Unfaithfully Yours is the outlier among Sturges's 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. What's more, in Unfaithfully Yours, 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 these reasons, and others, some of Sturges's 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's other films, "the comedy of remarriage," film noir, and the rest of Hollywood film in 1948—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 eccenttric artifact, we can better forgive 1948's unease with it.
Unfaithfully Yours builds a relatively conventional frame around three absurdist reveries. In the frame, we come to know the impulsive and distractible master conductor Sir Alfred De Carter, who, though he is surrounded by assistants, managers, relatives, and fans, is consumed solely, in alternation, by his marriage and his art. His obsessiveness is rewarded in his work and punished in his love life, at least for the duration of the film, when passion turns to jealousy, and therefore to daydreams of sacrifice, derangement, depression, and revenge. Those daydreams make up the content of the three unreal sequences and, paradoxically, the real subject of the film. 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 Sturges’s film, it is 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) that is so 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 re-create 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 isolated the tendency of our wishes to be frustrated geometrically. And, in the same cause, exposed the tender vanities of protagonists who, despite a narcissistic solipsism, tremble on the brink of disappointment and despair. Both Kafka’s K. and Sturges’s Sir Alfred are self-satirizing images of the artists, 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 that makes bad, squeaky music when he prods it with his finger.
It’s in his 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 105 minutes—are what mark Unfaithfully Yours as a stray modernist object, as much akin to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon or some hallucinatory tale by a writer like Italo Calvino or Vladimir Nabokov as to Sturges’s other films. Sturges directed the actors, apart from Rex 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 those weird two-headed statuettes that indict Sir Alfred as he searches for his murder weapon, as well as by a desk lamp resembling an African totem straight from Sigmund Freud’s examination room. The fantasies reveal 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 exposé of “the perfect murder” recalls both Alfred Hitchcock, whose interest in this theme peaked with the “killing of Gromek” sequence in Torn Curtain, and Nabokov’s novel Despair, which mirrors Unfaithfully Yours’s delight in showing the breach between a killer’s self-flattering plans and their real-world result. Unfaithfully Yours 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 Humphrey Bogart’s desolate trudge along the patio pathway in In a 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 nonevents 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, the whole story might as well have never happened. In fact, this relates Unfaithfully Yours 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 were aroused. What’s more, when Daphne herself proposes Sir Alfred’s chosen fetish, “the purple [dress] with the plumes at 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 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’s finest moment, and one of the greatest in all of Sturges’s 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 connection with Sturges’s earlier work, for this evokes Sullivan’s Travels. Sweeney the detective is Unfaithfully Yours’s equivalent of the audience of chain-gang prisoners who laugh at the Disney film and by doing so remind Sullivan, Sturges’s 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 take is equal to the love you make,” then Sturges (equally existential but far less utopian) 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.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of the essay collection The Disappointment Artist and of essays for Criterion’s John Cassavetes: Five Films and The Killers.