Sunday, July 02, 2006

Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges, 1948)

In many an American film from the '30s and '40s, the movie begins with a title sequence married with an orchestral swell of sometimes inopportune music. Preston Sturges' 1948 masterpiece begins the same way, except we see the orchestra. The camera slowly pans forward toward the figure at the center of the frame, the conductor, until the frame is enveloped in the darkness of his black tuxedo jacket. Is there a better statement encompassing the major function of the film to follow? Unfaithfully Yours has all the appearances of a, shall we say, "normal" film, but it knows that it isn't, and soon the viewer is hurtled to dizzying heights of darkness, intrigue, pathos, and, yes, hilarity. Sturges molds the Hollywood form by manipulating it from the outside.

The conductor feigns modesty, undermining his own contribution to the orchestra, when in fact he is an extremely egoistic man, banking on British superiority over American, his own intellect and wordplay, and his status as a famous and indeed passionate and talented conductor. He is also, however, insecure; the slightest suspicion sets him off, and is the crux of the picture. He is so aware, though subconsciously, of his unworthiness of his wife that suspicion of cheating becomes certainty, and he can't bear the thought of confronting the matter and so essentially casts himself in three different ways the situation may play out in another, lesser film. These three imaginary conclusions are characterized by the music he is conducting at the moment, and his anguish becomes a stimulus that makes his performance a sensation. He is the true performing artist, pouring his every thought, emotion, and passion into his work.

Linda Darnell as Daphne, his wife, is fantastic. In an early scene when Sir Alfred first suspects her and treats her harshly and totally condescendingly (when she threatens to see a movie rather than her performance, he remarks "culturally, it would suit you better," and other wholly vilifying yet witty phrases), the viewer seeing the film with the knowledge that she is innocent will feel extremely sorry for her. Yet, when she is playing the femme fatale, the secretive seductress, and other roles in Sir Alfred's imaginings, she plays them all to a tee. Daphne is an utterly good wife, faithful, helpful, and sweet. It is perhaps because she never gave Sir Alfred a cause to suspect that he takes so readily to the idea, and that he is so infuriated. That coniving harpy! Only she isn't.

The first time I watched the film, I was taken in by the first daydream sequence, and it was an extremely effective twist of the narrative. Just as I began to believe the perfect murder was committed (I don't remember if I was thrilled or not; I was probably unamused), I found out it was all a joke, and was ecstatic because of it. "All a joke" as in all to be reversed, but this is a thoroughly coherent, insightful, and moving insight into the male psyche as much as it is a riotous dark comedy. This second time, I was able to appreciate the subtle cues that what we are seeing is not, in fact, taking place. Because you don't know what is going to fly in a movie, you think "oh, turning that nob does make his voice sound like his wife's, I guess." But, of course, it doesn't, as we see later in a hilarious sequence of man wrestling technology in slapstick, a good ol' standby from Chaplin through Sturges/Harrison and on to Woody Allen.

When Alfred finally leaves the performance and tries to carry out his plan of murder, everything goes wrong. Everything. It seems inarguable that this slapstick sequence outstays its welcome, but you either revel in its excess or you don't. It and I most certainly do. Rex Harrison is no Chaplin or Keaton, and that is precisely why the scene works. Sir Alfred is a man utterly unprepared for slapstick. There is no grace, no elevating of a quarrelsome chair or a falling lamp to an art resembling ballet. He is a normal guy, stumbling over stuff, throwing a roulette set through the window (thinking it's a phonograph, of course). And to think, this guy has a superiority complex. In his mind, the perfect murder is a piece of cake. Obviously, he was wrong.

His wife comes home, and she is sweet as always to him. As he chastises her for no particular reason, she follows behind him and picks up his trail of clothing and objects. This is not her being subservient because she's a woman, but her being genuinely caring and helpful. Sturges creates in her an independent female that has teeth when she needs them, but she loves Sir Alfred, and there's little question that he loves her, even if he plots her demise or other forms of undoing.

Unfaithfully Yours is at once a wonderful insight into just how stupid the male gender can be, and how despite the fact that the woman is often viewed as the one inclined toward emotional judgements, the man is frail in the light of his own. It is in addition a film that toys with movie conventions and, fittingly, when the couple is inevitably reunited in love, the sentiment (though far more earned and genuine than many films that could end similarly) is overlooked by a group headed by Daphne's wisecracking (and, in ways, polar opposite) sister. With this as a counterpoint, "A thousand poets dreamed a thousand years, then you were born, my love" doesn't seem to be overdoing it. It seems just about right.


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