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The Suicide's Wife (1979) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

diana mark alan wayne

Principal social themes: suicide/depression, homosexuality

Factor/Newland Productions. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Angie Dickinson, Peter Donat, Gordon Pinsent, Zohra Lampert, Todd Lookingland, Don Marshall, Majel Barrett, Walt Davis, Martin Rudy, Luana Anders, Alan Frost. Written by Dennis Nemec based on the novel by David Madden. Cinematography by Michael Marguiles. Edited by Dan Cahn. Music by David Raksin. Produced by Alan Jay Factor. Directed by John Newland. Color. 96 minutes.


The issue of suicide is examined in a different light in this film, which explores the effects on the individuals left behind, in this case the suicide’s wife and son, and how they cope with the upheaval in their lives. This film is almost a mystery, since no note was left explaining the act, and the wife struggles to learn why her husband killed himself. A quiet and reflective picture, The Suicide’s Wife debuted on the CBS television network on November 7, 1979.


Professor Wayne Harrington (Peter Donat) is a secretive and unassuming college English teacher. For the past nine years, he has been unable to find his niche, transferring from campus to campus in the California University system and unable to gain tenure. His wife, Diana (Angie Dickinson), is largely unaware of his problems as he seldom confides in her. His relationship with his teenage son, Mark (Todd Lookingland), is good, but not really warm or close. When Wayne is summoned by the head of the English department, he emerges from the meeting looking distraught. He does not tell his wife anything about this encounter, instead taking the next day off as a holiday, spending it with Diana and Mark, telling them at times how much he loves them. The next morning, he takes a gun and shoots himself in his study at home, leaving no note. Diana rushes into the room in disbelief. Mark is brought home from his high school by a policeman, who only tells him that he is needed back at home due to a crisis. After Wayne’s body is removed from the scene, Diana and Mark are thunderstruck, unable to communicate with each other. Diana is haunted because she never suspected that her husband was troubled or depressed.

Diana is called to the college to remove her husband’s effects from his office. She meets Professor Alan Crane (Gordon Pinsent), another member of the English Department who seems genuinely sympathetic. Diana is startled to find a hardcover book, In Quest of the Pearl Poet written by her husband. She was aware that Wayne had worked on a manuscript, but never knew it was published. (The “Pearl Poet” was an unknown medieval writer to whom several notable works are attributed, such as Patience , Pearl , and possibly Sir Gawain and the Green Knight .) Diana takes the book to Alan and asks him to evaluate it. He invites her to dinner, and she accepts. Alan reluctantly describes the book as dry and unsubstantial, largely concerned with technique instead of the thematic heart of the poems. Diana spends the night with Alan, touched by his sympathy and warmth. Mark grows increasingly distant from his mother, disapproving of her relationship with Alan and blaming her for his father’s death.

When she discovers that Wayne withdrew most of their savings, $6,000, for some unknown reason, Diana is stunned. It turns out that Wayne ordered 1,500 copies of In Quest of the Pearl Poet from a vanity press. Apparently it was part of his plan to gain tenure. She notes that Wayne’s book is dedicated to three people, herself, Mark, and a third person, unknown to her, named Anson Keller. She asks Alan to track down this individual. He turns out to be a homosexual student who befriended Wayne. Anson tells Diana that he and Wayne were not lovers, but he did confide in him, telling him all his problems. He reveals the reason for the suicide: The college had fired Wayne. Diana, who wondered if she was in any way responsible for Wayne’s act, now understands the truth. Mark, however, still holds his mother to blame for the suicide.

Diana decides to leave California and move to the Midwest to live with her sister. Alan is sorry to see Diana go, and they part on friendly terms. Mark is upset, particularly when Diana sells off his father’s possessions. He fakes his own suicide at the beach, and Diana panics when her son is reported missing while swimming in the deep surf. Mark observes his mother’s reaction from a safe spot behind the beach. When she sees him, she drags him home and they have a confrontation. Diana explains everything that she learned about Wayne’s death, and Mark starts to come to terms with it. He agrees that they both need a fresh start.


The Suicide’s Wife is a carefully crafted examination of the issue of suicide from the point of view of the survivors, particularly the intense feelings of guilt, responsibility and shame. Diana has a series of follow-up shocks, such as when her husband’s insurance claim is denied due to a suicide clause. Except for Alan, Diana finds it difficult to discuss her husband’s death since everyone seems artificially sympathetic. She begins to feel that others blame her for the act. Mark also undergoes the cruelty of his schoolmates. The day he returns to class, another student pantomimes shooting himself, which leads to a fight. Unlike his mother, Mark seems to have no outlet for his feelings of anger and rage over the loss of his father, which he secretly interprets as a personal rejection. Other seldom-explored aspects of suicide are also considered in the plot. Did Wayne ever contemplate the effect of his death on his family? Since the medieval poem Pearl deals with loss (the death of a daughter), why was Wayne unable to anticipate their pain? What factors made it impossible for him to communicate with them? Both Diana and Mark are walking wounded, victims of psychological trauma, and neither have the traditional family ties that can allow them to heal. Why did they initially fail to comfort each other? How did their friends let them down? The script leaves many open questions that viewers could consider on their own.

John Newland does a superb job in directing The Suicide’s Wife , never overplaying his hand or sounding a false note. Angie Dickinson and Todd Lookingland both deliver credible performances of far greater depth than what is typically found in a telefilm.

The Technical Evolution of Photography in the 19th Century - Concept and First Attempts, Joseph Nicephore Niépce, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, Daguerreotype, Photography on Paper [next] [back] The Suicide's Wife

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