Preston Sturges was one of the true geniuses of American film — his slim output included six amazing films in four years (1941-44) — yet most of his films are still unavailable on DVD. Criterion’s release of “Unfaithfully Yours” is thus reason to celebrate. There aren’t a lot of extras, but what’s there is choice.
The dark comedy centers around a conductor’s demented plans about how to deal with a wife that he suspects has been unfaithful, with three fantasies pegged to music by Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Wagner.
Nearly every extra addresses two points: that 1948 audiences were flummoxed by the film and that Sturges connoisseurs are still split on its merits. The original trailer proclaims “it’s six kinds of pictures all rolled into one!,” touting it as, among other things, a film of terror, comedy and “high-temperature romance.”
In their audio commentary, film historians James Harvey, Brian Henderson and Diane Jacobs make comparisons to Dante’s “Inferno,” Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and the French nouvelle vague.
Meanwhile, in a 15-minute intro to the film, Monty Python alum Terry Jones compares it to the medieval Griselda tale. And an essay by novelist Jonathan Lethem invokes Kafka, Kurosawa and the Beatles. No wonder audiences were confused. As Harvey sums up, “This was a really odd film.”
That’s an understatement.
Highlight of the extras is a 25-minute interview with the filmmaker’s widow, Sandy Nagle Sturges, taped in 2004 by Second Sight films. She talks about his wide-ranging interests as a restaurateur, songwriter, caricaturist and inventor (the maker of some of Hollywood’s most sophisticated comedies loved to prowl among the gadgets at Sears).
Given the film’s setting, it’s surprising when she states that Sturges never listened to classical music and he had “an aversion to what he called ‘art,’ ” thanks to his highbrow upbringing: His mother was the best friend of Isadora Duncan and followed the groundbreaking dancer around Europe. (Sturges’ mother gave Duncan the scarf that ended up strangling her when it caught in the wheel of a sports car.)
Sandy Sturges also talks about his constant self-doubts (“Maybe I’m not really a writer”) and laughs that the character of Sir Alfred, the temperamental, paranoid conductor, was Preston and that his girlfriend in 1948, Frances Ramsden, said their relationship was exactly like that in the movie.
The three film critic-historians occasionally overexplain things and repeat themselves, but in general, they work well together. They, along with Sandy Sturges and Jones — who gets almost giddy in his appreciation of the film, praising it for always defying audience expectations — help create a portrait of a unique talent and a genre-busting film, in a DVD package nicely produced by Johanna Schiller.