Saturday, February 5, 2011

Unfaithfully Yours

Have you ever tried to give someone a really fantastic underhanded compliment?  Not like "You're not nearly as ugly as everyone says you are," but more like, "I can read you like a book.  A Stephanie Meyer book, specifically."  That's kind of how I feel when I think over Unfaithfully Yours.  In some ways, this is a very cool movie.  In other, it has aged poorly.

The world famous symphony conductor, Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison), has just spent a substantial amount of time in jolly old England, but returned to the good ol' U S of A at long last.  When he was leaving, Alfred made an offhand comment to his horribly boring brother-in-law, August (Rudy Vallee), to keep an eye on his (much younger) wife, Daphne (Linda Darnell).  Alfred meant for August to check in on her occasionally and maybe take her out to dinner.  August understood it to mean "have her tailed by a detective."  When Alfred learns the contents of the detective's report, he is devastated.  Once, very late at night, Daphne was spied entering the hotel room of Anthony (Kurt Kreuger), Alfred's (much younger) secretary.  Humiliated, presumably cuckolded and furious, Alfred doesn't even have the satisfaction of telling his wife and her lover off before his much-ballyhooed symphony performance.  While conducting each of the three pieces, Alfred fantasizes a different way to confront Daphne and Anthony.  One scenario has him giving Daphne an ice-cold brush off, kicking her out of his life without a chance for explanation.  The next has Alfred and Anthony engaging in a game of Russian roulette.  The other is a complicated scenario where Alfred commits the perfect crime and gets his ultimate revenge.  When the symphony is over, Alfred decides to follow through on one of his fantasies...but fantasy and reality don't always match up very well.

Unfaithfully Yours is often described as a black comedy, which is one of the reasons I checked it out.  It is, however, more accurately described as a "horribly antiquated black comedy."  The first third of the movie is just dreadful.  Alfred is supposed to be very dapper and witty, but the dialogue and Rex Harrison's delivery are just nowhere near where they need to be to work.  It's like Preston Sturges (who wrote and directed the film) wanted to have William Powell as the star, but had to settle for that British doofus from My Fair Lady.
William Powell says, "Don't waste your time here.  Watch The Thin Man."
There is also a pretty substantial amount of physical comedy that has lost its edge over the years.  How hard do you laugh when somebody shows off his low breeding by clapping at the wrong time during a symphony?  Is it funny when people drop their belongings accidentally from their balcony seats onto the people below them?  Your answers are probably, "What?" and "Seriously, what are you talking about?" and I don't blame you.  Here's one final example: one guy keeps having his tuxedo collar come undone.  BWA-HA-HA!  Or not.

Despite all of that horribawful "comedy," this movie has some merit.  When Alfred is fantasizing about his revenge, each scenario he dreams up corresponds to the general plot of the symphony piece he is directing.  While I had to read up on that to figure it out, it's still pretty awesome and genuinely clever.  All three of the revenge plots were great and knowing that the music behind them had meaning --- that's some cool stuff.  The bad comedy returns when Alfred tries to enact his plan, but it's just broad physcial comedy and is occasionally a little funny, even.

I liked the direction from Preston Sturges, though.  While I may not have particularly liked the physical comedy in this movie, I have to admit that it was done competently.  His dialogue wasn't as sharp as a comedy about spousal murder needs to be to get away with such a horrific subject matter, though.  The acting is only okay, with none of the actors really standing out to me.  I can't hate this movie, because I was really impressed by the fantasy sequences, but this just isn't a movie that ages well.  Many of the physical gags have lost their application in modern life (don't you hate it when the operator picks up when you knock over your home phone?).  And the ending sure doesn't make sense to the modern mindset.  SPOILER: It turns out that Daphne was innocent, but Alfred never explains himself.  Sure, he apologizes, but she immediately forgives his behavior (which was pretty mean) because "being a great man is stressful."  Whaaa...?!?  Rex Harrison wasn't witty so much as he was unforgivably British in the lead role.  All in all, this is an interesting narrative attempt, but certainly not a classic.

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