Written and directed by Preston Sturges, “Unfaithfully Yours” (1948) is a very black comedy about the outrageous lengths to which an injured husband imagines he might go to get revenge, and one can see how that idea might work if developed in the right direction and by a different director, like Hitchcock, perhaps. Preston Sturges, however, is not really in his element with this material. His best films, like “The Lady Eve” (1941) and “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), celebrate life and love, but “Unfaithfully Yours” is a deranged fantasy of death, too gimmicky for its own good and burdened with a very unlikeable protagonist in the person of Rex Harrison. There are certainly people who will find the picture funny, but it’s a letdown in comparison with Sturges’ better work and a bad place to begin if you want a proper sense of his talents.
Harrison stars as a famous English conductor, Sir Alfred, who seems at first to be deeply in love with his beautiful American wife, Daphne (Linda Darnell). Thanks to his meddlesome brother-in-law (Rudy Vallee), Sir Alfred begins to suspect that his wife is having an affair with his assistant, and he jealously imagines taking violent revenge on the couple during the course of an evening’s orchestral performance.
Linda Darnell is gorgeous as the composer’s unsuspecting wife, and her fabulous gowns perfectly complement her beauty. Rex Harrison, however, is neither handsome nor likeable as our protagonist, whose fantasies about mercy are just as annoying as his imaginary scenes of revenge. The attempt to pitch the whole thing as comedy really breaks down when it becomes apparent that Sir Alfred fantasizes about murdering his wife with a razor; thankfully, the conventions of the time prevent us from actually witnessing the bloody deed, but imagination is enough to disturb the thoughtful viewer and suggest the truly violent darkness of the protagonist’s psyche. What bothers me most about the film is its deep-rooted misogyny, which asks us to identify with a man who would murder his wife in the most horrific fashion only because he suspects that she might possibly be having an affair, thanks to a nosy in-law and some circumstantial evidence from a shady private eye. He’s unhinged enough to attempt to carry out his plan in real life, although luckily for the other characters Sir Alfred proves to be thoroughly inept as an actual murderer. This seems rather cold comfort, though, when we realize that poor Daphne will spend the rest of her life unwittingly coupled with a latent psychopath.
The film’s artistic gimmick has the action of Sir Alfred’s various fantasies playing out over the course of his evening concert, in which he directs the orchestra through classical pieces that suit the tone of each particular fantasy in turn. It’s a murder-themed version of “Fantasia” (1940), and it’s a cute trick but one that wears thin by the time we reach the end of the picture. The musical scenes that cut back to the actual performance merely slow the forward movement of the narrative, although hardcore classical music fans will probably have a higher tolerance for these segments. Of course, there is some Wagner involved, along with Tchaikovsky and Rossini.
“Unfaithfully Yours” was remade in 1984 with Dudley Moore in the Rex Harrison role. For Harrison’s best remembered films, see “My Fair Lady” (1964) and “Doctor Doolittle” (1967), although if you love to hate him you might try “Blithe Spirit” (1945). Linda Darnell can be found in “The Mark of Zorro” (1940), “My Darling Clementine” (1946), and “A Letter to Three Wives” (1949). See more of Rudy Vallee in “The Palm Beach Story” (1942), “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” (1947), and “The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend” (1949). Try “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944) for another of Preston Sturges’ better films.
The National Classic Movies Examiner posts new content regularly. Subscribe to this column by clicking the “subscribe” button at the top of this article and get automatic updates when new articles appear. You can also follow Jennifer Garlen on Twitter as @garlengirl.