“Russian Roulette’s a very different amusement which I can only wish your father had played continuously before he had you!”
Preston Sturges’ career ran in conjunction with classic film noir. Both made their presence known in the early 1940s, and would go on to dominate the decade with their blend of acid-tongued banter and confusing stories. The big difference, of course, was tone. While film noir shined a light on human nature’s dark side, Sturges comedies like The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) were charming and upbeat. It would be difficult to imagine tones that were further apart, and yet, they crashed, spectacularly, into one another with Unfaithfully Yours (1948).
Sturges had actually penned the script for Unfaithfully Yours in 1932, but struggled to get it financed and eventually shelved it for more accessible material. By the late 40s, though, bleak stories were all the rage, and he saw an opportunity to make a full-fledged parody of the film noir while maintaining the absurdity of his original vision.
Unfaithfully Yours, for the uninitiated, is about a symphony conductor named Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison). He has it all: fame, fortune, and a doting wife named Daphne (Linda Darnell). Or so he thinks. Through a series of misunderstandings, Alfred comes to suspect that Daphne may be having an affair with his assistant, Anthony (Kurt Krueger). His paranoia reaches a fever pitch the night of an important concert, and he spends most of it contemplating the different ways he can confront Daphne. The film then plays out these different ways to disastrous effect.
The first scenario is the darkest, and arguably the best. Alfred returns home, masterminds a plan, then proceeds to slash his wife’s throat with a straight razor and frame his assistant for the murder. There’s a perverse glee in watching every single aspect of the plan go accordingly, and Sturges knows it too. He hits each beat as though we were watching a hero achieve a worthwhile goal, and the incongruity of the execution with the actions depicted make it just as shocking now as it was seven decades ago. The shock is elevated further when you consider that the film presents these actions as reality. The whole scenario is edited as though it occurs after the concert, therefore making the viewer think Alfred really did get away with murder.
The dissolve back to the concert is both reassuring and structurally limiting. We’re shown that Alfred is still conducting and no such murder has taken place, which means there’s still time for him to change his mind. It also means the element of surprise has been removed. Part of what makes the first scenario such a mind-boggler is the aforementioned leap of faith the viewer had to take in believing it was legit. Once the gambit of a multiple choice outcome is introduced, “Unfaithfully Yours” settles into a safer, albeit entertaining groove.
The other scenarios are similarly macabre, though they take on more of the broad comedy appeal that Sturges is known for. The second one sees Alfred confront Daphne and Anthony by challenging them to a game of Russian Roulette. He proudly goes first, and promptly shoots himself in the head. The third one is longer and packed with more laughs, with Alfred looking for a recorder to fabricate his wife’s “last words.” The seemingly easy task becomes a tall order, as Alfred falls over, breaks furniture, and pesters phone operators in an attempt to be covert. What scenario does Alfred ultimately choose in the end? In an effort to draw more eyes to the film, that is the one thing I won’t spoil.
The slapstick is top of the line, which anyone familiar with Sturges can attest to. The dialogue is sharp as Alfred’s straight razor, with so many puns, references, and double meanings baked in that a single viewing won’t do them justice. A private detective crosses paths with Alfred at one point, and his musical fandom results in gems like “You handle Handel like nobody handles Handel. And your Delius – delirious!”
Of course, the manipulation that Unfaithfully Yours attempts would fail were it not for the talent of the cast. Rex Harrison is refinement personified in so many of his famous roles, but here, he drops the niceties and delivers a blisteringly funny performance. He does some absolutely heinous things in the film, as was previously stated, and yet, we feel for him and the predicament that he’s imagined for himself. A less charismatic actor would have crumbled. The supporting cast has less to do, but Rudy Vallee, Edgar Kennedy and Barbara Lawrence all serve as credible foils. Linda Darnell is given a particularly tricky assignment here, as she has to convince the audience she could be a saint and an adulterer at the same time. She nails it in every scenario, proving she had more range than she was often given the chance to explore.
Unfaithfully Yours was released to positive reviews and nonexistent box office in 1948. The subject matter was always going to be a tough sell, but the timing could not have been worse due to the personal life of its star. Harrison was reportedly having an affair with actress Carole Landis at the time, and her suicide was believed by many to be a result of his refusing to get a divorce. Harrison discovered Landis’ body, which made the notion of him as a snickering wife killer a little too grim for the general public. The failure of Unfaithfully Yours also signaled the end of Sturges’ career; he made only one more film in Hollywood before retreating to Europe.
While not as famous as, say, Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Unfaithfully Yours has become something of a cult favorite among Sturges fans. It’s a deep cut, but those who have seen it can attest to its bold narrative shifts and how forward-thinking it was in terms of noir comedy. Quentin Tarantino has cited it as one of his favorite films, and given his penchant for genre fusion, I can’t think of a better endorsement.
TRIVIA: Carole Landis was briefly considered for the role of Daphne. Her volatile relationship with Harrison led Sturges to go with Linda Darnell instead.
You can find all of Danilo’s Film Noir Review articles here.
Danilo Castro is the managing editor of NOIR CITY Magazine and a Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.
Thank you for the interesting post. I’ve not seen this film, although I’m always amused by Preston Sturges’ films. I’ll have to add this one to my watch list.