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unfaithfully yours

Preston Sturges

Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that he made his films to be watched a second time. Only when the distraction of suspense has been cleared away can the viewer appreciate the great artistry with which Hitchcock filled the screen. The same is true of Unfaithfully Yours, Preston Sturges's rather dark 1948 comedy for 20th Century Fox. Only when you know how everything works out can you appreciate the immense high silliness of the the three central scenes, in which a celebrated conductor indulges, while conducting an orchestra, in three different fantasies of disposing of his wife, and only when you see the finale the second time can you savor its glorious ironies. Another thing that improves with repetition is Rex Harrison's stupendous performance as the conductor, Sir Alfred de Carter.

To suggest the level of this movie's sophistication, I shall gloss Sir Alfred's name. If you are of a certain age, you'll remember hearing of Carter's Little Liver Pills. They were laxatives manufactured in the United States. In England, there were Beecham's Liver Pills, also laxatives. A scion of the Beecham family exhausted the family fortune in the production of Handel operas and Delius concerts. That would be the great Sir Thomas Beecham. When Sir Alfred de Carter says, in passing, that his family's product has "kept England on time since Waterloo," without naming the product itself, we are hearing a lame attempt to ward off any litigation from eccentric (and depleted) maestros. I've never heard that Sir Thomas was even aware of Unfaithfully Yours, but I imagine that he'd have been rather pleased to find himself portrayed by the slim, dashing, and hyperarticulate Rex Harrison.

Sir Alfred is married to the beautiful Daphne (the beautiful Linda Darnell), from whom he has been reluctantly parted by musical engagements abroad. The film begins with his return to her side - and the ugly news that his brother-in-law, August (Rudy Vallee), a wealthy American married to Daphne's sister, Barbara (Barbara Lawrence) - has had Daphne tailed by a detective. Sir Alfred is outraged and incredulous. He tears the detective's report into bits and throws it away. After an orchestra rehearsal, he is approached by a detective from his residential hotel ("the Towers" - wonder what that could refer to?) with the carefully reconstructed report. Sir Alfred is even angrier, and this time tries to ignite the document in a wastebasket, thus starting a fire. Presently, however, he arrives at his lunch date with Daphne (who has been buying dresses). At the restaurant, August and Barbara are sitting apart from Daphne and Tony, Sir Alfred's young and handsome secretary (Kurt Kreuger), and when Sir Alfred asks why, Barbara says something acid about how cute Daphne and Tony look together. The seed of doubt begins to sprout, and before he can have a thing to eat, Sir Alfred is running off to the detective agency to have any additional copies of the report destroyed.

Sweeping imperiously into the agency's office, Sir Alfred is nonplussed to find that the detective is a great admirer of his music-making. The association of Handel and Delius (yes) with this "vulgar footpad" is so disgusting that Sir Alfred begs the man not to name any other composers, lest he have to forgo future performances of their music. The detective doesn't take this personally; he assumes that Sir Alfred has read the report, and knows that, while he was away, Daphne was seen wandering down the hallway to Tony's room, wearing only a négligée. From disbelief, Sir Alfred tumbles into jealous certainty. Returning to the suite before the evening's concert, he is frigid with Daphne - but by no means silent. Tearing off to the concert hall, he leaves her as mystified as Desdemona.

The concert hall at night is a brilliant place, full of furs, jewels, and white shirt-fronts. Daphne, looking extraordinary in a hairpiece that will remind today's New Yorker's of the chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera, is joined by Tony, Barbara, and August in a box. That she should show up at all may strike an unrealistic note, but as we shall see it serves a dramatic purpose.

The program consists of three numbers, all of them famous overtures. Rossini's Semiramide and Wagner's Tannhäuser Overtures were written for operas but quickly appropriated for the symphony repertoire; Tchakovsky's Concert-Overture, Francesca da Rimini, is a stand-alone work. By the time the concert begins, we have already heard parts of the Tchaikovsky (during the credits) and most of the Rossini (during the rehearsal). We must take a moment to say a few words about these once very frequently-performed, and thus well-known, concert pieces. It is worth noting, by the way, that all three works are openers; in that sense, this is a concert without any substance.

The story of the opera Semiramide needn't concern us. The point of almost any Rossini overture is its drollery, its booms and its Bronx cheers. Alberto Moravia once called Rossini the greatest comic genius in Italian music, and he was right; that may be why Rossini lost interest in writing operas for an increasingly melodramatic society. His music seems inspired by a trickster god, always up to something and never quite what it seems. Tannhäuser comes to us from the very opposite end of of things. It is lofty, it takes itself very seriously, and it foreshadows an opera that is preoccupied by the high-minded renunciation of carnal passion. Certainly Sturges's choice of this music is meant to convey a certain fatuousness. Finally, Francesca da Rimini is a tone poem that depicts the punishment of the adulterous lovers that Dante writes about in Canto V of Inferno. They are blown about eternally by winds that embody the inconstancy of lust. Tchaikovsky's music is dark and dramatic, and the infernal winds are rather more horrific- sounding than Dante might have liked. But that suits Sturges down to the ground.

At the beginning of each piece, the camera approaches Sir Alfred on the podium from his left, coming in closer and closer and not stopping until the dark of his left pupil has swallowed up the screen. Thus we are taken inside his imagination. The performances continue, and the synchronization of the music with the fantastic events that he imagines is acute, leaving no doubt that Sir Alfred is enjoying a double high, the elation of conducting a rousing piece of music and the thrill of working out a dream of revenge.

There are three such dreams, each determined by the music that Sir Alfred happens to be conducting. I shall not describe them more than I have to. The first, inspired, as it were, by the Rossini, involves cutting Daphne's throat while framing Tony for the crime. The scheme is very complicated, as full of twists and gags as the music, and it involves making a recording on an extraordinary machine that only a rich person would own. In the fantasy, everything falls glossily into place, and as Tony, having been condemned to death, screams that he is innocent, Sir Alfred laughs demonically, something that he is actually doing on the podium as the Semiramide Overture comes to its cymbal-crashing end. In the second fantasy, chastened by the excesses of the first, no doubt, and inspired by Wagner, Sir Alfred resolves to forgive Daphne and bless her passion for the handsome, younger man. Renouncing his beautiful wife, Sir Alfred writes her a very large check with a quill pen, wearing a look of ineffable nobility that is undoubtedly very pleasant to contemplate as he wraps up the Wagner.

Such high-mindedness is shattered, however, by a backstage encounter with Daphne and Tony at intermission. Imaginary renunciation on the podium was one thing; the sight of his lovely wife and his faithless secretary rekindles Sir Alfred's rage, and he turns his back on them. Stamping her foot prettily, the mystified Daphne drags Tony back to their seats, and the concert presently resumes. For the third and last time, we enter Sir Alfred's mind, and the mood is icy and menacing. The absurd pile-up of contingencies, rather like a Heath Robinson contraption, that constituted the first fantasy, is completely stripped away.

The dream begins, as do the other two, with the return of Sir Alfred and Daphne to their suite; as in the first one, Tony is with them. The supposedly guilty lovers are obviously stricken with anxiety, their guilty consciences as visible as the sheen of perspiration upon Tony's brow. Within less than two minutes of screen time, Sir Alfred is brandishing a gun. Daphne and Tony gasp in horror. While the music swirls and storms, Sir Alfred explains Russian Roulette. Because Tony won't shoot first, Sir Alfred, a pillar of grandiloquent self-assurance, never missing a chance to denounce the lovers, takes the gun from him and shoots himself in the temple. The scene dissolves in a spin as the music thunders to a close; the audience rises in thunderous applause. Sir Alfred vacantly walks off the podium, and we follow him through the backstage and out the door.

The fact that he returns home alone is the first suggestion that things are not going to work out as planned in any of his fantasies. For the first time, the pulse of the movie slows to normal. Sir Alfred seems to be lost in his silent rooms. But then he comes upon Daphne's nightgown, laid out on the counterpane, and the music resumes. It is the opening motif of the Semiramide Overture, a repeated phrase that suggests both a march and an obstinately pawing horse. Almost at once, however, a leering clarinet signals the mocking spirit in which the movie will proceed almost to its end.

This scene, in which Alfred tries to make the recording - of himself crying out "Murder! Police! Oh, Tony, what have I ever done to you?", on the understanding that, when played at normal speed, the record will sound like Daphne, who, for her part, pursuant to the plan, will already be dead, while Tony waits outside her room, to take her out dancing (a date concocted by Sir Alfred, who will be well away), unaware that his presence on the scene (summoned by the recorded screams) and his fingerprints on the fatal razor will condemn him - lasts about fifteen minutes, which is a long time for a solo scene in a comedy. Sometimes I find it a little too long, but that's only because I've become impatient with myself. After long years, my dear wife has persuaded me that I behave just like Sir Alfred when I'm determined to fight the odds in pursuit of passing obsessions. The recording machine, in the course of finding which Sir Alfred trashes his living room, proves to be totally intractable; what was a matter of minutes in the fantasy threatens to become a matter of hours. Just to turn up the frustration a few notches, Sturges repeatedly cuts to the machine's instruction manual, from which we learn its brand name and its tag: "Simplicitas,  'So Simple It Operates Itself'," as indeed it does, with a demonic determination to thwart its owner. Never, so far as I know, has a piece of paper been used so effectively to mock a comic figure. It doesn't budge, but, every time Sturges comes back to it, its malignancy deepens. The recording, when Sir Alfred finally manages to make it, is not a success (guess why), and it is while he searches through the manual for help (we're shown a perfectly useless circuit chart) that Daphne and Tony arrive, to find him sitting on the floor "in the middle," as Daphne puts it, "of all this disaster."

Claiming that he is "making an experiment," Sir Alfred stands up and sneezes - as a comble des malheurs, he has come down with a cold. Tony, who has no idea whatever of the drift of his employer's thoughts, laughs sociably and is promptly told to leave. Daphne, exasperated, pleads for an explanation, but Sir Alfred ignores her; he's still following Plan A. As he steps up behind her, his eyebrows arched, and we hear the Rossini again, gently in the background, one of the funniest exchanges in all of film begins.

Sir Alfred: By the way, I will not be able to take you out dancing tonight.

Daphne: Why, who are you taking?

Sir Alfred: I mean you'll have to be taken by somebody else. I have other plans.

Daphne: Taken where?

Sir Alfred: Dancing.

Daphne: Dancing? Who told you I wanted to go out [imitating his accent, then catching herself] dahnce - dancing?. You're coming down with a heavy cold and I feel about as much like dancing as...

Sir Alfred: Really. Wouldn't you like to go dancing with Tony?

Daphne: With Tony! Have you ever seen Tony dance? I saw him once with Barbara and he gets up on his toes like a rooster and he pushes you over sideways and then he shoves your head back till you think it's going to drop off. Why, compared to him, you look like Arthur Murray.

Sir Alfred: I don't need any compliments, thank you.

Daphne: You are not getting any.

For the rest of the picture (which is nearly over), Rex Harrison shows us a man trying to maintain an attitude from which the air is slowly but steadily leaking, as his heart begins to soften toward his wife. He almost relents at one point - Daphne does take such good care of him - but then he remembers himself and, with a boyish obstinacy, he lurches into Plan B, magnanimous renunciation. Daphne's mouth hangs more or less permanently agape as her husband garbles his lines, making no sense whatever, and spills ink all over his checkbook. (Sir Alfred has, after all, has rehearsed this only once, in his head.) Plan C aborts almost at once when bullets cannot be found for the revolver, and it is only now that he lets Daphne tell him a story that not only explains the detective's report but convinces Sir Alfred that she is innocent. The de Carters embrace, they kiss, unaware of the little audience - Barbara, August, his manager, Hugo (Lionel Stander), and even Tony - that has crept up beside them, and the movie ends to the final notes of the Tannhäuser Overture.

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.

What redeems the film from pointlessness is its enormous appetite for life. Rex Harrison really does seem to be a force greater than nature as he sails through the movie like a tall ship with power steering and power brakes. He is even better than Fred Astaire and Leslie Howard at exhibiting a firmly masculine grace; and like the best English actors, he modulates his voice with a precision that seems like singing. As such, he is the star of a very well-put-together show. The rest of the cast is superb, and the dialogue is funny, sophisticated, and fresh. Unfaithfully Yours is an uncommonly well-made movie, too; everything about gleams with the finish that was characteristic of the great Fox films of the late Forties, such as A Letter To Three Wives, Gentleman's Agreement, and All About Eve. It deserves the same appreciation. (July 2005)

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