Chris Hunter (Ann Sheridan) lives in sunny southern California and is married to Bob (Zachary Scott), a war veteran and builder. One night, while Bob is away on business, Chris attends a party hosted by his cousin, Paula (Eve Arden).

(Image via Doctor Macro)
(Image via Doctor Macro)

Arriving home from the party, Chris is stalked to her door by a man, who follows her into the house and attacks her. In the struggle, she grabs a knife and kills the man, later identified as Michael Tanner (Paul Bradley).

Chris goes into a state of shock. The next morning, Bob returns from his business trip to find the house swarmed with cops, including Detective Reynolds (John Hoyt). With the help of their attorney friend Larry Hannaford (Lew Ayres), Chris and Bob are sure that Tanner’s death will be ruled a justifiable homicide, carried out in self defense. But what will happen if the police find out that Chris knew her attacker?

The Unfaithful was directed by Vincent Sherman, written for the screen by David Goodis and James Gunn.

The Unfaithful is part society drama, part crime drama, part thriller. An article on TCM’s website by Richard Harland Smith describes it as the “unofficial remake” of William Wyler’s 1940 film The Letter, starring Bette Davis (which was, in turn, based on a play). There are, undoubtedly, similarities between the two films. But to me, the differences in setting, tone, and outcome leave The Unfaithful feeling like a completely different story. Ann Sheridan’s “Chris” isn’t made to pay for her crime as Bette Davis’ “Leslie” does, with her life. The Unfaithful kind of takes Chris’ side in the matter, not only due to the ending but in the way the character is treated throughout the film.

It’s a snowball of a story. In the beginning, Chris’ “crime” seems to be a clear-cut, simple case of self defense, but inevitably, there is much more to the story. Still, rather than focus on the crime itself, the film puts the focus on a growing problem in the America of the post-World War II era, and around the world: divorce. “Our story takes place in Southern California,” the opening narration notes, but, “The problem with which it deals belongs not to any one city, town, or country… but is of our times.”

Plunking the viewer into the “happy,” prosperous world of suburban So Cal, The Unfaithful explores the supposed moral decay of the would-be ideal community through the growing prevalence of divorce. Chris is just as worried about the potential end of her marriage as she is about possibly going to jail for Tanner’s murder. And she’s practically surrounded by divorcees. Paula’s party, which Chris attends at the beginning of the film? Well, it’s not just any party, but a party to celebrate the finalization of her divorce. “What’s American marriage coming to?,” Paula sarcastically asks Larry, who represented her in the divorce proceedings.

(Image via Toronto Film Society)
(Image via Toronto Film Society)

The film’s already-interesting script is bolstered by good performances on part of most of the cast. Lew Ayres is great as a lawyer used to handling divorce cases, who becomes involved in a high-profile(/highly publicized) murder case. Ann Sheridan is very effective, delivering a multi-faceted portrayal of a woman wrapped up in a complicated dilemma. Jerome Cowan is electric in a small role as the prosecuting attorney in Chris’ case. The one weak link among the cast is Zachary Scott, who is quite stiff, particularly in his big confrontation scene with Ann Sheridan after Bob discovers the truth about Michael Tanner.

While not consistently high on suspense, The Unfaithful contains several scenes of palpable tension and heart-pounding drama. That sense of drama is at times elevated by a very nice Max Steiner score. The courtroom scenes, media frenzy, and social drama are all brought to the screen in a very gripping manner.

Do not let yourself be swayed by the comparisons to The Letter, or arguments over which film is superior. The Unfaithful is a great watch, worth the time of anyone who enjoys a classic social drama/crime drama, and especially worthwhile for fans of Ann Sheridan.