Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Reality and fantasy in Unfaithfully Yours

Just watched Preston Sturges’ 1948 film Unfaithfully Yours, about a famous symphony conductor who, believing he has been cuckolded, plots revenge on his wife and her lover. There’s so much to say about this brilliant black comedy that I don’t know where to begin. For anyone familiar with Sturges’ other films as a writer-director (The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story among them), it won’t comes as a surprise that this one is full of sharp, witty dialogue. But I was unprepared for how dark some of it was. (“I thought of killing you, my dear,” the lead character tells his wife at one point, without losing anything of his elegant bearing, “I cut your throat with a razor. Your head nearly came off”.) I also thought it notable how the film manages to continually transcend genre, moving from screwball comedy to a shadowiness characteristic of film noir, with a bit of surrealism and slapstick thrown in. And oh, it’s also a frenzied musical that makes splendid use of classical music to reflect mood and comment on the action.

The story has Sir Alfred De Carter (played by Rex Harrison, more than 15 years before his best-known screen performance) coming to believe that his beautiful (and much younger) wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) is cheating on him with his secretary. De Carter has an important concert the same night, and his rage turns it into the performance of a lifetime. But his rapt audience has no idea what’s going on inside his head. Over the course of three symphonies, he imagines different ways of dealing with his situation: the first and third scenarios involve murder, while the second (set to a sombre, dignified score) involves a mere parting of ways (which gives him the opportunity to play the wounded yet stoical husband who is still concerned about his wife’s financial welfare).

Once the concert is over, he tries to put his ideas into action but real life isn’t as obliging as his fantasy world was; things don’t unfold quite as conveniently. In the imaginary world, when he writes out a 100,000-dollar cheque for his wife (whom he intends to divorce), he does it with a flourish that turns him into a grandly tragic figure, betraying both his deep hurt and his determination to conceal it. But when he sits down to replicate the gesture in the real world, it turns out his fountain pen is out of ink. In fantasy-land, a gramophone player conveniently transforms his recorded voice into his wife's when he adjusts the dial from 33 rpm to 78 rpm; in the real world, the thing becomes a monster machine that refuses to cooperate despite the words “so simple it operates itself” printed everywhere in the instruction manual.

I enjoyed the shifts in this film’s tone. It starts off as a lightweight comedy of manners – and the rapid-fire banter starts to get mildly tiresome after a while – but then the concert begins and we enter the fantasy segment in the film’s midsection. Sir Alfred strikes a pose to commence his conducting and there is a remarkably fluid camera movement that begins with a medium shot and draws towards him, taking us right into the depths of his left eye and – literally – into his mind. The next 30 minutes are intense and claustrophobic, but after the concert finishes the film comes out of its reverie and we’re headed for something resembling a happy ending.

Throughout these changes of mood, Sturges’ dialogue never loses its sting.
Much of the pleasure of watching Unfaithfully Yours comes from listening to his rich dialogue, whether it’s in the form of lengthy exchanges or brief, tossed-off remarks. (“It sounds like a talking dog!” exclaims Daphne when she picks up the phone and can’t make sense of the sounds – her husband gasping and stifling a sneeze – on the other end.) But at a more serious level, I saw it as the story of an
artist who appears self-assured, even arrogant and supercilious on the surface, but who turns out to be deeply insecure inside – and who must use his art as a form of catharsis, to help him deal with subconscious fears. On the surface, the “dream segment” of the film is the long symphony sequence containing Sir Alfred’s fantasies, but one also gets the impression that he's never more himself than when he loses himself in that world. He’s truly alive when he’s conducting (Harrison performs these scenes marvelously well), his arms making frenzied movements in the air. Like Walter Mitty he’s in control of his interior life - little wonder that reality doesn't quite measure up.

P.S. There was a remake in 1984 with Dudley Moore and Nastassja Kinski – both charismatic actors, but the film wasn’t anywhere near as gripping as the original.

P.P.S. Unrelated to anything: my DVD has a nice 12-minute video introduction to the film by Terry Jones, formerly of Monty Python - it was shot in Jones’s house and towards the end there’s a great impromptu moment where his black cat appears and sidles on to the sofa next to him. Very cosy little scene.


  1. Will check this out.
    By the way, what distinguishes Preston Sturges is not just the quality of his screenplays but also his underrated flair for visual comedy. Some of the gags in his best films - most notably The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story hold up very well and can be favourably compared with the best work of a Chaplin or a Keaton.

    Your review of this film reminds me of Wilder's terribly underrated The Seven Year Itch that I rewatched recently. Even that film features a paranoid husband with a very fertile imagination.

  2. Need to rewatch The Seven Year Itch myself - watched it once when I was around 12 and in the snobbery of that age I think I saw it more as a "lowbrow" Monroe film than a Billy Wilder film; not sure I even knew who Wilder was, actually, and I probably didn't catch or understand some of the dialogue.

    Dead right about Sturges' visual comedy, there's plenty of that in Unfaithfully Yours - the gag with the recalcitrant gramophone player is the equal of anything in Modern Times. There's also a very striking (and startling, if you don't know about it beforehand) scene where a gun goes off. I was completely spooked by it.

    Wouldn't advise watching this in a small Youtube box, btw.

  3. I remember years ago there was a quiz question: to connect Semiramide, Der Venusberg, and Francesca da Rimini: the overtures for these orchestral pieces were played in the film. Someone in the audience actually managed to answer it (nope, not me) and won a Cadbury's eclair.

  4. Hey, Could you please suggest a website to buy good novels for a 10 yr old. Thanks,


  5. I was quite disappointed with UY. I saw it at our local revival house a couple of years back before the DVD had come out (which the good people of the theater had mentioned prominently). I found the movie very heartless, & even misogynistic. Unlike Lady Eve, Hail The Conquering Hero or Miracle Of Morgan's Creek, which also had 'damaged good' heroes, there was very little to like about Harrison's character. I later read about Harrison's behind-the-scene antics in Dr. Dolittle in 'Pictures At A Revolution', & thought he was a lot like the character he plays here in real life.

  6. Tipu: "heartless" I can agree with to an extent (and it's the most downbeat of Sturges' films despite the obligatory happy ending), but misogynistic? Really? Quite the contrary, I thought the film was a fine study cum send-up of the male animal's sexual jealousy, and Harrison's character being unlikable is part of the point. In this sense, the film even seemed like an anticipation of Vertigo.