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Noir or Not: Common Law Wife (1963)

By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry


Next up in our “Noir or Not” series is a unique little confection called Common Law Wife, released in 1963 by Cinema Distributors of America and, in all probability, featuring not a single performer with which you’re familiar. But that doesn’t keep this 81-minute feature from being eminently watchable and, at times, absolutely fascinating.


In a nutshell, the film centers on Shugfoot Rainey (George Edgley), an aging Louisiana oilman who has been living for the past five years with ex-waitress Linda (Anne MacAdams). Rainey passes the time by swigging from a ridiculously oversized brandy snifter and literally throwing darts in Linda’s general direction, but when these activities no longer hold their former charm, he decides to replace Linda with his young, sexy niece, Jonelle (Lacey Kelly). Why the switch? It’s a question that Linda also wants answered, but Rainey merely offers that Jonelle “has my attention right now – which you haven’t.” In any event, there are a few monkey wrenches tossed in the path of Rainey’s plan; Linda isn’t about to go quietly into that good night (she visits a lawyer, slaps a ring on her finger, and informs him that she’s his common-law wife), and Jonelle is far more interested in her uncle’s will than his well-being. (And she’s not inclined to patiently wait for him to die of old age, if you know what I mean.)


Also on hand in this little town – which is called Serenity, by the way – is Jody (Max Anderson), the local sheriff, who’s not only Jonelle’s ex- (and soon to be current) lover, but also her brother-in-law; and Bull (Bert Masters), who makes a substantial living from his moonshine distillery and is yet another Serenity resident with eyes for Jonelle. There’re lots of dastardly goings-on in this little burg, including nasty vendettas and mercenary murder plots, but is Common Law Wife noir? Or not?


Let’s first take a look at Jonelle, who is clearly the most noirish character in the film. She’s introduced to us in the New Orleans nightclub where she works as a stripper; while she’s dancing her way into our collective consciousness, we get a glimpse into her shallow, self-absorbed persona when a co-worker arrives via a pole, detracting the attention of the club patrons from Jonelle. But it’s not her workplace petulance that makes her a fatal femme. Instead, we see Jonelle’s lethal tendencies when, once back in Serenity, she wastes no time in rekindling her relationship with Jody – under her own sister’s roof, no less – and it’s obvious (to us, at least, if not Jody) that she plans to use him for more than just some afternoon delight.


Specifically, while having a post-coital boilermaker at a local café, Jonelle asks Jody to use the influence of his badge to remove Linda from her Uncle Shug’s home so Jonelle can move in. Unfortunately for Jonelle, Jody still has a shred of integrity and refuses (“A lousy cop, I’m not, yet.”) But Jody’s squeaky-clean officer of the law routine doesn’t sit well with Jonelle, and she lets Jody have it with both verbal barrels: “You got what you wanted, now go on. Run home to mama. You want your mama? Go on,” she tells him. “But don’t come sniveling back to me. You don’t want to pay? All right, Jody, boy, hang around, ‘cause I’m fixin’ to give it away!” Jonelle then takes to the dance floor and performs a strip tease with a motivation reminiscent of Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” number in Gilda (1946) – except Jonelle goes a lot farther with her dance, and Jody doesn’t stop her. 


As it turns out, Jonelle’s “punishment” dance is interrupted by the arrival of Bull, who – for reasons that aren’t completely clear, but seem to relate directly to Jonelle – has been harboring a hefty resentment toward Jody for the last five years. He proceeds to beat Jody to a pulp, take his gun from him, and leave with Jonelle, who learns that Bull regularly furnishes her uncle with moonshine. Before long, Jonelle has hatched a new plan: “Bull, how long does it take to kill somebody?”


Speaking of Bull, he has a rather noirish cast to him as well. In one scene in particular, when he takes Jonelle to the cabin where he makes his moonshine, he demonstrates that he has no more scruples than Jonelle. First, he goads her about being forced to return to her old job in New Orleans. “Linda kinda upset your little red wagon, don’t she?” he asks. “Sure don’t seem right your goin’ back to strippin’ [and] Linda holdin’ the money . . .” Later, he tells Jonelle about the virtues of cyanide and strikes a bargain with her: “You scratch my back, and I scratch uncle.”


Incidentally, although he refuses to do Jonelle’s bidding, Jody is unable to stay away from her, and despite a heartfelt plea from her sister, Jonelle is unwilling to keep her distance from Jody. This behavior is noteworthy as it embraces the illicit nature of many film noir couplings, but it lacks the trope of the femme fatale using the hapless gent to help her achieve her nefarious objectives.


So, what’s the last word on Common Law Wife? It’s missing such familiar film noir characteristics as voiceover narration and flashbacks, and makes little use of shadows and light, but it does feature several striking camera angles, including one that opens the film with an encompassing shot of Linda, Shug, and Shug’s massive drinking glass. It certainly offers an unquestionable femme fatale in Jonelle, who uses her sexuality as a means to an end, whether that end is personal pleasure, revenge, or monetary gain. Also, while Jody’s commitment to the law prevents him from aiding Jonelle, he is unquestionably irrational where she’s concerned, willing to completely disregard his wife and home in exchange for a roll in the hay. And I don’t want to spoil the ending (which, along with each confrontation between Linda and Jonelle, is one of the best things about the film), but let me just say that it’s a totally satisfying and undeniably noirish way to wrap things up. My conclusion, then, is that while Common Law Wife falls outside of my personal range of classic noir (1940-1959), the film – for all its exploitative undertones – does fall within the category of neo-noir.


Other Common Law Wife Stuff:


Common Law Wife actually began as a completely different movie called Swamp Rose, made in 1960 by low-budget schlock director Larry Buchanan. The existing footage of that film was sold to the producer of Common Law Wife, who changed the title and hired Eric Sayers to shoot new footage. Both films come from the “grindhouse” era of exploitation films, typified by subject matter focused on sex, violence, or bizarre behavior.


Anne McAdams, who played Linda, was also known during her career as Annabelle Weenick, and appeared in such low-budget cult features as Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) and Keep My Grave Open (1977). She later acted and directed in a variety of theater productions throughout the country, appearing with such big-screen luminaries as Ernest Borgnine, Robert Cummings, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.


 

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. She is also the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, founded in 2004. She can be found on Twitter at @thedarkpages.

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