.
In the original film, every character is obvious in terms of characterization. Each of the characters have a moral simplicity to them that gets twisted by the legal system’s inability to take down Cady.
Unlike the remake, the film portrays Cady’s menace in a less obvious way. A sleazy abusive man, he’s a man who knows the law as well as the lawyers and knows how to use it. He does say some truly awful things, but they do not seem as terrifying as they do creepy. When he beats up a woman (Barrie Chase) at the beginning, it happens behind closed doors with absolutely no violence shown to the audience. The film illustrates the impact afterwards when the Woman leaves town in shock. The film also ends with Bowden sparing Cady’s life, so justice can try him. The treatment of Cady’s character represents a stricter time period.
Peck plays straight-laced lawyer Bowden along the lines of Atticus Finch if he had to take the law into his hands. Bowden’s family resembles the type of family that would appear on Leave It to Beaver (1961-1963), complete with a too good to be true 14-year-old daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin). In this film, Nancy is repulsed and afraid of Cady. Much of the conflict revolves around Cady’s plans to attack and traumatize Nancy into silence as he did the woman at the beginning. The Bowdens even leave town because they fear the violence Cady might inflict on Nancy.
Directed with a workman-like yet effective approach, the stunning black and white cinematography adds to the suspense. Director J. Lee Thompson has a clear grasp of suspense and pace. He knows how to misdirect the audience and what shots in what order create suspense. The night scenes are also quite suspenseful due to their effective use of shadows. Thompson also films on real locations for many of the exteriors (except for the scenes on the Cape Fear river) and shoots the film almost like a documentary in the daytime shots.
Play Misty For Me
The first movie that really defines the modern domestic thriller also happens to be Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut: Play Misty for Me (1971). While other films existed before this, but this film exists as a prototype of what the domestic thriller would become. It focuses on stalking and domestic violence without going into too many flights of fancy like previous films do.
In this film, Eastwood plays cool radio DJ Dave Garber, who is stalked and harassed by a deceptively easygoing woman, Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter). Things become terrifying when Eastwood decides to commit to his girlfriend Tobie (Donna Mills), much to Evelyn’s chagrin.
The film serves as a metaphor for a man’s fear of commitment. Evelyn is almost always seen indoors and in enclosed spaces, while Tobie is almost always presented in wide open spaces, such as a jazz concert, the woods, and the beach. Evelyn and Dave have sex in a close off blue room that Eastwood films to resemble a tomb, while Tobie and Dave make love in the middle of the wide-open woods.
Although well made, the film presents a crude outline of what the domestic thriller would become. The film seems casual, easygoing, and unassuming. It stars many of Eastwood’s friends, including Don Siegel. Unlike the Domestic thrillers of the 1990’s, the film takes place in the easygoing town of Carmel, California (which Eastwood would later become Mayor of) rather than a suburb or a city. In the first half of the film, the same event seems to happen over and over again (Evelyn showing up unannounced) without much variation, while all the complications come in the second half.
The characterization of every character seems like an archetype from a Romantic Comedy. Clint Eastwood plays the cool stud who settles down. Tobie plays his sweet ex-girlfriend. The film also features comedy relief in the form of a black man and a gay character.
However, the antagonist really makes the film work. The Evelyn Draper character seems like a variation Manic Pixie Dream girl if she had real world consequences for her behavior. Walter (who would later become famous for her role on Arrested Development (2003-2006,2013-)) played her as “the all-American girl next door” instead of as a crazy person. The character also goes from zero to crazy pretty quickly, giving off fairly obvious warning signs such as showing up at Eastwood’s house uninvited, yelling at his neighbors, and so on. One minute, she seems sweet and nice. They next minute, she’s yelling at Eastwood’s neighbor. The character seems less like a real person with a mental illness and more like a plot device.
Probably the film that it resembles the most is not a thriller, but Clint Eastwood’s May to September romantic drama Breezy (1973), which Jo Heims also wrote. Breezy also follows an emotionally closed off middle aged male lead (William Holden), but combines both the female leads of Misty into 19-year-old Breezy (Kay Lenz, who had played a similar role in American Graffiti (1973)). She’s free spirited and loving like Tobie yet intrusive and earnest like Evelyn. Unlike Misty, it portrays their relationship as a light romantic drama where the main antagonist of the story comes in Holden’s insecurities rather than in another person. Breezy and Misty share a certain kinship in their characters.
Play Misty for Me was successful (it made $10.6 million back on a $950,000 budget), but it inspired very little in terms of the domestic thriller.
All of these films added to the genre of the domestic thriller, which would become popular in the 1980’s. Every one of them has a place in the genre, but none of them became quite as popular as Fatal Attraction did in 1987.
For one thing, none of the leads of these films have a middle class everyman in the lead. Strangers on a Train’s lead character Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a celebrity tennis player. Eastwood’s Dave Garber is a suave radio DJ known for his skills with women. The Kingships are a wealthy family with black servants. They resemble the Hadley family in Written on the Wind (1956) more than the middle-class family of the 1950’s. Probably the closest to a regular person is Cape Fear’s Sam Bowden and he’s an attorney, which was one of the most respected professions in film and television in 1950’s and 1960’s. Shows such as The Public Defender (1954-1955), Perry Mason (1957-1966), and The Defenders (1961-1965) presented lawyers as heroes. While all of these characters are respectable, they do not seem to represent a character that the audience is supposed to relate to as later films would.
The films also changed based on time period. The 1950’s films feature outsiders going after rich people and authority figures. Both A Kiss before Dying and Strangers on a Train involve plots about unborn children. In particular, he characters and story of A Kiss Before Dying work in the 1950’s due to the mores of a time period before the sexual revolution and feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976), the old woman who sets the plot in motion talks about how she gave her only heir up for adoption because “an unmarried mother was not the commonplace it is nowadays.” Cape Fear focuses on a more middle class family and examines the morality of the leads.
Play Misty for Me presents a little different version of events, as it takes place during the sexual revolution and the feminist movement of the 1970’s. Dave lays out that he is not interested in anything long-term. Evelyn presents their first sexual experience as a one night stand before demanding a commitment from Eastwood. Tobie also lives by herself in a house that she rents out to other roommates. Misty also presents the only film in this article not to focus on marriage and family. All of these changes reflect changes in society.
All of these movies also came out before many changes in society including the criminalization of stalking in the early 1990’s. Films such as Cape Fear, Dirty Harry (1971), Play Misty for Me, and Death Wish (1974) presented a legal system that did not help victims of stalking and potential violence, which forced the lead character to take the law into their own hands.
Although all these films would add to the Domestic Thriller, the genre did not take off until much later. Many of them are great movies that are now considered classic thrillers. However, each one of them provided building blocks to the modern Domestic Thriller.
The Modern Domestic Thriller: September 7
The Post-Modern Domestic Thriller: September 14
Rossen, Jake. 30 Years ago, Clint Eastwood was elected Mayor of Carmel, California. Mental Floss, April 7, 2016. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/78257/30-years-ago-clint-eastwood-was-elected-mayor-carmel-california
Play It Again: A Look Back at ‘Play Misty for Me.’ Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Universal City: Universal Studios Home Video, 2001.
The Making of Cape Fear. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Universal City: Universal Studios Home Video, 2001.