The Fugitive and Dead Wife Cinema

Movies Features Thriller
The Fugitive and Dead Wife Cinema

Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) didn’t kill his wife (Sela Ward), although it sure looks like it. After the vascular surgeon’s wife was killed in their home, he gets framed for murder—but on his way to death row he flees from justice and sets out to prove his innocence. That is, if he can escape the long arm of the law attached to Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who makes it clear when he corners Kimble at the lip of a monumental dam that he doesn’t care about Kimble’s innocence, he just needs to bring him in. Kimble, of course, turns into an obvious dummy to escape. Sterling stuff.

For 30 years, The Fugitive has remained one of the best ‘90s thrillers, from a decade when Hollywood perfected the formula for making exciting, flashy suspense films efficiently and effectively. The whole family wanted to see Ashley Judd get revenge on her husband, or Clint Eastwood try to stop a presidential assassination, or Richard Gere accidentally acquit a psychopath. But with a trend of bankable stories come repeated tropes and archetypes, and The Fugitive enshrines one that has haunted the thriller genre for decades: The dead wife. When Kimble’s wife Helen gets slain in the opening moments, we are reminded of the designated role for women in crime and espionage films. They are there to motivate and complexify our male hero (Ashley Judd doubly jeopardizing herself notwithstanding) and if they can do that without even having to be alive, all the better.

In movies, a murdered spouse is so appealing because it’s a deeply personal crime while also being universally regarded as terrible by audiences worldwide. Desecrating such a traditional staple of heteronormative society lets a screenwriter justify any action or behavior in their characters; after all, you can just write it so that your character loves his wife more than anyone has ever loved their wife, which is why they’re driven to the increasingly implausible ends of an action hero.

The canon of bog-standard, uncomplicated movies where the death of a wife motivates the entirety of our widower’s actions are plentiful: Memento, Mad Max, Unforgiven, John Wick, The Frighteners, The Revenant, Up, Shutter Island, Looper, The Road and Gladiator are only a small selection. Via shorthand, complexity and emotional nuance are pushed onto our character and their journey; if the wife is dead, a screenwriter can get away with only penning one side of a fully-formed relationship, and also doesn’t have to feature too many of those pesky women that screenwriters hate to write.

You could even make the argument that a dead wife thriller satisfies a male fantasy: Your life is transformed into feats of pursuit and daring-do with a morally pure motive, all while you’ve been freed from the stereotypical shackles of matrimony. Wives aren’t dames; they’re not sexually available and exciting women, but represent stability and the status quo, and their death is the perfect way to throw our character’s life into chaos.

The Fugitive’s classic thriller trappings (dead wife included) trace back to the ‘60s TV show it’s based on, a medium that was stepping up its game as the film studio system was crumbling, and which looked to the preceding decades of noir and Westerns for their escapist fare. These genres had solidified the male hard-boiled hero as an isolated, lonely and usually lightly misogynist figure. These men weren’t widows, but confirmed bachelors; the wife’s role in suspense films was usually found in films not focusing on men, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Here, the lingering imprint of a widower’s first wife haunts her much younger successor, the crown jewel in a subgenre best described as, “Help, I’m Being Haunted By My Dead Wife.”

Solaris, Inception and videogame Silent Hill 2 all resurrected a dead wife to psychologically unravel and unsettle their late husband, and all place the late spouse in distinctively supernatural or paranormal environments. She is eerie, she is impossible and she is rarely ever actually herself, rather an extension of our hero’s subconscious or an entity designed to undermine his grip on reality. If Edgar Allan Poe said (ironically?) that the most poetic thing on earth was a dead, beautiful woman, then the body of a dead wife is merely a convenient prop.

In drama, we see a dead wife sidelined even further into the margins of the story, as she’s just a precursor to allow an emotionally difficult father to grow closer to his children. To Kill a Mockingbird, Road to Perdition, The Sound of Music and Interstellar (from the modern king of Dead Wife Cinema, Christopher Nolan) all detail their central families with a difficult matriarchal loss, where a classical father must overcome, or has already in the past, his resistance to acting in a caring, giving way to his children. The best at this is Hollywood’s no.1 union-hater Walt Disney. Dead parents are everywhere across their animated and live-action canon, it’s the perfect way to set up their plucky heroes for a journey of self-actualization and get that easy sentiment—but like many Dead Wife films, death is always sanitized and lacking in any of the turbulence of real grief.

This strand of dead wifery has a close cousin in “Deadbeat Single Dad Redeems Himself” cinema, known mainly from Roland Emmerich’s disaster films or Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (Tom Cruise not having a good relationship with his daughter? Imagine that…) A single father is a cleaner and more palatable narrative arc for audience and screenwriter alike, pulling those heartstrings in an even more blatantly manipulative way.

Of course, some male characters fear losing their wives, especially if they’re suffering from mental or physical illness, which is of course never about the actually ailing woman and more about how upsetting it is for the poor husband. The Fountain and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure are both excellent depictions of pre-grief, showing how we delay and deny the power that death and loss rule our lives with, but it would be disingenuous to say that these wives are seen through anyone’s perspective but our lead male characters.

There have been efforts to subvert Dead Wife Cinema recently. Gone Girl is perhaps the most memorable example, where a sociopathic wife is the one pinning her husband for her own murder, which she faked (god forbid a woman have hobbies). Steve McQueen’s Widows, itself a remake of a British ‘80s TV series, has a bunch of bank robbing husbands killed, forcing their widows to shoulder thriller-movie responsibilities. And in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, stuntman Cliff Booth’s complex characterization from having a dead wife is troubled by the fact that, er, he killed her—his character being a more blatant misogynist than the history of the trope.

Movies aren’t real life, and there can only ever be a select few characters who are entitled to a full, rich interiority; most of them will be in service of our main character’s journey. And yet, the escapist thrills of suspense movies cannot be dismissed as something entirely separate from reality, no matter how flimsy or trashy the film. Dead Wife Cinema still asks us to treat the death of women with a flippancy that feels directly connected with how mainstream movies see married women compared to single ones—we will mourn these people less because they’re less interesting, exciting or available to us, and if we do mourn them, it’s only through the emoting of their bereaved husband. 

The fact that Helen Kimble isn’t that important to The Fugitive’s narrative reveals how limiting and reductive female agency was and continues to be in mainstream movies—women exist to serve the man’s story, and this could be achieved regardless of if she was alive or dead. Richard Kimble could have said “My wife is dead!” up on that dam—Gerard would have still responded, “I don’t care.”

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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