Reportedly the last great Preston Sturges movie (though he kept on making films until 1955’s The Diary of Major Thompson), this was oddly one of his least popular at the time with the fantastical elements supposedly alienating the audience, but for my money that’s exactly what makes it one of his very best films. It is a surprisingly dark piece in places too, with a couple of quite unsettling moments as Rex Harrison’s composer Sir Alfred fantasizes about murdering his wife.
The reason he’s in such a bad mood with her is due to his idiotic brother in law August (Rudy Vallee) taking a flippant comment from Sir Alfred to keep an eye on his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) while he was away far too seriously, with August hiring a detective to spy on her. Initially Sir Alfred wants nothing to do with the report he’s given, going so far as to set it on fire and almost burning down the hotel by accident, but when he learns that while he was away in the middle of the night Daphne spent thirty eight minutes in his secretary Tony’s apartment, and was seen emerging only wearing a negligee, he presumes she’s cheating on him.
On three separate occasions as he’s composing a symphony orchestra the camera zooms in to his eye and a fantasy of his follows, the first being an elaborate murder scheme involving a device that allows him to record and pitch shift his voice on a vinyl record that helps him frame Tony for the murder. Sturges films the scene with care so we don’t see Sir Alfred slash open Daphne’s throat with a razor blade, but it’s clear that this was happening, and it is also extremely disturbing as Sir Alfred laughs like a maniac while doing so.
The second and third fantasies are shorter, with the former seeing Sir Alfred in a contrite mood, suggesting that he’s too old for her and “Neither of you have done anything wrong. Youth belongs to youth” before writing out a cheque for a hundred grand. But the latter is almost the opposite, where he confronts both Tony and Daphne and demand they engage in a game of Russian Roulette with him, his rage is mighty and distressing, and shockingly given the time it was filmed in the game does take place but it backfires on Sir Alfred as he’s the first to pull the trigger and he dies almost (but not quite) instantly.
Though said scene is the film at its darkest, it’s also pretty bleak to see Sir Alfred return home after the symphony and decide that his first fantasy is the one he wishes to act upon. Luckily for us it’s a far more complicated plan that he envisioned, and Sturges brings out his love for physical comedy here as Sir Alfred ends up falling all over the place and hurting himself a fair deal, and when Linda finally returns home he discovers that he had no need to suspect her of any wrong doing, and though it’s supposedly a happy ending for all it’s hard not to worry what might happen the next time he has reason to be suspicious.
Though all of the cast are in fine fettle and Darnell deserves acclaim for the moments she has to be quietly flirtatious or deceptive, it really is Rex Harrison’s movie, and it is his best work as well as the wildly emotive and often petulant composer swings from mood to mood in a highly believable manner. When manic he really is quite demented and so it’s easy to believe that this character could commit a terrible act when all that has happened is a simple misunderstanding that a brief conversation could have explained away.
Direction wise this is Sturges at his strongest, and the way the music in each fantasy reflects Sir Alfred’s mood and actions impressed greatly, while the scenes where he conducts the orchestra really put across the man’s passionate side without it ever feeling over the top or insincere. Due to the black comedy found within and Harrison’s incredibly performance it’s my favourite of Preston Sturges movies, and it is a film which is not only extremely funny but also a quite fascinating and unusual work as well.