Monday, May 13, 2024

The Unfaithful (1947)

Can The Unfaithful truly be called a film noir? I have some doubts, and I don’t even care much for strict adherence to categories. But it is definitely a film made for adults, and that’s always refreshing. An added plus is Zachary Scott in a leading role. I’ve always been a fan of Scott’s since I first saw him in Mildred Pierce (1945), in which he plays a perfect cad. In The Unfaithful, he is a perfectly good husband—also refreshing.

The opening credits of The Unfaithful appear over a still shot of a large suburban home with a white picket fence. In 1947, when the film was released, it was very likely the picture postcard version of the postwar American dream. A voice-over narrator tells viewers that the story takes place in Southern California as the camera pans to a car entering the driveway at the same home. He also explains that the story deals with a problem that is specific to the time but not necessarily the location where the film takes place. The implication is that the problem was a common one in postwar America.

The large suburban home belongs to the Hunters: Chris and Robert. Robert is about to come home from a business trip; Chris is going to a party hosted by Paula (played by Eve Arden in a role where she gets all the great lines, and she delivers them like she did in Mildred Pierce). Chris promises to pick up her husband at the airport early the next morning; the party will not get in the way.

Chris arrives home from the party at about one or two in the morning. Someone is waiting for her: He attacks her and forces her through the front door and into her home. They scuffle, and the camera stays outside, filming what it can from an observer’s point of view, which leaves the outcome a bit murky, at least temporarily. Robert Hunter arrives at the airport, but his wife is not there to meet him, as they had planned. He goes directly home to find police officers surrounding his perfect suburban home; some are inside that white picket fence and inside his living room.

Detective Lieutenant Reynolds is already inside, anxious to show Robert Hunter the dead body on his living room floor. Robert doesn’t recognize the dead man, and Agnes the housekeeper only knows what happened when she came downstairs after hearing Chris scream. At that time, Chris was covered in blood, and the man was already dead. Chris is now upstairs, and Robert finds her in their bedroom soon after talking to Lieutenant Reynolds.

Lawrence Hannaford, friend of the family and a lawyer, has already arrived on the scene to help Chris. He is the one to tell Lieutenant Reynolds that Robert Hunter served overseas during World War II and that he’s been back for ten or eleven months. Detective Reynolds learns that the dead man is probably Michael Tanner because of bills he finds in the man’s pockets. Chris insists, to her husband, to Lawrence Hannaford, and to Detective Lieutenant Reynolds, that she never saw the dead man before and that she doesn’t know who he is. She says that she came home late and that the man was waiting for her. He pushed her into the house, threatened her, and demanded money. She claims that she stabbed the man, with a Japanese knife that her husband sent home from Japan (proof that he was overseas), in self-defense.

(This article about The Unfaithful contains spoilers.)

The looks on Hannaford’s and Lieutenant Reynolds’s faces while Chris Hunter maintains her innocence made me think right away that they are a bit suspicious of Chris’s story. I was, too, to be honest. I was watching the film as a noir, and everyone is guilty of something, it seems, in noir. With her husband gone for two years or more, was this man really a stranger? Was she concocting a story to cover an affair that was ending even more badly than she had ever imagined it could?

Mrs. Tanner learns of her husband’s death and possible murder in the newspaper while riding the Angels Flight Railway in the Bunker Hill district of downtown Los Angeles, a poorer section of town at the time. This fact props up the original theory that the man was indeed a stranger whose motive was robbery. Mrs. Tanner goes immediately to the police station: the first complication for Chris. The second complication comes in the form of an art shop dealer, a seedy man played so well by Steven Geray. He calls Lawrence Hannaford because he has a bust of Chris Hunter sculpted by Michael Tanner. When Hannaford arrives at Barrow’s shop, Barrow tries to blackmail Hannaford into buying the sculpture for the outrageous (at the time, in 1947) sum of $10,000.

Hannaford confronts Chris Hunter about the sculpture, and she admits to knowing Michael Tanner. Against her lawyer’s advice, she goes to Martin Barrow’s shop to buy the sculpture, but it has already been sold: to Mrs. Tanner! When Hannaford learns of Chris’s actions, he begins to understand that she had a wartime affair with Michael Tanner. He confronts her again: The affair is the problem that is specific to the time because it was a common problem during wartime separation and dislocation; it is what the voice-over narrator mentions at the start of the film.

Chris Hunter will do anything to keep knowledge of the affair from her husband. Why did Chris have the affair to begin with if she is so worried about losing her husband? Was she afraid that he would die in the service? Some of this is explained during the conversation she has with her husband after he finds out about the sculpture and the affair. I thought Chris’s attitude was unrealistic because it would have been difficult to keep an affair a secret when the film makes clear that rumors were already swirling around Chris, something I imagine would happen at any period in time, whenever someone starts an affair.

The sculpture, Mrs. Tanner’s fight to clear her husband, and Martin Barrow’s greediness escalate Chris Hunter’s troubles. Martin Barrow gives Mrs. Tanner the idea of selling the sculpture to Chris’s husband, Robert, which brings everything into the open as far as the Hunter marriage is concerned. The police know all about Mrs. Tanner, Martin Barrow, and the sculpture soon enough: It’s all part of their investigation into a murder after all.

Chris Hunter’s subsequent arrest and murder trial become part of a media frenzy. The trial is not given much screen time, but viewers do get to see Chris and Robert as human beings, living well, of course, with the Hunter family fortune and Robert’s business ventures, rather than the objects of media spectacle. There’s a whiff of class division in the film, which is another favorite theme of film noir.

Robert Hunter goes to Paula’s apartment when the trial goes to the jury for deliberation. Paula turns out to be sympathetic to both Chris and Robert. She reads the riot act to Robert: Neither he nor Chris is perfect. He rushed to marry Chris before he left to serve overseas because he didn’t want to lose her to someone else. They had known each other only a few weeks or months. While talking with Paula, Robert gets a call from Lawrence Hannaford, who summons him back to the courtroom because a verdict has been reached. Chris is acquitted, and Robert goes home to find Lawrence Hannaford in his living room. Chris is leaving to stay with her sister, but Lawrence Hannaford talks to both Chris and Robert about trying a reconciliation. He admits that they won’t find it easy. They finally agree to talk.

Hannaford, played by Lew Ayres, is the last character to get a bit of screen time. He is shown driving away from the Hunter house after he has encouraged them to think things over before going through with a divorce. Hannaford deserves the last shot after convincing Chris and Robert to see that they could at least try to work out a solution for their marriage. Paula, Eve Arden’s character, deserves a hand, too. Paula, with Robert, and Lawrence, with both Chris and Robert, get them to see the situation from other perspectives, to look beyond their own gut reactions.

The plot of The Unfaithful may sound familiar: It is actually a remake of The Letter (1940), a film I describe as avant noir. Click here for my article about it. The folks at Noir Alley on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) think The Unfaithful is noir. If you search online at YouTube for “Noir Alley The Unfaithful,” you should be able to find Eddie Muller’s introduction (intro) and wrap-up (outro) about the film. Muller is the host of Noir Alley at TCM, and he offers a lot of great information about the film.

Eve Arden has all the snide lines in The Unfaithful, just as she did in Mildred Pierce. She comes across as shallow and insincere when viewers first meet her at a party at the start of the film, but when Robert Hunter visits her after the jury gets the case and deliberates for a verdict in Chris’s murder trial, she gives him a reality check about what his whirlwind romance and marriage were really like before he left for duty overseas. She also gives him some sound advice. Zachary Scott has a nice guy role in Robert Hunter, quite a switch from his role as the cad in Mildred Pierce. He pulls both off beautifully.

The plot of The Unfaithful never says one way or the other if the Hunter marriage will last until death do them part, but it gives a much more nuanced look at a situation that probably plagued many a returning World War II veteran and wartime bride. And it really doesn’t matter if you call it noir or not: The Unfaithful is a film worth seeing either way.

July 5, 1947, release date    Directed by Vincent Sherman    Screenplay by David Goodis, James Gunn    Based on the play The Letter, by W. Somerset Maugham    Music by Max Steiner    Edited by Alan Crosland Jr.    Cinematography by Ernest Haller

Ann Sheridan as Christina Hunter    Lew Ayres as Lawrence Hannaford, divorce lawyer    Zachary Scott as Robert Hunter    Eve Arden as Paula    Steven Geray as Martin Barrow    John Hoyt as Detective Lieutenant Reynolds    Marta Mitrovich as Mrs. Tanner    Jerome Cowan as the prosecuting attorney    Douglas Kennedy as Roger    Claire Meade as Martha, the Hunters’ housekeeper    Frances Morris as Agnes, also the Hunters’ housekeeper    Jane Harker as Joan    Peggy Knudsen as Claire    Heinie Conklin as a streetcar passenger    Jack Mower as Morrie    Leo White as a courtroom spectator

Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures Inc.    Produced by Warner Brothers-First National

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