1975's The Stepford Wives has long since become one of those movies for which the twist ending of its central mystery has become the single thing that most people know about it. This is never a fair place for a work of narrative art to find itself, but it's especially unfortunate for this film, which is good in almost all ways until the twist ending, which makes a complete hash of the social commentary that is one of the film's two main reasons for existing. I shall return to that point; even though the twist ending is the only that most people know about the film, it's still the ending, and I'd like to hold off on spoiling a 39-year-old movie as long as possible.

The film, based on a 1972 novel by Ira Levin (whose Rosemary's Baby traffics in similar "the life of a paranoid housewife" themes, and was also turned into a rather more effortlessly successful movie seven years prior), dives right into the ramifications of Woman's Liberation, the major social progressive activity of the 1970s as the Civil Rights Movement was in the 1960s, though one which perhaps resulted in fewer clear-cut victories. Still, it was successful enough to make The Stepford Wives feel like a thematic visitor from another civilisation, with far different expectations about the importance of rigidly-policed gender roles. For one thing, even the most outspoken feminists in the film don't actually go so far as to think that women should be employed outside the home; the story's battlegrounds are set entirely around what they do with the time that they spend not having paying jobs.

Our outspoken feminist for the evening is Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), who has recently moved with her husband, Walter (Peter Masterson), and their two daughters, Kim (Mary Stuart Masterson, Peter's daughter), and Amy (Ronny Sullivan), from the lively and dangerous world of New York to the soothing bedroom community of Stepford, Connecticut. We ken long before Joanna admits as much that this was Walter's choice, believing as he does that life in the suburbs is far more rewarding than the hectic, filthy life of an urbanite - "I just saw a man carrying a naked lady", says one of the daughters as they leave, speaking of a garden-variety pervert with a blow-up sex doll, to which Walter pleasantly notes, "That's why we're moving to Stepford", telling us from the first minutes that Stepford is the place without naked ladies, and that will be important.

As it turns out, Stepford is more sterile and unforgivingly blank than Joanna's worst nightmares. All of the men in town belong to a thing called the Stepford Men's Association, which seems to exist largely so there's a place that women absolutely can not go; and virtually all of the wives of those men are freakishly docile, not just by '70s standards, but by the most alarmist caricature of the Eisenhower '50s. Obsessed with cooking, housecleaning, and nothing else, the Stepford wives are like soulless, sexless objects, and only another recent transplant, Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), matches Joanna's attitudes, or shares her belief that something is seriously amiss with this town and the incomprehensibly retrograde gender attitudes it fosters.Eventually, Joanna and Bobbie stop just noticing this weirdness and begin to investigate it; and eventually, Joanna figures out what's going on, for all the good it does her.

That gives us enough to go on; the best and most lasting parts of The Stepford Wives have very little to do with what is discovered about the rotten underbelly of Stepford, and everything to do with the woman discovering it. The film in its present state came about as the result of not always friendly wrangling between director Bryan Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman, the latter of whom had some very accurate complaints about what Forbes's decisions did to the story's internal logic, particularly the decision where he cast his talented but somewhat dowdy wife Nanette Newman as head Stepford wife Carol Van Sant. But we'll get to the film's rickety narrativity in due course; there's so much of it that actually works, quite splendidly, that I'm reluctant to give into Goldman and confess that yes, this actually is kind of half-baked and illogical when all is said and done.

Forbes, whose career highlights aren't remotely as well-known as they should be, was first and above all a terrific director of actresses: in The L-Shaped Room, from 1962, he pulled the first truly great performance out of Leslie Caron; and in The Whisperers, from 1967, he helped the legendary Dame Edith Evans along to what is likely the very best screen performance of her estimable career. He was also, specifically, great at positioning his wonderful leading ladies in the context of thrillers about warped domestic spaces: The Whisperers, again, with Evans going slightly, slowly insane in her run-down flat, and 1964's Seance on a Wet Afternoon, with a sterling Kim Stanley as a demented psychic who perpetrates a kidnapping to prove her skills. The Stepford Wives fills both roles wonderfully: in it, Ross gives an absolutely superb performance that's miles beyond anything she does in her best-known roles, as the milksop girl in The Graduate and the charmingly bland woman spoiling the homoeroticism between the leads of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And she does it in part because the film so obligingly presents her as the very Rosemary-ish woman who finds herself trapped in a town that seems obviously, oppressively "off" to her, even though virtually nobody around her seems to reealise it.

Forbes doesn't play things subtly: he and the great cinematographer Owen Roizman soak the film in jagged shadowy interiors harshly contrasting with eye-bleachingly bright, saturated exteriors, both of them suggesting something very artificial and threatening; and the film also boasts a remarkably dated but even more remarkably successful score by Michael Small that uses some of the most banal, '70s TV-movie cues to establish the soporific ordinariness of Stepford, and then its increasingly vile secrets, as the score begins to have minor-key counter-melodies and electronic orchestrations creeping around the edges to inform us, sonically, that All Is Not Well.

It's a fine, if somewhat overworked paranoia thriller from the era that genre was at its best; Ross's increasingly frantic but reliably strong-willed performance makes her an ideal subject for the mechanics of the film, which is where it works best. And in every detail of the production design, the music, and the costuming, it uses the visual language of the kind of soppy films pandering to women in an ironic, biting way, clearly underlining its angry, satiric goals: this life, this kind of filmmaking, is the sort of box that a certain kind of men want to keep women locked away in, docile and unchallenging and in no way politically dangerous.

And back we thus come to the satire, which is clearly the main takeaway from the movie, even though it's a much, much better thriller than social commentary. As you know - as I know, long before I watched the movie - as the poster basically up and tells us - the Stepford wives are robots, made by the mysterious Dale Coba (Patrick O'Neal), who used to build audio-animatronics for Disney. And this is the point Goldman made, and every hetero* male critic has made since, and we're all of us completely right: if you give the kind of conservative, woman-threatened man the movie portrays the ability to replace his wife with a completely docile robot clone who will uncomplainingly do every thing he wants, it's not going to be wearing hilariously demure dresses that go right up to the neck. It will be wearing skin-tight miniskirts that barely contain its enormous, imbalancing breasts. And it won't have time to take care of the house, the kids, and the cooking, because of the sheer quantity of blowjobs it performs in the course of a normal day. For Goldman, this meant that all of the Stepford wives should also be caricatured, gorgeous trophy wives; casting Newman scotched that, and the movie had to become suddenly very contrived and inapt in its central satiric message as a result (though the fake Joanna does have curvier hips and larger breasts than Ross naturally possesses). Even if we conceive that the chauvinist's dream in the '70s was for a parodic version of the '50s to come back, it certainly wouldn't have come at the expense of the Sexual Revolution, which benefited men every inch as much as it benefited women.

Regardless of the specifics, it doesn't make sense except strictly in the realm of symbolism and metaphor, a flaw that didn't affect Rosemary's Baby, which was metaphorical and internally coherent within the universe the film was creating. Forbes's atmosphere and theatricality do an excellent job of putting the reveal over with enough intensity that the logical holes are hard to spot: the confrontation between Joanna and her new replacement is tremendously captivating horror filmmaking.

And besides, whatever intellectual cheats it has to take to get there, the important part is less "what's going on?" than "what does it it mean for our characters?" Joanna and Bobbie are extraordinary movie heroes, sharply-written and brilliantly performed. As long as the film remains in a horror/thriller mood, presenting their discovery of the sheer scale of the entrenched anti-woman worldview they're facing as a sort of Kafka-esque nightmare, it works beautifully. Intellectually, it could be a lot sounder, but its rhetorical skills are of secondary concern to the way it all feels, and it feels bone-chilling. Not the tightest paranoia thriller, not the most persuasively horrifying in its implication, but far better than the generally soft reputation it has suffered from ever since the '70s, and a fine work of craftsmanship from a director whose thrillers are some of the best that you've almost certainly never seen.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1975
-Hotshot kid director Steven Spielberg almost fails to make the first movie to ever break $100 million at the box office, Jaws
-After years in the making, Robert Altman brings to the big screen the long-awaited Nashville, with 24, count 'em, 24 of your favorite stars
-Edgy animator Ralph Bakshi makes Coonskin and immediately embroils himself in racial controversy

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1975
-Belgium's Chantal Akerman creates a new feminist visual vocabulary with which to showcase three days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
-The simmering Australian New Wave bursts out in its full form with Picnic at Hanging Rock, a cryptic anti-mystery by Peter Weir
-Sholay becomes among the highest-grossing films in the history of Indian cinema, past, present, or future

*Let us of course be clear, I actually mean to say, hetero or bi or in any other way sexually attracted to women; there should be a better word for that than "non-homosexual", but I don't know of one.