Michael Curtiz – The Unsuspected (1947)
Noir of the Week review
What has Laura got that The Unsuspected hasn’t? All the romantic, mid-range melodramatic elements that make for an essentially safe, polished, none-too-threatening entertainment experience—a dynamic, exceptionally attractive couple in Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews; a marvelously b*tchy homme fatale in Clifton Webb; a celebrated score and theme song from David Raksin.
You won’t find any of these things in The Unsuspected. What you have instead is the noir mastery of director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Woody Bredell, who take aspects of the Laura plotline into new levels of intricacy and darkness, fueled by an almost lapidary sense of frame and scene construction. The camerawork and lighting in The Unsuspected, particularly in the studio scenes (inside the Croton mansion where most of the action takes place) is possibly the most sublimely sinister cinematography in the entire noir canon.
What The Unsuspected also has going for it is Claude Rains, giving one of his most nuanced performances as the mesmerizing master of indirection, “genial host” Victor Grandison, a man too fascinated by murder to resist the temptation to dabble in it himself. Of course, if it weren’t for the fact that Grandison has been carefully orchestrating the takeover of his niece’s fortune, murder might not have been necessary. Though it’s never stated as such in the film, the “boat accident” that apparently claimed the life of Matilda Frazier (aka “the little heiress, played by Joan Caulfield) was yet another “Grandison production.”
His aid in this effort has been his other niece, Althea, a grasping poor relation who has harbored a lifelong resentment of Matilda. Audrey Totter plays Althea as a woman of relentless appetite who will stop at nothing to get a larger slice of whatever pie is at hand. Her biggest sacrifice in the scheme to conquer and divide Matilda’s fortune is that she was forced to seduce and marry Matilda’s fiancé, Oliver Keane (played to boozy perfection by Hurd Hatfield). Oliver, who genuinely loved Matilda, has been on a permanent bender ever since being hoodwinked into marriage to Althea. The scheming Grandison will know how to utilize him in an even more brazen attempt to take total control of the Frazier fortune.
But there are counter-forces at work. Grandison’s secretary, Roslyn Wright, senses that something is amiss, and has been snooping around. She is the first victim, winding up swinging from a chandelier at the Croton mansion, an apparent suicide. Grandison’s wise-cracking assistant, Jane Moynihan (played vibrantly by Constance Bennett) is beginning to have grave doubts about her boss.
The plot gets thicker when Steven Howard (Michael “Ted” North) appears at Grandison’s surprise birthday party with a much bigger shocker—he claims to have been married to Matilda before the boat accident. In reality, Howard is looking to avenge the death of Roslyn, who’s he convinced was murdered. Behind his socializing with Grandison and Althea (who takes an unhealthy interest in the handsome Howard), Steven looks for clues to convince police chief Donovan (Fred Clark) that Roslyn did not commit suicide.
The final twist is lifted straight from Laura. It turns out that Matilda didn’t die in the boat accident after all. She returns home just in time to enter into an ever-accelerating maelstrom of innuendo and treachery. With the forces swirling around him threatening to go out of control, Grandison concocts an elegantly complex scheme to rid himself of Althea, Oliver, Matilda and Howard. Once all the elements of the scheme have been set into motion, he returns to his Manhattan studio to deliver another of his macabre tales of murder, confident that he has escaped detection. Events that unfold in the studio, however, soon prove that this is not the case.
What lifts The Unsuspected out of its derivativeness? Curtiz and Bredell, first and foremost, who twist opulence into a half-world of endless shadows and shifting shapes, with an amazing series of trick reflections and intricately diffused lighting. Next, Rains—who is a brilliant chameleon, taking the template of the Lydecker character to a new level of calculating malevolence. Plus Totter and Bennett—who add sparkle and style to roles that could easily have been stereotypes.
The one problem for the film is that its romantic couple (Caulfield and North) is low-wattage compared to the rest of the proceedings, and pretty much flunk any possible comparison between Tierney and Andrews. North, in what proved to be his final film appearance, tries valiantly but doesn’t really have the presence/mystique for his character. The doe-eyed Caulfield, stuck with a thankless role, has nowhere to go except to be a rag doll tossed between the thrust-and-parry between Rains and North—though she has one solid scene in which she actually gets the better of Totter.
Curtiz and Bredell seem to sense this, however, and keep the Caulfield-North scenes as brief and tight as possible, all the while surrounding them with increasingly shadowy menace.
The Unsuspected is notable also for Grandison’s use of technology—one of the earliest incidences in noir. Grandison is especially adept at sound recording, and he uses it to great advantage in his schemes—including his blackmailing of stalwart villain Jack Lambert, who gives another memorable turn as a not-quite-competent-enough henchman. The Unsuspected may have started a vogue for techno-gimmickry in crime films, something that quickly spun out of control in post-WWII Hollywood and continues unabated to this day.
In the 1947 NOTY voting, The Unsuspected ranked 15th. I’d have to say that even in that deep class of notable noirs, this ranking is too low. In particular, Woody Bredell’s lenswork is on a par with that of the great John Alton—but because of the relative obscurity of this film, Bredell wasn’t even nominated for Best Cinematographer in ’47. That is a most regrettable oversight, and one that this review, from your “genial host,” wishes to set right.
What we have here is the apex of noir style wedded to the glossy studio system approach. From a formalist perspective, The Unsuspected is unquestionably in the top ten of “best photographed noirs.” That doesn’t make it a great picture—it’s merely very, very good—but it makes it one that will give lasting pleasure to those who respond to noir’s unique visual allure.