Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Michael Curtiz, 1947
Starring: Claude Rains, Joan Caulfield, Audrey Totter, Hurd Hatfield

“We missed you while you were dead.”

Victor Grandison, a famous radio host whose programs concerns murder mysteries, crime, and horror, is seemingly surrounded by death. His lovely, wealthy niece, Matilda, dies in a shipwreck while visiting South America. His secretary soon follows soon and hangs herself in Grandison’s office. Despite the grim circumstances, Grandison’s poor, though haughty surviving niece, Althea, throws him a birthday party. An unexpected guest arrives, Stephen Howard, claiming that he married Matilda just before her death. To everyone’s surprise, Matilda arrives home, alive, shortly after, though she has no memory of Stephen. As the bodies begin to pile up and it is revealed that the secretary was really murdered, Matilda and Stephen attempt to learn who is responsible.

Based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong, The Unsuspected superficially bears a lot in common with Otto Preminger’s superior Laura (1944), another tale of a mysterious woman who returns from the dead, but is an underrated, entertaining effort in his own right. The film is worth watching solely for the solid direction from Michael Curtiz yet another European expatriate in Hollywood during the war years. Though underrated, the Hungarian-born Curtiz was an incredibly prolific director and helmed everything from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) to Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), White Christmas (1954), and many more – Curtiz’s resume includes more than 170 films, most of which are feature-length.

The claustrophobic noir atmosphere and Gothic undertones are enhanced by a lovely, moody score from Franz Waxman that compliments that grim tone established in the opening shots. Woody Breddell’s cinematography is one of the film’s strongest points and contains some truly impressive shots, which is why it’s surprising that The Unsuspected isn’t better known or more highly regarded. There’s an incredible opening scene where a man, in silhouette, creeps through a house and murders a woman. Her dangling feet are shown as she hangs from a chandelier. This is followed by a man, smoking in bed in a hotel room, as a neon sign flashing “KILL” (from the Hotel Peekskill) flashes over him.

Unfortunately the rest of the film can’t quite keep up with this knockout opening. Joan Caulfield (The Lady Says No) as Matilda Frazier is probably the film’s weakest point and she mystifyingly received top billing over Claude Rains. Though she is lovely and convincingly innocent, she’s not a strong actress and has nothing on Laura’s Gene Tierney, who commanded a similar role. Matilda is no match for the more interesting, quick-witted, and even devious characters that surround her. Her developing romance with Stephen (Michael North) is bland and predictable. North, in his last role, is on the same level as Caulfield in terms of acting – charming and attractive, but mostly inept. Though it quickly becomes apparent that Stephen is not married to Matilda, he is also obviously not there to do her any harm. I can’t help but wonder what a little more menace or ambiguity could have done for his character or, a hint of the desperate, damaged quality that Dana Andrews possesses in ample quantities for Laura (among other films).

But those two flawed performances and a handful of plot holes aside, The Unsuspected is a highly entertaining affair. This is mostly thanks to a ravishing, scenery-chewing performance from the always incredible Claude Rains. He somewhat mimics his performance from Deception (1946), where he plays a charming, effeminate, manipulative, possessive, and somewhat insane composer. As Grandison – or Grandi, as his nieces affectionately call him – is a fascinating character, particularly because he’s a star of the radio. Not only is Rains’ rich voice suited to the role, but the crossover between his nightly stories of murder and mayhem with the mounting pile of corpses in his real life is a nice touch that perhaps could have been further developed.

One particularly fascinating element – which modern audiences likely take for granted – is the clever use of technology. As a radio star, Grandi keeps numerous files and recorded conversations for later use, mining everything from the drama in his home life to police files for his stories. He uses the recordings maliciously as well, though I don’t want to give too much away. This concept is flirted with in other noir films of the period, including Nightmare Alley (1947) and Whirlpool (1949), where recordings made during psychiatry sessions are used against intended victims. The use of recordings in The Unsuspected is surely the cleverest of the period.

On a final note, there’s a nice appearance from Hurd Hatfield (The Picture of Dorian Gray), who gives a welcome performance as Althea’s alcoholic husband, a painter driven to drink because he was tricked by Althea into marrying her instead of Matilda. Constance Bennett is one of the film’s brightest moments as Jane Moynihan, Grandison’s production assistant, and nearly steals the film from Rains. She gets almost all the best dialogue, including a line where she says she wants to “swan dive into a bottle of bourbon” after a difficult day. I hear that, Constance.

Available on DVD, The Unsuspected may be flawed, but it has a lot to offer for fans of stylish noir and high-class murder mysteries. The visuals alone make it a should-see (though not quite a must-see) and fans of Claude Rains will want to seek this out immediately.

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