Criterion Project #9: UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948)

Unfaithfully Yours

Year: 1948

Director: Preston Sturges

I have a bold statement to make that needs to be unchained before I can write another word – Unfaithfully Yours just might be the best screenplay ever written.

It’s a claim I can back-up, but first let’s get the plot out of the way:

A man dreams of revenge when he suspects his wife is unfaithful.

That reductive description from IMDB (useful as always) certainly doesn’t help my claim, now does it?

What might be a more suitable description is this:

A man, driven mad by jealousy, ruminates on his wife’s supposed infidelity, concocting a fantasy for three possible responses, each more absurd than the last, in the blackest of comedies about love, trust, and relationships

For my buck, a great script isn’t a series of witty or dramatic monologues, or snappy overlapping barbs. It’s what’s between the lines that creates depth in the script and pushes it into a conceptual narrative as well as a tradition story-based narrative. And Unfaithfully Yours is truly one of, if not THE finest example of that type of script.

Preston Sturges is exploring some very heavy concepts in this film. That’s not to say he doesn’t write dialogue well. He certainly crafted some of the most eloquent, verbose monologues and funniest lines ever written in this script. Take, for instance, this wonderfully classy British take-down from our lovelorn lead, renowned orchestra conductor, Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison):

I give you my solemn word, August: if I don’t regain control of myself in a few minutes, concert or no concert, I’ll take this candelabrum and beat that walnut you use for a head into a nutburger, I believe they’re called!

It’s so well-crafted and delivered with such sharpness the silliness of what he says almost gets lost.

Then we move into, what appears to be, a laughable miscommunication between Alfred and his wife, Daphne (Linda Darnell), but ends with the blackest of roasts:

Alfred: Have you ever heard of Russian Roulette?

Daphne: Why, certainly. I used to play it all the time with my father.

Alfred: I doubt that you played Russian Roulette all the time with your father!

Daphne: Oh, I most certainly did. You play it with two decks of cards, and…

Alfred: That’s Russian Bank: Russian Roulette’s a very different amusement which I can only wish your father had played continuously before he had you!

You have to reach into a deep, dark relationship well to drag that venomous take-down out. But, again, the verbiage and delivery from Rex Harrison comes off as classy British snark. And if you ever wondered how Quentin Tarantino crafts such tightly wound scenes based almost entirely on tension-building monologues, look no further.

I’d like to post one last quote to demonstrate how far the pendulum can swing in the other direction, though.

**Quick Spoiler**

At the end when the “unsolicited visit” is explained and Alfred realizes what an ass he’s been the entire movie, he reaches into the clouds and grabs this line from the heavens:

A thousand poets dreamed a thousand years, then you were born, my love.

It isn’t hyperbole or ad-speak when I say this movie made me laugh out loud and brought a tear to my eye. There’s a very powerful, personal, and familiar journey Sturges takes us on. It exaggerates the mile markers of the jealous, ruminating mind and the toxicity it can brew for two reasons: 1- to stress the toll this behavior takes on both the jealous party and the relationship as a whole, and 2 – to laugh riotously at.

On the surface, a man’s fantasy about killing his cheating wife with a straight razor and framing her lover by using a record recorder(?) that perfectly mimics his wife’s voice when played at a higher RPM is appalling. But the humor beneath it all is coated in the blackest tar you can think of, and it’s also absolutely hysterical.

This humor carries into a lighter fantasy wherein Alfred buries himself in blame and self-pity, declaring his complete understanding of Daphne’s infidelities with his young, handsome assistant, Tony (Kurt Kreuger) and insisting the two young lovers be together. But not without a personal check in the sum of $100,000 from Alfred, of course, to start their new life. It’s all so absurd you can’t help but wonder why the film was a flop in its day.

Partial blame for that could be placed on the structure, which was certainly experimental for 1948. The three different fantasies all begin with a zoom-in that begins at the back of the orchestra Alfred is conducting and pushes straight into the darkness of his left pupil. We emerge on the other side in what amounts to a filmic illustration of how humans react to suspicions of infidelity or distrust in our partners.

We ruminate. Our wandering minds picture the myriad of scenarios and courses of action we can take. The possibilities are endless. What Alfred envisions, namely murderous intent, obnoxious self-blaming, or aggressive confrontation, are funhouse versions of those very human responses, or impulses.

I meant it when I said it. Stamp it, Mr. Sturges- Unfaithfully Yours belongs in the conversation for greatest script ever written.

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