The Unsuspected

His day of reckoning must come. He is tormented by fear that someday he will make one false move, one slip that will betray him, and when he does, the lightning of justice will strike… the unsuspected.

Melodramatic words spoken over the air by the protagonist, the smooth and cultured host of a crime based radio show. And they’re appropriate too as The Unsuspected (1947) fully embraces the instances of melodrama blended into  the story. In fact, the film is made up of a variety of styles – the visuals are pure film noir while the theme and structure perhaps edge closer to the motifs associated with the Golden Age mystery, with at least a nod to the earlier “Had I but known” school of writing. This mix is a generally satisfying one and it’s only a couple of casting decisions which weaken it overall.

It starts off with a killing, a murder carefully disguised to resemble a suicide. The victim is the secretary of Victor Grandison (Claude Rains), writer, broadcaster and connoisseur of all things fine. While this is the jumping off point, the tale rapidly becomes complicated and twisty – a surprise birthday party for Grandison sees the arrival of a young man, Steve Howard (Michael North), who claims to have married the former’s ward, Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield), just before she disappeared. Hard on the heels of that revelation comes the news that Matilda has turned up alive and well, but apparently suffering from some form of amnesia as she has no recall of having married, or even having met, Howard. Still with us? Good, for we’re only getting warmed up; the Grandison household is packed full of dysfunctional types – his niece (Audrey Totter) and her drunken, dissipated husband (Hurd Hatfield) – and is a hotbed of plots, counter-plots, jealousy and greed. By the end, another handful of murders will take place and the masks slip far enough to allow the deceptions to be seen for what they are.

Although I deliberately avoided spoilers in the previous paragraph, the identity of the murderer is shown very early on and so this isn’t what we could refer to as a whodunit. If anything, it’s more akin to an inverted detective story where the focus is on how  the killer will be trapped. That aspect, along with the increasingly tangled web of deceit that is spun, is what tips the movie over into noir territory as opposed to a straight mystery/thriller. Added to all that, of course, are the visuals. The Unsuspected is one of those pictures which is largely set bound, perhaps reducing the realism but also increasing the control the director and photographer (Woody Bredell) have over the look and mood of it all. Warner Brothers films tended to have a very distinct look to their sets, and it’s a very attractive one. The studio also had some top professionals on its books, not least director Michael Curtiz. I sometimes think versatility can be a curse for filmmakers, especially when it comes to assessing their critical worth. Curtiz appears to be a prime example of this phenomenon – even a cursory glance at his credits will reveal the sheer number of high-class films he made over his long career and the range of genres he successfully worked in. That ability to turn his hand to virtually every kind of movie the studio sent his way has somehow worked against him  – he’s a man you cannot easily compartmentalize and thus he’s more difficult to  appraise. Yet his work remains immensely stylish and it could be said that his aesthetic goes a long way towards defining the look and feel of Warner Brothers, his long-term home.

Any time you see Claude Rains’ name in the credits of a film you can be reasonably sure of some entertainment. Even when he was handed small supporting roles he always gave value for money. The Unsuspected sees Rains taking the lead and receiving the lion’s share of screen time, and he’s a joy every time he appears – suave, silky and with that shading of understated menace. He’s well supported by Audrey Totter and Constance Bennett, the former slinking around and exuding a feline allure while the latter gets to deliver some great one-liners and wisecracks. Hurd Hatfield is serviceable enough as the washed up artist while Fred Clark and Jack Lambert are welcome faces as far as I’m concerned. All those are positives – however, there are also some less satisfactory elements which need to be acknowledged. Michael North  and Joan Caulfield make up the romantic pairing at the heart of the movie, the couple for whom the audience is supposed to be rooting. And here we have what is arguably the biggest weakness of the movie; both North and Caulfield come across as incredibly flat and frankly dull and it’s quite tough to really care what happens to either one. Bearing in mind that the complex plotting is built around what should be viewer sympathy for this central couple, the disconnect their performances encourage is problematic.

The Unsuspected is available on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive MOD program, and the film was also released in Spain. I have that Spanish edition, which I believe is a port of the US disc. The transfer does have the odd scratch and mark present but it looks quite good overall with nice levels of contrast and detail. Optional Spanish subtitles are offered and there is a 12 page booklet (in Spanish, naturally) included. There’s an awful lot going on in the story but I think everything remains focused in spite of that, and a much bigger issue is the lackluster characterizations in a couple of cases. However, there are enough good performances from others to help gloss over those deficiencies, and Curtiz and Bredell ensure everything looks terrific. I’ve seen comparisons drawn between The Unsuspected and Preminger’s Laura, and I can see where there are some superficial similarities. Still, this movie is a more straightforward affair and doesn’t have the feeling of obsessiveness that characterizes the Preminger film. Sure it has its faults, as I’ve alluded to, but it’s entertaining stuff for all that and worth checking out if you’re not familiar with it.

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24 thoughts on “The Unsuspected

  1. First thing to say is that, based on the excellent dissection of the film and the quality of the writing to do that, you would appear to be unaffected adversely by your recent brush with hospitalisation, I am most happy to say, Colin!

    This is one of those great glossy Warner melodramas-cum-noirs at which the studio was so adept. I can see what you mean about the weakness of performance where the couple are concerned but, for me, Rains more than compensates. I have never seen a poor showing from him (“NOTORIOUS” being an example of him at the top of his form). He dominates the film yet never ever overacts.

    A film I always enjoy.

    • Cheers, Jerry. I think the fact the film concentrates more on the other players, especially Rains, helps to draw attention away from North and Caulfield. I agree that Rains was first rate in just about every movie he appeared in – Notorious is indeed a standout role – and he adds so much to the enjoyment in this particular case.

  2. Good thriller especially because of Rains. Love that foreign poster and the picture of Audrey Totter. I agree about Caulfield and North. Guess Curtiz was stuck with them.

    • Some contract players worked out better than others and I guess this was simply a bit of casting that didn’t come off all that well. One of the strengths of the studio system was the way films tended to have depth in the cast so people like Rains, Totter and Bennett more than compensated for the weaker members.

  3. Great review chum – first time I saw this I was overwhelmed by the panache of the storytelling – there is one shot early on that will always stay with me as we follow the radio broadcast across various listeners, in one case with a shot that seems to travel from the inside of a moving train compartment, down a street at night and up into somebody’s bedroom – just sensational. Rains is marvellous and perfect in the role but I agree, the film is made a bit less memorable by the rather unsympathetic supporting cast, though Eve Arden is always herself and always a pleasure (even when actually played by Constance Bennett 🙂 )

    • Yes, I know the shot you’re referring to – it eventually ends up in Jack Lambert’s room as he looks at a neon sign flashing outside his window, and the only visible letters spell out “kill” – very fluid and eye-catching stuff indeed.

      I thought about picking up a copy of Charlotte Armstrong’s source novel to see if some of the characters come across better in print.

      • I’ve not read it either – I’ve read a couple of hers and liked them enough, good on flawed characters in unusual situations. Do you think UNSUSPECTED was meant to be more of a whodunit than it is? Apart from the one inverted reflection …

        • I’m not entirely sure, and I can’t decide if the writers and/or filmmakers had fully made their minds up either. The plot is very dense and draws in a lot of strands – I’m not even completely clear on the motivation for the first murder. One of the most notable aspects of Curtiz’s direction, under the circumstances, is the way films everything with such style and verve that none of that seems to matter very much.

          • Well, that does tend to sum up his greatest virtue very well – I suspect that the need to make everyone a suspect in the various subplots also had a hand in the approach, which I suspect was unfortunate in terms of broad audience appeal. If they’d had say Mitchum as Howard, that would have made such a difference. it was apparently North’s last film …

            • Any of the apparent inconsistencies or complications arising from the plot are brushed aside fairly skilfully, I think, and you find yourself carried along by it all.
              Going by the evidence here, North was never going to make it as a leading man – it’s an extraordinarily unsympathetic portrayal in a pivotal role, and Caulfield really isn’t much better.

  4. Great write-up Colin – haven’t seen this one, but I am tempted to shell out right away as it looks like a lot of frothy fun; watched the trailer and there appeared to be a great deal of overblown dialogue, characters shaking each other physically as they hammer home their points, which makes it appear very entertaining. I certainly agree on the point about Claude Rains, a class act of an actor, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Curtiz film that I didn’t enjoy.

    • Thanks, Mike. The trailer does play up the melodrama and uses some ripe dialogue. The film itself uses both elements better though, in my opinion, and the arch delivery of Totter and Bennett in particular is excellent.

  5. Yet another Claude Rains film that I’ve yet to see! I’ve lamented at great length (mostly to myself, by myself) that the guy didn’t get the roles and attention that he should have; I could see him in so many types of role from Brit Empire adventure to detective stuff…at least there are still new films for me to discover. Thanks, Colin.

    • I’m always happy to spread the word, Clayton. There are lots of advantages to this blog business, one of which is the way we can inform and be informed about movies that are new to us.

  6. I like this film and the genre to which it falls. Then there is Rains. He just makes everything hes in that much better and when he occasionally gets the lead role it practically makes it a must see. Bang on about Curtiz but by now I’ve come to realize that all of us film buffs generally feel the same way about his place in film history.

    • There is a bit of a buzz to be had from seeing guys like Rains, who generally got handed the supporting roles, given a chance to take on a leading part and watching them run with it.

      Yes, Curtiz is certainly appreciated and valued by film fans like ourselves, and quite rightly so, but the wider community of film criticism still seems to underestimate his contributions, I think.

  7. I enjoy this one too, some juicy roles and acting, especially from Totter and Rains. Curtiz made so many great pictures and agree he gets underrated or overlooked. Love that Dickensian name GRANDison.

  8. Colin

    You nailed it on the head about Curtiz being left out of the talk when directors are bandied about. Too bad as his work is all genres is impressive. I quite like this film even though the killer is known, besides, anything with the thuggish Jack Lambert in it moves it up the rankings.

    Speaking of Jack Lambert, I recommend an episode of the 1957-58 series, PANIC! “The Boy” – 1957. It is real nifty bit of noir with Lambert as the villain and Billy (THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) Chapin . This one is a real corker and worth hunting down. I caught it on You-Tube in 2014. I would guess it is still up somewhere. Check out my take on the episode at the usual place. The series features stand alone stories about a person involved in an incident of stress and panic. The series ran for a total of 31 episodes

    Gord.

    • On knowing the killer’s identity, there is an element of the inverted whodunit about the film, and that never hurt Columbo any. 🙂

      That Panic show sounds like it has a really good premise and I see it is on YT so I’ve bookmarked it for future viewing.

  9. Columbo was one cool detective. I was still in high school when it started on tv here. Loved them. PANIC is a decent show, at least the ones that I have seen. I have reviews up for 8-9 of the episodes.

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