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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Unfaithfully Yours
Unfaithfully Yours
The Criterion Collection // Unrated // July 12, 2005
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted June 23, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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In 10 Words or Less

An underrated classic from Preston Sturges' later years



The Movie

After writing and directing an inhuman eight feature films in five years between 1940 and 1944, a span that saw him get nominated for three Oscars and win one, Preston Sturges saw his career evaporate as quickly as it once grew. Though he had been the mind behind comic masterpieces Sullivan Travels and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, he lost his touch, and battles with the studios funding his films didn't help either.


Looking at his filmography, it's easy to point to the last of his critically acclaimed films, Unfaithfully Yours, and win a round of "One of These Things is Not Like the Others." This story of a high-strung orchestra conductor, portrayed with over-the-top gusto by Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady), and his concerns about the fidelity of his lovely wife Daphne (Linda Darnell, Anna and the King of Siam), is a dark comedy that's unlike the other films Sturges cranked out during his most productive years.


Sir Alfred De Carter (Harrison) is something of a stand-in for Sturges, more so than the more obvious socially-conscious filmmaker in Sullivan's Travels. A man of no patience and less trust, De Carter feels that his wife is having an affair with his secretary Tony, and a private eye hired by his brother-in-law supports that suspicion. So during his intense orchestra performances, De Carter loses himself in dark revenge fantasies, three in all. Though there are touches of humor to these fantasies, including an audio recorder that works magically, these dreams are mostly dark, and at times very disturbing.



It's when De Carter attempts to actually carry out these fantasies that the comedy truly begins, as the conductor is a much better murderer in his daydreams than in his real life. The film is loaded with slapstick comedy, including a Keystone Kops-style fire-fighting effort, which again is not entirely Sturges' style. His other films worked best when utilizing wordplay to create comedy, something he does to great effect in arguments in Unfaithful, especially when De Carter visits the private eye's office. The dialogue is so brilliant that it makes grown men spraying each other with fire hoses seem a bit ham-handed.


Harrison is dead-on as De Carter, a role that today might be played by Geoffrey Rush or a younger Ian McKellan. As self-righteous as any film "hero," Harrison makes his character's controlling indignation believable in a film that's hardly even close to realism. Playing opposite him, Darnell isn't given much to do except play stereotypical female parts, like the loving wife or the scheming temptress. At least she does it well.


More fun is her sister Barbara, played with tough glee by Barbara Lawrence (Oklahoma!). Her sweet but somewhat smoky voice is the perfect conduit for the one-liners she tosses out abusively, mostly in the direction of her husband, the henpecked August (Rudy Vallee, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.) Like Darnell, Vallee is there mostly to react, which he does as well as Darnell, but with a bit more business to conduct on his character's part.


Though it was a dud in theaters and today is one of Sturges' least respected films from those glory years, Unfaithfully Yours represented a bold departure for the writer/director, as it was rare for a hero to be allowed to show such dark desires. Even today a director might have a hard time convincing a studio to allow them to make a movie like this, though Death Becomes Her didn't do so bad once test audiences had their way with it.


The obvious changes to Sturges' style that marked the beginning of his downfall as America's top filmmaker are evident here, and it's hard to argue that he hadn't already begun a spiral that continued (and essentially ended) with The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend. But despite that, there's something enjoyable about watching De Carter travel through an arc of his life's story, even if you aren't always cheering for him.


The DVD

Criterion's third Sturges film is another one-disc release (spine number 292), distributed in a standard black keepcase, with an insert that includes a thoughtul essay on the film's place in the Sturges canon by Motherless Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem. The disc has a full-frame menu with classy music-themed animation, which features choices to play the film, select chapters, or check out the special features (which are all listed on the main menu.) The scene selection menus have titles for each chapter, and there are English subtitles (though there's no menu option to turn them on.)


This is probably as good a place as anywhere to mention it, but it seems like there's an incorrect edit at 3:43 of the film, as Barbara gets cut off in the middle of a line of dialogue. Whether this was in the original film I do not know, but if anyone out there does, please write in.


(Update: I received an e-mail that says this cut is in the 1989 CBS/Fox laserdisc release, so I guess it is meant to be there.)


The Quality

Shot in black and white, this 1.33:1 transfer is nicely detailed, though the black levels aren't absolute, hitting dark gray instead. There's quite a bit of noise in this transfer, and an obvious amount of dirt, damage and hairs in there as well at points throughout the film. It's not bad enough to disturb the average viewer, but if you look, you'll see it. Considering Criterion's track record, one would think it's an issue with the source materials, from which this newly restored, high-definition digital transfer was struck. Per the insert, thousands of bits of imperfection have been removed during the restoration process. Overall, the film is looking good for its age.


The audio is presented in the original mono, and it sounds quite good, which is important considering the part that music plays in the movie and the speed at which the dialogue is delivered. The sound of the orchestra pieces is strong, but the dialogue is a bit tinny and crackly. The film attempts some complex aural mixes, often layering music, dialogue and crowd background noise, and for the most part it works, though during the fire-fighting scene, the audio becomes a bit muddled. Some sound effects are also played up for effect and come across cleanly.


The Extras

There's a fine array of extras on this disc, though it doesn't touch the amount of bonus material on Sullivan's Travels, which included a star-studded commentary and an excellent biography on Sturges. First up is a scholarly commentary by romantic comedy expert James Harvey, Sturges biographer Diane Jacobs and Sturges screenplay-book editor Brian Henderson. At first I thought this track was cobbled together from three recording sessions, but they are actually all together, and for the most part, they are almost perfect in how they avoid stepping on each other's toes while discussing Sturges and how this film fits into his career. Unfortunately, they are also pretty dry, though Jacobs perks things up occasionally.


A video introduction to the film, "'Be vulgar, by all means!' - Terry Jones on Preston Sturges," runs almost 14 minutes, as the former Monty Python member ruminates on his introduction to Sturges, what was great about his work and why he had misgivings about revisiting the film in order to do this introduction. Jones is very good at these introductions, as seen in his introductions to the Collection's three Jacques Tati DVDs, as his enthusiasm and genuine jocularity is infectuous.


Another video featurette, "Faithfully Yours," is an interview with Sturges' fourth and final wife, Sandy Sturges. Married to him for the final eight years of his life, she had a unique perspective on the downward slide that gripped Sturges following his meteoric and short-lived life. At 24 minutes, it might be a bit too long, but she has some interesting stories and thoughts about Sturges and his films to share and does so with some real energy and good memories.


The Gallery that's included may be the most fascinating extra, as it includes several pieces of correspondence between Sturges and 20th Century Fox's head, Darryl F. Zanuck. Their relationship was at times friendly, at other times combative, and these letters and telegrams document what Unfaithfully Yours meant to that relationship. There are some still photos and other telegrams also, making this one of the more interesting still galleries found on recent DVDs.


Wrapping up the bonus content is the film's theatrical trailer, which harkens back to a day when the stars in the film were infinitely more interesting to the audience than the storyline. Yeah, sure, that's the way it is now basically, but back then, it was even worse, as evidenced by the way this preview promotes the film. The trailer is in decent shape, but has plenty of dirt and damage.


The Bottom Line

A dark comedy, Unfaithfully Yours may have helped to put an end to Sturges' salad days, as its failure at the box office soured Fox to a former golden child who was four years removed from his prime of 1944. Now, decades later, the film is appreciated as a unique film of its time, and a wicked, if flawed movie that marked the end of the Sturges Era. The DVD, thanks to an informative commentary and some personal viewpoints, puts the film into context and makes a case that Unfaithfully Yours has been unfairly downplayed in Sturges' filmography. Fans of Sturges or black comedy will absolutely want to check this out, but outside of that select group, this DVD might fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.


Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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