Famed Englishman Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison) is an orchestra conductor in peril. His trouble is that he suspects his American wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) of being unfaithful to him while he is out of the country, on tour. Even worse, he suspects that her lover is his own secretary, Tony.
These suspicions are furthered when his brother-in-law August (Rudy Vallee) admits that, while Alfred was on tour, he hired a private investigator to “keep an eye on” Daphne. That investigator allegedly saw her enter a building, dressed in a slinky neglige, and not come back out of the building for nearly forty minutes. Even Daphne’s own sister, Barbara (Barbara Lawrence), thinks that Daphne is guilty of infidelity.
Alfred has a big concert coming up, and in his anguish must still find a way to conduct his number successfully. So he channels all of his anger into his conducting, imagining three different ways to exact revenge on Daphne – one scenario during each song that he conducts at the concert. The scenarios include murder, forgiveness and suicide. After the concert, Alfred tries to act out his fantasies, but many mishaps get in his way.
Unfaithfully Yours is an original screenplay written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve). It falls under the genre of dark comedy. The structure of the film is a series of three fantasies as discussed above, book-ended by the present tense, in which Alfred ponders his wife’s alleged actions and attempts to do something about them. As a result of this structure it takes about half an hour to set up the story before jumping through Harrison’s fantastical revenge scenarios, but it is a very enjoyable half hour full of comedy. After the revenge scenarios finish, the film moves into the final “bookend” section, in which Alfred attempts to carry out some of his plans. As an avid fan of thriller films, I half expected him to succeed in carrying out his revenge… but instead, his attempts play out in a variety of mishaps which, yet again, bring the audience a whole lot of laughs while still keeping us guessing.
The “darkness” comes from the murderous thoughts of Alfred toward his wife — an aspect of his personality dark enough to lend a bit of a sinister edge to the film, but not so much that it brings down the humor. The film as a whole is very funny, with laughs coming from the dialogue, the use of physical comedy, the many misunderstandings that occur between the characters and the use of over-exaggerated sound effects. The film is excellently written, full of quick wit and sly remarks.
In addition to the hilarity of the script, the characters are also well-written and provide the story with four different avenues (Alfred, Daphne, August and Barbara) with which to view the situation. August and Barbara are, in my opinion, the best addition to the cast of characters. They serve as catalysts for Alfred’s paranoia over what his wife may or may not have done, but August’s spying and Barbara’s low opinion of her sister’s morals come back to bite them eventually.
Rex Harrison’s delivery even further elevates the comedy of the already great script and role with which he has been provided. His performance is perfectly on-point, with his expressions exaggerating Alfred’s paranoia in such a way to evoke both a feeling of suspense and a number of laughs from the viewer. He also adds a sense of frailty and insecurity to his character, making Alfred more relatable to the audience.
Linda Darnell, as charming and beautiful as ever, also gives a good performance here. The audience sees likable qualities in Daphne, even if she did cheat on her husband. And Darnell’s performance, which gives her character both an innocence and a seductive quality, makes it very unclear to the audience whether she has actually been unfaithful. As a result, the audience isn’t sure whether to see Alfred’s paranoia as clearly justified, or to side with Daphne.
Unfaithfully Yours is a riot of a comedy with a dark edge. It’s quite possibly the best film I’ve seen from Sturges, with its mix of suspense, laughs and just a dash of surprising sentimentality. It unfortunately flopped in the box office when it was originally released due to the untimely Rex Harrison/Carole Landis scandal and the deaths of World War II still looming on the nation’s recent memory, but luckily it has been revived by modern audiences (and has been released through the Criterion Collection!). I highly recommend this film to anyone interested in revenge-based comedy, or comedy in general. The score: 4/5