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Famed director Michael Curtiz scored a home run with the Joan Crawford noir vehicle Mildred Pierce. Its screenwriter Ranald MacDougall converted James M. Cain's story of domestic misery into a standard noir by introducing a murder element and a doom-laden flashback structure -- instant noir magic. Two years later Curtiz both directed and produced the elaborate The Unsuspected, as if he had just discovered the noir style.
Every week on his popular radio show, performing personality Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) dramatizes gruesome true murders that he personally researches with the help of a detective, Richard Donovan (Fred Clark, in his first film). One night after the broadcast, Victor's secretary Roslyn is found hanging in the office of his impressive country mansion. An initial presumption of suicide begins to look more like murder, especially considering the intrigues among Victor's permanent houseguests. Victor's ward Matilda has recently been lost at sea, and her cheerful personality is sorely missed. Victor's niece Althea Keane (Audrey Totter) stole Matilda's fiancé Oliver (Hurd Hatfield) just weeks before they were to be married. Disgusted with the unfaithful Althea, Oliver has stopped painting and begun drinking heavily. Victor's assistant Jane Moynihan (Constance Bennett) tries to lighten the mood with sarcastic remarks but the cynical, selfish Althea spreads contempt in all directions.
That's when Steven Francis Howard (Michael North) arrives out of nowhere. The Grandison household is shocked to discover that Matilda married the handsome Steven just before she was killed. Steven wants no part of Matilda's property (the house and a large fortune are actually hers), but he does ask to claim Oliver's portrait of his lost bride. Detective Donovan reports that Steven's story and identity check out. As the handsome young man is extremely wealthy in his own right, the greedy Althea wastes no time putting the romantic moves on him.
That's when a surprise mystery woman (first-billed Joan Caulfied of The Petty Girl) shows up, again alarming the assembled cast of egotists, inheritance seekers and potential murderers. On his radio show, Victor harps on the theme of "The Unsuspected", the guilty party who appears to have gotten away with murder but now must live with the fear of being discovered. Somewhere in a cheap room, the lowlife thug Mr. Press (Jack Lambert) smokes a cigarette as he listens to Grandison's broadcast, while a neon sign outside his window flashes the message KILL, KILL, KILL. 1
The Unsuspected is quite an entertaining show rarely mentioned in the first rank of noir thrillers. Director Curtiz's slick, highly economical storytelling style cloaks the upscale sophisticates of Grandison manor in heavy noir atmosphere. The hard surfaces and exaggerated lighting of Elwood "Woody" Bredell constantly remind us that evil is afoot. Dark shadows collect in the corners while Curtiz's trademark nervous camera never seems to rest. A theatrical exaggeration is felt in both the visuals and the performances, which sometimes seem to verge on parody. Yes, trench-coated killers throw ominous shadows as they prowl the scene of the crime.
The cast of suspects would be appropriate to a board game called Clue -- The Film Noir Edition. Claude Rains' charming, articulate Victor Grandison has impeccable manners, but some say that he spends more money than he could possibly earn on his radio show. Does Victor's delight in cold-blooded murder end when his show is finished? A femme fatale with the best bedroom eyes in noir-dom, Audrey Totter briefly decorated The Postman Always Rings Twice before serving up a suspicious dame in The Lady in the Lake. Here she's a snobbish, insincere tramp in evening gowns. It's doubtful that anyone would trust this woman, even for a moment. Having already taken Matilda's sweetheart, Althea instantly decides to seduce the dead girl's widower, who happens to be handsome and rich. Hurd Hatfield's Oliver seems an extension of his dissolute Dorian Gray character. Writer MacDougall surely intends an in-joke when Oliver talks about the dead Matilda's portrait "changing".
The narrative takes pains to offer up several of the characters as possible murderers -- with unreported telephone calls, odd attitudes and other shady behavior. Constance Bennett's glib production assistant provides snappy asides, as might Eve Arden, but she also has a habit of eavesdropping. Steven is clearly engaged in some kind of deception, although his new "family" seems willing to accept his strange story at face value. Obscure actor Michael North purposely makes Steven's behavior difficult to pin down, an effort that leads many viewers to simply conclude that he can't act! Too obvious to be guilty but adding malevolence to the brew is Jack Lambert's Mr. Press, a slimy creep incompatible with all the tuxedos and swank fashions. Cameraman Bredell must have spent as much lighting time making Lambert look subhuman, as he did giving Audrey Totter and Joan Caulfield the glamour treatment.
Curtiz and MacDougall delight in recapping the narrative gimmicks from the biggest noirs to date. The egotistical radio personality up to his neck in murderous intrigues is an ingratiating variation on the hit noir Laura. Unsuspected also recycles another major plot twist from Laura, along with a portrait that becomes a romantic focus point. Amnesia is a main plot point, as in Somewhere in the Night; ditto the notion of a cultured gentleman enlisting a thug to do his dirty work (The Dark Corner). As if that's not enough, the murderer deflects suspicion and blackmails people by exploiting a voice-recording device, the oldest gag in the drawing-room murder tradition.
The show can be confusing for viewers that don't keep track of the twisted relationships. A couple of key events are referenced only in dialogue, and some of the cast members lie about their true identities and motives. What may have seemed overcooked in 1947 now comes off as merely theatrical, and well within the bounds of quality noir. The lack of a really big star draw probably hurt the film's commercial chances. Director Curtiz's career as a producer lasted only for a few more pictures; after this thriller he retreated to a pair of Doris Day movies and then tried his hand at another Joan Crawford melodrama. The Unsuspected is best remembered by Claude Rains fans and noir analysts intent on deriving transcendent meanings from Curtiz's expressive camera direction. An especially impressive visual construction is an early sequence that "tracks" Grandison's radio voice from the broadcast studio, travels across the dark city -- and then ends in the rented room of a hired killer.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Unsuspected is in acceptable shape. While not a pristine restoration, it's much improved over old TV broadcasts. Franz Waxman's powerful music score shows the Warners orchestra taking advantage of advances in soundtrack fidelity to finesse their signature brassy "house sound".
An encoding mix-up has resulted in the menu choice for "trailer" simply playing an early piece of the film, probably the snippet excerpted as a sample for the Archive Collection website. Since this is a Burn-on-Demand product, perhaps the master can be corrected. If a trailer is available, it would be fun to see how Warners promoted a noir thriller with such a tangled storyline.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Unsuspected rates:
1. I've avoided a full plot description because simply identifying all of the characters in this who-dunnit would technically amount to a spoiler. But the movie is also its own spoiler: even casual viewers will spot the killer's face not soon after the main titles.
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2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.