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1948, 20th Century-Fox. Written and directed by Preston Sturges. With Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, Rudy Vallee, Barbara Lawrence
Famously, wittily, Unfaithfully Yours uses contrasting pieces of classical music to move its story along. But music is not the only art piggy-backed on here. Sir Alfred de Carter, the conductor played by Rex Harrison, is a maestro of the cinema as well as the concert hall, the scenarist and director of melodramatic "home movies" starring himself and the beautiful young wife he has come to believe is cheating on him.
Immediately after discovering his wife's infidelity, Sir Alfred must conduct a gala performance. During the concert he fantasizes three lurid revenge scenarios, each inspired by the piece of music he is conducting at the time.
As the orchestra plays Rossini, Sir Alfred imaginesand we see acted outa farcical, tightly-plotted scenario in which he cuts his wife's throat, pins the crime on her lover, and laughs diabolically as the guy goes to the chair. After an intermission, a chorus from Tannhauser inspires a lugubrious chamber-theater fantasy of self-sacrifice and copious weeping. The final piece, from Tchaikovsky, finds Sir Alfred flamboyantly forcing his rival into a game of Russian Roulette and inadvertently blowing his own brains out. Each fantasy is like its own little movie, directed by Sir Alfred himself (each is introduced with a dolly shot into an extreme close-up of his eyeball, echoing the credit-sequence camera movement that accompanies the credit "Written, Produced and Directed by Preston Sturges"). In the Rossini sequence, especially, he explicitly comes up with a B-movie style scenario, arranges props and lights, records sound effects, and even instructs his wife how to dress.
Once the concert is over, Sir Alfred heads home to put one or all of these plans into action. He fails utterly. Nothing goes as in his fantasies; the panache he imagined for himself turns into slapstick bumbling, and he ends up suffering an allergy attack, wrecking his apartment, and sustaining multiple minor injuries. You might think the message is that "real life" never goes as smoothly as fantasy, but this sequence is far too broad to represent reality. It's really a fourth sub-movie, as stylized as the others, this time imitating a cartoon! On the sound track, themes from all preceding pieces weave in and out, mickey-moused with slide whistles, oomm-pahing tubas and funny percussion, those spasms of strings that stop abruptly, and crashes. How humiliating for this highbrow that the composer best suited to orchestrate his emotional life turns out to be Carl Stalling.
This is the man who is so rude to his wife that she balks at attending his concert that evening. "Maybe I'll go to the movies instead," she weeps. Sir Alfred sniffs, "Culturally that might suit you better." Yet under emotional stress, his imagination flies to cheap theatrical formulas and Hollywood cliches. Sir Alfred is insufferable throughout the movie, but at least he starts out insufferable in a literate, witty sort of way. It's only in the utter banality of the "movies" his imagination produces that Sturges shows us the true depths of this snob's taste and character. When he ends up scrambling around to a slide-whistle sound track, it'sboth cringe-making and satisfying.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein