UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is the outlier among Sturges’ masterpieces. The first seven were unveiled in an improbable stretch from 1940 to 1943, when he seemed incapable of doing wrong, and they were to varying degrees hits, while Unfaithfully Yours bled the studio that bankrolled it. And in Unfaithfully the auteur’s usual curiosity about webs of social relationships is muted in favor of a psychological subject with nightmare overtones: sexual jealousy, paranoiac daydreams, schemes for domestic murder. For a few or all of these reasons, some of Sturges’ commentators have hesitated to grant its place in his canon. For the connoisseur of Unfaithfully Yours, though, it may be possible to savor the film’s distance from its contexts – Sturges’ other films, ‘the comedy of remarriage’, film noir, and the rest of Hollywood film in 1947, and to instead describe Unfaithfully Yours as an anomaly among studio fare, an experiment in the guise of a romp. Granting its status as an eccentric artifact, we can better forgive 1947’s unease with it.
In “Kafka And His Precursors” Jorge Luis Borges describes how Franz Kafka’s nightmare geometry echoes the ancient Greek mathematical fable called Zeno’s Paradox: “A moving body at point A (Aristotle states) will not be able to reach point B, because it must first cover half of the distance between the two, and before that, half of the half, and before that, half of the half of the half, and so on to infinity; the form of this famous problem is precisely that of The Castle, and the moving body and arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkaesque characters in literature…” In Unfaithfully, the relationship of Sir Alfred’s idealized fantasies (whether of committing murder or suicide or merely of pulling off a flamboyant guilt-trip) to the material reality he encounters in his attempts to enact those fantasies (telephone, chairs, a folding checkerboard, and that great “Simplicitas” home recording machine, which earns a place between the feeding machine in Modern Times and R2D2 in the pantheon of cinema’s great robots) is utterly Zenoesque. In his fantasies, the arrow strikes the mark: Sir Alfred crosses the room in a long stride or two, and retrieves the recorder from the overhead cabinet effortlessly. When he tries to recreate this sequence in the real world, the distance is everything, and the goal – his perfect murder – recedes from sight as persistently as Kafka’s Castle.
Here Kafka and Sturges have both isolated the tendency of our wishes to be frustrated geometrically. And in the same cause, exposing the tender vanities of protagonists who despite a narcissistic solipsism tremble on a brink of disappointment and despair. Both Kafka’s K. and Sturges’ Sir Alfred are self-satirizing images of the artist, and self-portraits. Sir Alfred’s willfulness brings genius out of the men he commands with his wand: like a film director, he orchestrates a talented legion, his own authorship both diffuse and unmistakable. Yet he crumbles in the attempt to apply that same command to his own disobedient emotions, to the behavior of his relatives, or to the world of lumpen objects that beset him – up to and including a dried-out sandwich which makes bad, squeaky music when he prods it with his finger.
It’s in his three compensatory fantasies that Sir Alfred’s able to play other beings like instruments. The trickily variant sensibilities of the three daydreams, and their long duration – twenty-five of the film’s minutes – are what mark Unfaithfully Yours as a stray modernist object, as much akin to Kurosawa’s Rashomon or some hallucinatory tale by a writer like Calvino or Nabokov as to Sturges’ other films. Sturges directed the actors apart from Harrison to perform stiffly and vacantly in these sequences, like puppets waiting for instruction. This heightens the eerie subjective effect, induced as well by the Vertigo-like bravura camera crawl into Sir Alfred’s pupil that introduces each interlude. The ‘rule of three’ obeyed by the film’s structure suggests an underlying relationship to a folktale, fable, or dirty joke, and the theme of civilization’s veneer stripped away to reveal a bedlam of sex- and death-urges is underlined by the those weird two-headed statuettes that indict Sir Alfred as he searches for his murder weapon, as well as a desk lamp resembling an African totem straight from Sigmund Freud’s examination room. The fantasies reveals a scrupulous ear for the autoerotic nature of daydream: when Sir Alfred sends Daphne out dancing with her presumed lover, he adds, “At my expense of course. I insist upon paying“, a masochistic flourish of lascivious specificity.
Despite the modulating effects of the suicide and guilt-trip reveries, Unfaithfully Yours is a film about marital homicide, and Sir Alfred is still sharpening his razor less than ten minutes before the film’s happy ending. The expose of ‘the perfect murder’ recalls both Hitchcock, whose interest in this theme peaked in the ‘killing of Gromek’ sequence in Torn Curtain, and Nabokov’s novel Despair, which mirrors Unfaithfully Yours’ delight in showing the breach between a killer’s self-flattering plans and their real-world result. Unfaithfully might also be seen as a sort of happy version of Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place, in which Gloria Grahame’s suspicions aren’t allayed soon enough to keep her disallegiance to that tightrope bargain called marriage from being noticed. For me, Sir Alfred’s ghostlike wanderings through his hotel’s pallid corridors – accompanied by more bad music in the form of a maid’s vacuuming – have always evoked Bogart’s desolate trudge along the patio pathway in Lonely Place. Both directors use architecture to render their protagonists’ helplessness in a maze of emotions.
Like the Ray film, Unfaithfully Yours is a narrative in which essentially nothing happens: Sir Alfred responds to non-events by failing to enact happenings of his own; Daphne isn’t murdered and doesn’t learn she might have been. Apart from a few tantrums, busted chairs, and scorched curtains, it might never have occurred. In fact, this relates Unfaithfully to another Hitchcock film, Suspicion – for, like Cary Grant in the famously unresolved Hitchcock ending, isn’t Daphne really only cleared by her own assertion of innocence? Sturges hardly presses the point, but Sir Alfred’s suspicions evaporate on as little real evidence as that by which they are aroused. What’s more, when Daphne herself proposes Sir Alfred’s chosen fetish, ‘the dress with the purple plumes on the hips’, for their night of reconciliatory celebration, a strange look crosses his face: might we still be encapsulated, somehow, in a dreamworld? And might this dream even be Daphne’s, rather than his own?
Yet it isn’t right, in the end, to say nothing happens. Something does happen: an orchestra is rehearsed, and a concert is given. The effect on the concert audience is tremendous. However much as the film satirizes the vanities and impostures of the artist, and as well the nobility ascribed, and privileges accorded, to artists by their admirers (“What did you have in your head… what visions of eternity?” asks his manager, and Sir Alfred replies: “You’d be enormously surprised if you knew.”), it ultimately also reinscribes the power of artistry, no matter how depraved its maker. Had Sir Alfred committed murder or suicide later that night, it would still be true that he’d given that concert. Even his nebbishy brother-in-law is moved to unaccustomed emotion by the music’s force.
Here, then, is the point of Unfaithfully Yours’ finest moment, and one of the greatest in all Sturges’ art – the encounter with Sweeney, the detective who loves music, and Sir Alfred’s in particular, with such redeeming influence that despite his degrading avocation he is a Buddha among men, a creature of pure forgiveness and understanding. Sweeney is therefore able to do what no one else in the film can: halt Sir Alfred’s torrential bullying, and put the conductor into contact with his own sadness. If Unfaithfully Yours has seemed a morbid diversion, now suddenly we see the point of contact with Sturges’ own earlier work, for this evokes Sullivan’s Travels. Sweeney the detective is Unfaithfully’s equivalent of the audience of chain-gang prisoners who laugh at the Disney film and by doing so remind Sullivan, Sturges’ previous stand-in, of what he was put on earth to do. Both films ultimately avow their maker’s own vitality, though Unfaithfully Yours is the darker for suggesting art may swirl in a vortex of self-indulgence and sycophancy, just as love may forever be shrouded in doubt as to the knowability of the other. If in The Beatles’ formulation “the love you make is equal to the love you take”, Sturges suggests “the concert you give – and the joy with which you romance your wife – is equal to any number of tantrums, trashed hotel rooms, and even a near-murder.” Equal to, not greater than. The happy ending is only a matter of the end of the equation on which he put the emphasis.
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Criterion Collection liner notes, 2004