By Ty Burr
October 08, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Movies invariably get wiggy when they deal with adultery: Few topics push our psychic pleasure and punishment buttons so firmly and at exactly the same time. Take Adrian Lyne’s Indecent Proposal (1993, Paramount, R, $99.95), a movie that in its dim but swell-looking pea brain is convinced that it’s breaking new ground on the sexual honesty front. Actually, it just trots out the old feels-good/must-be-bad moral bait-and-switch, a tactic dear to Hollywood since the days of Cecil B. DeMille’s sin ‘n’ salvation Bible- thumpers. The only place in our culture to really look down the barrel of the matter is country music, where the ”cheating song” has been raised to an art. A Rentable History of Adultery in the Cinema, on the other hand, shows that movies have nervously, consistently diverted messy passion into hollow nobility or harmless farce.

Curiously, ground zero for this subgenre is a movie made in England: Brief Encounter (1945, Paramount, unrated, $19.95) is a swooning account of two middle-class Brits who fall for each other but have the good taste not to do anything about it. The film’s a model of classy craft, from David Lean’s tight direction to Noel Coward’s articulate script to the aching lead performances of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, but after a while all that suburban self- pity gets mighty soggy. These two are paralyzed by propriety, and it’s meant to be their tragedy and their saving grace. Ironic? Certainly. Frustrating? You bet.

Americans are supposed to be less repressed, and classic Hollywood movies at least acknowledge that some married people do mess around. But the lingering puritanism embodied in the pre-rating-system Hays Code meant that adulterers had to be punished by the time the end credits came up. A noir like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944, MCA/Universal, unrated, $19.95) appears to bend the rules, but the sleazy hots that Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck’s characters get going between them are clearly linked to the ensuing murder, degradation, and all-around paranoia.

A more typical reaction in the ’50s and ’60s was to turn to a traditionally male view of adultery: comedy. Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955, CBS/Fox, unrated, $14.98) sniggers merrily as a pencil-neck husband (Tom Ewell) puts the moves on a bimbo neighbor (Marilyn Monroe) while his wife is out of town. But because Monroe’s character isn’t remotely real—she’s written as a live-action Vargas cartoon—there’s no possibility that anything will happen, and thus no sting when it doesn’t.

A Guide for the Married Man (1967, CBS/Fox, unrated, $59.98) is more upfront in every sense. Bursting with the promised freedoms of the ’60s while reveling in the mammary fixations of the ’50s, it’s a playful, incredibly dated farce that considers it a sacred duty to zoom in on every passing female fanny. Walter Matthau is superbly geekish as a husband learning the ABCs of adultery from swinging pal Robert Morse and a throng of guest stars (Lucille Ball, Art Carney, etc.), but once again the movie backs down before he goes through with it, so whatever point is being made ends up moot.

By the 1980s—with a generation of baby boomers now married, settled, Republican, and facing their own seven-year itches—adultery was back to being serious business. Falling in Love (1984, Paramount, PG-13, $19.95) was clearly meant to be the yuppie Brief Encounter. As in Lean’s film, the couple (Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro) are brought together by the vagaries of a commuter-train schedule. But while the fumbling guilt of the central pair hasn’t changed, the world around them has. Friends now urge the two into each others’ arms, and their shy inability to actually adulterate brands them as noble oddities. Unfortunately, the stars play these ”normal” people as unremarkable drips. Compared with them, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are Bogie and Bacall.

Two other ’80s movies shine a more honest light on domestic truancy, and it’s no coincidence that both had their genesis outside of Hollywood. Betrayal (1983, CBS/Fox, R, $59.98) retains the central conceit of Harold Pinter’s precise, chilly stage play: It tells the story of a seven-year affair in reverse, starting with burned-out regret and slowly working backward through agony, ecstasy, secrecy, and, finally, the thrill of possibility. A merciless dissection of the ways we lie to ourselves and each other, Betrayal is sharply acted by Jeremy Irons (lover), Patricia Hodge (wife), and Ben Kingsley (betrayed husband; he gets a great flip-out scene in a restaurant).

Cousins (1989, Paramount, PG-13, $19.95) Hollywoodized the frothy French cult comedy Cousin, Cousine, and arguably made it deeper. Still, the movie plays it safe. Cousins-by-marriage Larry (Ted Danson) and Maria (Isabella Rossellini) hit the sack after much hesitation—and only after their respective spouses (Sean Young and William Petersen) have had a callow quickie of their own. That’s the filmmakers’ way of assuring us that the leads ”deserve” to get together, but Rossellini and Danson are so believably warm that it’s not really necessary. And it’s refreshing to see a movie that presents marriage as something more complex than an either/or proposition.

In this context, Indecent Proposal has to be considered a step back. To be fair, Demi Moore’s errant wife, Diana Murphy, does admit she enjoyed sex with millionaire John Gage (Robert Redford), which for adultery movies constitutes a Great Leap Forward. But director Lyne ignores the rich sex-as-commodity angle by painting too pretty a picture. I’d be more interested to know if Diana would monkey around if Gage were played by Larry ”Bud” Melman. Or what would happen if a woman millionaire offered Diana’s husband, David (Woody Harrelson), this deal. (The filmmakers would portray her as a neurotic bitch, that’s what.)

And do these characters have to be as dumb as mud? David and Diana are meant to be a well-educated, J. Crew kinda couple, but here’s what they do to raise money for their dream house: They go gambling in Las Vegas. Harrelson and Moore mope attractively (and Redford gets by on distanced elegance), but they’re such self-absorbed ninnies that it’s impossible to care about them. Most adultery movies end with the heroes older but wiser. In Indecent Proposal, they’re just older. This is progress? Indecent Proposal: C Brief Encounter: B+ Double Indemnity: A The Seven Year Itch: C- A Guide for the Married Man: B- Falling in Love: C Betrayal: B+ Cousins: B