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The Criterion Collection presents
"Nobody handles Handel the way you handle Handel."
DVD ReviewIf you're a film fan, six of the happiest words you ever can read are "Written and Directed by Preston Sturges." The first screenwriter in Hollywood permitted to direct his own scripts, Sturges had an extraordinary run in the 1940s, and is responsible for some of the best, funniest, smartest and silliest movies ever made anywhere. There are some obvious comparisons to be drawn between Sturges and Orson Welles, as well—after astonishingly fertile early periods as studio auteurs, they both quickly fell from grace. (Perhaps a star can burn brightly or long, but not both.) Sturges on DVD has so far been a mixed bag—Criterion has previously released terrific editions of Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve, and Universal has put out a bare-bones disc of The Palm Beach Story—still missing are such essential Sturges pictures as The Great McGinty and Hail the Conquering Hero, to say nothing of his earlier work as a screenwriter. (His script for The Power and the Glory was clearly a huge influence, for instance, on Citizen Kane.) Criterion adds to that short list with this release of Unfaithfully Yours, arguably the last picture from Sturges' salad days; it wasn't much of a success in its day, and it was remade, badly, decades later with Dudley Moore. If you're expecting a lighthearted screwball farce, you'll find that you're in for darker, noiry things here.
Rex Harrison stars as the famously petulant Sir Alfred de Carter, a symphony conductor of enormous renown, with the outsized ego to match. Sir Alfred's great fear is that his lovely young wife, Daphne (Linda Darnell), is cuckolding him with his personal assistant, Tony (Kurt Krueger), and the best parts of the film get us inside Sir Alfred's head—as he conducts, we're privy to his elaborate fantasies, scored by the music he leads, by Rossini, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, of exacting bloody revenge against the alleged lovers. Daphne's sister, Barbara, is married to the persnickety August (played by Sturges pet Rudy Vallee), who misinterprets Sir Alfred's plea to "keep an eye on my wife"—Augie hires private detectives to tail Daphne, and the dossier they file is the cause of all the trouble.
Structurally, it's an odd film—it's almost like the first hour or so is nothing more than an elaborate setup for Sir Alfred's serial fantasies. And in truth Sir Alfred is a hero who is difficult to love, a significant change from the goofily winning Eddie Bracken in Sturges movies like Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Sir Alfred is imperious, short-tempered, and generally enormously unpleasant; for Harrison, it's almost sort of a dry run for Henry Higgins, and we're actively encouraged, on some level, to draw parallels between the orchestra conductor and the film director, between Sir Alfred and Sturges himself. As autobiography, it's not at all flattering, and it's not intended to be—given his temperament, you wouldn't blame his wife for seeking affection elsewhere, and the relish with which Sir Alfred plans out his revenge fantasies is (deliberately) a little unsettling.
Sturges' filmmaking is in keeping with this, too—the style of the picture is moody and full of shadows, even when, in the story's third act, Sir Alfred plays detective, and in practice cannot hold a candle to his fantasies. Sturges isn't shy about showing off his erudition, his knowledge of classical music; but he relishes good old-fashioned slapstick as well, and is too much of a pro and a ham to pass up on a good gag. He's also marvelous, once again, at getting a lead comic performance from an actor not necessarily associated with comedy—he did much the same for Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, and from Western vet Joel McCrea, in Sullivan's Travels, playing another Sturges onscreen surrogate. Only a few stragglers from the de facto Sturges stock company are on hand—sadly, no Franklin Pangborn, no William Demarest; Robert Grieg is Sir Alfred's butler, just as he was Sullivan's, and Lionel Stander is cast in the Akim Tamiroff role, as Sir Alfred's bombastic manager. If you've heard from one of the band of us who are crazily passionate about Sturges, this movie might make him seem like something of a misanthrope, but if you don't mind your comedy black, there's always room for more on the Preston Sturges bandwagon.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: A generally excellent transfer, with strong silvery contrast in the black and white photography; it's not without the occasional scratch, though, unfortunately.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Some hiss and buzz, but Sturges' glorious dialogue is all easily made out.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by James Harvey, Brian Henderson, Diane Jacobs
Monty Python vet Terry Jones provides an introduction (13m:49s) for the film—he's a big fan, and brings plenty of enthusiasm; this piece, though, is filled with clips from the feature and plenty of plot spoilers, so even though it's billed as an intro, you probably don't want to watch it first. An interview (24m:40s) with the director's widow, Sandy Sturges, filmed in 2004, goes over their courtship and marriage; she's also happy to dish about this production, and talks about, for example, how Preston wanted James Mason for the lead, but legal complications made him unavailable.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem contributes an essay to the liner notes, riotous with allusions, comparing Sturges to everyone from Kurosawa to Kafka. Finally, along with an original trailer, there's an informative gallery of photographs and correspondence, featuring words on the film from Sturges, Harrison and producer Daryl F. Zanuck, forever worried about the bottom line; there's even an image of a lobby card with a discarded alternate title for the picture, The Green Eyed Monster.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsIn setup and in style, this is as close as Preston Sturges ever got to film noir, but even with the lights turned down low, his instincts and talents as one of the great comic filmmakers can be seen in just about every scene. He's been underrepresented on DVD for far too long, and Criterion has been out in front in helping to right that wrong; this is a smart and darkly funny movie, with a package of extras that illuminate and provide context for the picture in its director's career.
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