Common Law Wife/Review

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If there is to be a double “Double Feature” presentation of femme fatales in exploitation cinema, the four films should be Wicked Woman, Satan in High Heels, Shanty Tramp and Common Law Wife.

This curious, flatly-titled entry is actually two films spliced together: Swamp Rose (Dir. Larry Buchanan) and Common Law Wife (Dir. Eric Sayers). The evidence is front and center: mid-film a central character is recast: without explanation!

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Linda (Anne MacAdams), a former waitress who has been living with a wealthy older man named Shug (George Edgely), is given the unceremonious boot by her benefactor. Shug is bored with her and wants a newer model: his exotic dancer niece Jonelle (Lacey Kelly: AKA “Baby Doll”). The wickedness of the situation is summed up by heartbroken but clear-eyed Linda: “Hell! That’s incest!”

It’s also what drives this “confessional” film forward. Baby Doll is a woman with an agenda: her horny old uncle is infirm and might kick the bucket any minute: she wants to be the first in line to receive his inheritance. And, she tells all the people close to her that she can’t wait for the day!

But she’s not the only self-serving female in this film: Linda, too, has an agenda. Buoyed by her lawyer, Linda with the support of Texas (one of very few states that acknowledge undocumented live-in partnerships) learns that her five-year relationship with Shug means that she is a “Common Law Wife”: entitled to the full benefits that a “real” wife is: she ain’t goin’ nowhere.

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Barroom brawls, bitchy repartee, a “high fashion” parade, a trip to a topless Go-Go bar and Grand Larceny are played out by dead-voiced non-actors whose commitment to the project is thwarted by details beyond their control: boom mics dangling overhead, drop out sound, and a camera that requires them to state their case eye-to-eye: directly to the viewing audience.

Jaw-droppingly incoherent, Common Law Wife is still worth a view: the ambient music is above par, the dialogue is campy and quotable: “You tramp: Get out!” and the clever use of hand-held camera work makes this by-the-numbers story interesting and intimate. A super low budget black and white gem: guerilla filmmaking.


Josiah Howard is the author of four books including Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide (now in a fourth printing). His writing credits include articles for the American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Readers Digest. A veteran of more than one hundred radio broadcasts, Howard also lectures on cinema and is a frequent guest on entertainment news television. Visit his Official Website.

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