The Unsuspected (1947)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by George Amy, Michael Curtiz and Charles Hoffman
Cinematography by Woody Bredell
Edited by Frederick Richards
Costumes by Milo Anderson
Music by Franz Waxman
Borrowed from K.D. (1:43)
A shadowy figure moves through a darkened house at night, passing by a painting of a woman (which immediately reminds us of Laura ) as he ascends a staircase. Upstairs, a secretary works alone in an office and picks up a ringing telephone. From a pay phone in a nightclub, a woman named Althea (Audrey Totter) asks the secretary if Althea’s husband Oliver is there. “I’m all alone here,” secretary says nonchalantly as the shadowy figure approaches. Althea hears a woman’s scream on the other end of the line. In fear and confusion, Althea abandons the phone and leaves the nightclub with a man who is not her husband.
The secretary’s body is soon discovered hanging from a chandelier. The dead woman is Roslyn (Barbara Woodell), the secretary of celebrity named Victor Grandison (Claude Rains, above), who narrates a popular murder mystery radio show. “The unsuspected is anywhere, everywhere,” Grandison warns his audience. “He might be the man who calls you friend, who visits frequently at your home, he might even be someone who comes oft into my own home… Even I might be easily fooled.”
But we’re not easily fooled. Viewers who are barely paying attention to the first four minutes of the film will know what’s going on, even if they’re (understandably) mesmerized by the spectacular opening, one of the most highly stylized openings in film noir. The wonderful of noir atmosphere continues for the next 100 minutes amidst a dizzying array of plot twists, story elements, acting fireworks and more. Better hang on…
Althea (Totter, above left) is Grandison’s niece, who – despite the nasty “suicide” of his secretary – is throwing a birthday party in Grandison’s honor. Grandison puts up with all the attention, stating “Who thought up this torture?” but what really interests him is the presence of an uninvited guest named Steven Howard (Michael North, above right). Howard claims to have been married to Grandison’s other niece Matilda, who was thought to have drowned at sea after a shipwreck. Grandison is concerned that Howard is after Matilda’s sizable estate, but Howard states that he has his own money and doesn’t need Matilda’s. A police investigator (Fred Clark) looks into both the suicide and Howard’s claim, but things get even more interesting when who should arrive on the scene but… Matilda (Joan Caulfield)!
If the story sounds muddled and a bit complicated…it is, and it gets even more so. The Unsuspected is too long, too busy, with far too many things going on. As David Hogan states in his book Film Noir FAQ (2013), “Story elements include supposed amnesia, a secret wedding, clumsy attempts at seduction, severed brake lines, poisoned champagne, servants who are ordered to take the night off, a shipwreck, a steamer trunk, a beady-eyed assassin with a pickup truck, a coveted inheritance, a steam shovel, motorcycle cops, a burning dump in Jersey…” (p. 180) and more.
Despite all this, the film is great fun! The performances are stellar: Claude Rains is a pompous yet highly intelligent tyrant with that always-charming voice and Audrey Totter plays Grandison’s ward as a bitchy, naughty hellcat who absolutely kills it while looking absolutely spectacular in every outfit she wears.
If that’s not enough, you’ve also got great performances from Joan Caulfield, Constance Bennett, and Hurd Hatfield (above), whose best line comes when he talks about his wife Althea’s dalliances: “I have no claims on Althea. She belongs to mankind.”
And then there’s Michael North. One movie should never make or break a career, but you have to wonder if North (previously known as Ted North) picked the wrong project to relaunch his sagging career. North started taking bit parts as early as 1940 and hoped the name change to Michael would also change his status as an actor. Try as he may in The Unsuspected, he just can’t hold up next to Claude Rains, Audrey Totter, Joan Caulfield, Hurd Hatfield and the rest. In his first scene in the film, he does a good job at suggesting bad manners, danger, or possibly both, but our interest in him wanes the longer he’s onscreen. Some of this is due, no doubt, to the writing of the character, but I think North just doesn’t have to toolbox to work with here that his fellow actors have. He does much better in a picture produced earlier in 1947, the low-budget film noir The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), but The Unsuspected closed the door on his career. Although North lived until 1975, this was his final film.
Michael Curtiz is a name that rarely gets mentioned when discussing the great directors. Curtiz had a unique, highly engaging style that used fluid camera work and blocking decisions so smart that most people don’t notice (or appreciate) them. He’s also the master of the small touch. There’s a shot of Howard waiting to be let into Grandison’s home where his birthday party is being held. We see Howard approaching the door, ringing the bell, but Curtiz doesn’t keep the camera still while we (and Howard) wait – he moves the camera closer so that we can see the guests inside as well as approach of the butler from within through partially opaque coverings on the doors, accurately suggesting that nothing stands still in this story. This technique is also repeated later in the film. (Interestingly, after the door closes we see the reflection of a man who’s still on the outside. I have no idea who this is.)
The Unsuspected is probably more mystery than film noir, but it certainly contains many noir elements, especially in cinematographer Woody Bredell’s (The Killers  Christmas Holiday, Phantom Lady) gorgeous use of shadow and light. The frequent use of close-ups is a bit jarring, but so is everything else in this film! The presence of Jack Lambert (The Killers , The Enforcer, Kiss Me Deadly, Chicago Confidential) as Grandison’s henchman also screams “film noir” to seasoned viewers, especially when he’s skulking in the darkness of one of the rooms of the Hotel Peekskill, as the hotel’s neon sign flashes only some of its letters, “KILL.” Yet The Unsuspected is also gorgeous to look at. The architecture, furnishings, drapes, everything is elegant and spellbinding, which – for good or for ill – contribute to the dizzying array of story elements and acting pyrotechnics.
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love The Unsuspected despite its many problems and distractions. (Again, similarities to Laura abound. Just look at the above photo.) A restored edition of the film would be spectacular and I hope we get it one day. If you haven’t seen it, I urge to you. I also urge you to check out a review of the film from The Nitrate Diva. The film is currently available on Warner Archive DVD.
(A brief side note: I wish I could find out more about Eddie Parks, who I think is the guy playing a waiter in the film. He looks a bit like a freaked-out David Lynch in a few quick scenes. In most of his IMDB entries, he appears as an uncredited actor. Any further information on him would be appreciated.)
Photos: Cinema of the World, The Nitrate Diva, The Scott Rollins Film and TV Trivia Blog, Old Projection Room, The Claude Rains Fan Club