Opinions vary as to whether this late Preston Sturges work (the second of three box office flops that effectively ended his career) merits inclusion among his masterpieces from the early half of the 1940s. Those (like myself) who cherish what Manny Farber called "the high-muzzle velocity" of his films may be frustrated by the relatively staid pacing of the proceedings, characterized by set-bound, dialogue-heavy, almost television-like long takes. Instead of his famously free-wheeling exchanges among a democratic array of vivid characters, Sturges focuses squarely on an imperious orchestra conductor played by Rex Harrison (in a suitably high-toned performance that's more admirable than likeable). As Harrison's Sir Alfred de Carter ponders the rumored infidelity of his wife (Linda Darnell, whose characteristic vapidity is put to intriguing use), the proceedings are reflected through his increasingly paranoid mind; if Sturges was the Shakespeare of screwball comedy, this is undoubtedly his Othello.
While the occasionally grating barrage of Harrison's declamatory put-downs against those around him is but one liability of Sturges' subjective character focus, it also results in a personal breakthrough of unprecedented interiority. The payoff is a 25 minute tour de force sequence in which de Carter conducts three orchestral pieces while his mind conceives three corresponding revenge fantasies, each vividly different in tone and moral resolution. Timed perfectly to the action, the soundtrack is a landmark in simultaneous diegetic/non-diegetic sound - simultaneously it is the music de Carter is performing and the music playing in his fantasies, expressing every nuance of his emotions. That his thoughts and the music so perfectly harmonize underscore his mastery of the medium, while also setting up a sharp contrast with his near-total disharmony with everything around him: first with his friends and family whom he regards with increasing distrust, then, in a painfully funny slapstick sequence, the household objects he attempts to utilize to enact his revenge fantasy. As a poignant study in a master of the arts' loss of mastery over life, this film can't help but resonate with Sturges, who by this point was losing his prodigious gifts for writing vividly cinematic vivisections of society, relegating himself to a bittersweet portrait of one man's losing battle against solipsism.
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One of the most sophisticated slapstick comedies ever made, this classic, written and directed by Preston Sturges, got terrible reviews and failed at the box office. The hero, a symphony conductor (a parody of Sir Thomas Beecham), is played by Rex Harrison, who is at one of his comic peaks. During a concert the conductor, convinced that his wife (Linda Darnell) has been unfaithful to him, fantasizes how he will handle the situation in three different ways, according to the style of the music on the program--Rossini's Overture to Semiramide, the "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Wagner's Tannhäuser, and Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini." After the concert, he tries to carry them out, scrambling them hopelessly. There are so many great lines and situations in this movie that writers and directors have been stealing from it for years, just as they've been stealing from Sturges's other work, but no one has ever come close to the wild-man deviltry of the best Preston Sturges comedies.
Beth Gilligan for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:
The interludes, which take place inside Sir Alfred’s head, are among the film’s most frequently misinterpreted passages. The acting is highly melodramatic, the camera moves less, and the lighting markedly changes. While some have been inclined to see this as a sign of Sturges’ slipping talents as a director (he would only go on to direct two more films after this, both of which were colossal flops), they were actually a conscious decision on his part (or so he claimed in his autobiography) to convey events as his protagonist might have imagined them unfolding. Darnell, who barely registers throughout the rest of the picture, seizes upon the opportunity to do some marvelous overacting here.
From Jonathan Lethem's essay for the Criterion DVD booklet:
Unfaithfully Yours builds a relatively conventional frame around three absurdist reveries. In the frame, we come to know the impulsive and distractible master conductor Sir Alfred De Carter, who, though he is surrounded by assistants, managers, relatives, and fans, is consumed solely, in alternation, by his marriage and his art. His obsessiveness is rewarded in his work and punished in his love life, at least for the duration of the film, when passion turns to jealousy, and therefore to daydreams of sacrifice, derangement, depression, and revenge. Those daydreams make up the content of the three unreal sequences and, paradoxically, the real subject of the film. In “Kafka and His Precursors,” Jorge Luis Borges describes how Franz Kafka’s nightmare geometry echoes the ancient Greek mathematical fable called Zeno’s paradox: “A moving body at point A (Aristotle states) will not be able to reach point B, because it must first cover half of the distance between the two, and before that, half of the half, and before that, half of the half of the half, and so on to infinity; the form of this famous problem is precisely that of The Castle, and the moving body and arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkaesque characters in literature.” In Sturges’s film, it is the relationship of Sir Alfred’s idealized fantasies (whether of committing murder or suicide or merely of pulling off a flamboyant guilt trip) to the material reality he encounters in his attempts to enact those fantasies (telephone, chairs, a folding checkerboard, and that great Simplicitas home recording machine, which earns a place between the feeding machine in Modern Times and R2D2 in the pantheon of cinema’s great robots) that is so utterly Zenoesque. In his fantasies, the arrow strikes the mark: Sir Alfred crosses the room in a long stride or two and retrieves the recorder from the overhead cabinet effortlessly. When he tries to re-create this sequence in the real world, the distance is everything, and the goal—his perfect murder—recedes from sight as persistently as Kafka’s castle.
In his engrossing two-part essay on movie realism, Andrew Grossman of Bright Lights Film Journal describes Sturges' brilliant use of non-diegetic music to express Rex Harrison's subjective reality:
As our example of meaningful musical expressionism in film, I will not use the avant-garde films of the 1960s you might expect. Rather, I will use Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours (1948), whose use of Rossini’s overtures provides a background of unbroken extradiegetic music lengthier than that of any other non-musical in memory. What makes Unfaithfully remarkable here is that its musical expressionism is not unimaginative, sledgehammer irony in the manner of Kubrick’s use of familiar Rossini selections in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Going beyond irony, Sturges uses music to pierce the interiors of characters to demonstrate moral truths. In Unfaithfully, the maddening music provides a frantic background to a scenario that is rather calm to all of the characters save Rex Harrison’s, whose wife’s infidelity resides only in his artistic mind, like the music he conducts. Yet when his conventionally suspicious mind, that is, the conventional music that runs through it, is laid across the screen, our minds, too, become clouded. In perhaps Sturges’ best speech, Harrison chastises a despicable private eye for liking the music he conducts, and is devastated that music — his music — does not possess certain “antiseptic” qualities that morally cleanse despicability from the listener. But he, of course, is the most despicable and immoral, because he can no longer distinguish between reality and fiction; the conventional and false morality of bourgeois art represented by the romantically confused Rossini fantasies which obsess his thoughts, which we are forced to hear repeatedly, and which expressionistically banana-slip as his madness mounts, eventually overcome his rationality. In the end, the deluded musical soundtrack opposes the real, but calls attention to the moral importance of rational behavior in ways that realistic or mimetic representations cannot, for realism, accepting its rationalism on faith, does not even bother to demonstrate why rationalism is important as a mode of representation.
RJ Keefe offers a thorough synopsis of the film, concluding with these very astute observations about the film's "happy" ending (really no happier or more resolved than the ending of, say, Sullivan's Travels):
Unfaithfully Yours is the comedy of a man who lives as a matter of course on a plane of exuberant ease. His wants are taken care of by a loving wife and a devoted staff - to such an extent that he is unaware of having any. From this bliss he is tripped into two struggles. The first is with his enraged confusion. It is an exalting struggle, one that inspires him to conduct brilliantly. The second is with the material world, with the things that are usually laid out just where they ought to be by other people. Having imagined himself orchestrating a fiendishly clever plan to avenge himself, he discovers that he doesn't really know where anything is, that he can't even bandage a razor cut. But, with leonine majesty, he refuses to apologize for perfectly awful behavior. Instead, as he regains possession of himself, he insists on salvaging something from his crazy schemes, and asks Daphne to put on the very dress in which he was thinking of murdering her, so that he can take her out dancing after all, to show the world how proud he is. Sir Alfred emerges from his nightmare unrepentant, unaware, in fact, that he has anything to repent.
This is a comedy in which nothing is resolved. Even though husband and wife end the film in a kiss, I don't think that Unfaithfully Yours can be called a "comedy of remarriage." Is Daphne really innocent? Her affection for her husband seems a trifle overdone; we see enough of her to know that, when she's with him, she composes herself, as if putting on a face. If there is another man, it's not Tony. Perhaps she is technically faithful but actually in love with her position as Lady Daphne. We will never know. It is clear that if Sir Alfred's doubts are ever roused again, he will respond with exactly the same madness. Sir Alfred will never know himself any better than he does now, and that's the way it has to be, because for Sir Alfred to know himself would be the finish.
Reviews of the 2005 Criterion DVD:
Amanda DeWees for DVD Verdict
Nicholas Rapold for Reverse Shot
Fresh Air from WHYY, August 2, 2005 · Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz tells why he likes the soundtrack for the Preston Sturges film Unfaithfully Yours, now out on DVD.
The official Preston Sturges website
A notable fansite with extensive biographical info
Preston Sturges bio by Jonas Varsted Kierkegaard at Senses of Cinema Great Directors
Sturges' page on They Shoot Pictures, Don't They offers some quotes by critics and Sturges himself
Preston Sturges has a MySpace page!