The Unsuspected (1947) by matthew c . hoffman

Italian poster for The Unsuspected
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The Unsuspected is a rarely-shown and largely forgotten film noir. For a long time, you could only see it on cable stations like Turner Classic Movies, but in recent years it’s been released through the Warner Archive Collection. It stars Claude Rains as Victor Grandison, a true crime radio show host who is fascinated by macabre tales of murder. The setting at the radio station, which introduces Grandison, will appeal to fans of old-time radio and mystery shows like Lights Out and The Whistler. The film offers a glimpse into the then new technology of broadcasts by transcription where live performances could be replaced by pre-recordings. This will be used as a plot point later as the mystery unfolds, but the film is really more a thriller than a whodunit since we know who the killer is early on. The only real mystery is why actress Joan Caulfield gets top billing over Claude Rains.

At this stage in his career, Rains was one of the great Hollywood character actors. He excelled in suave villainy, having previously starred in such films as Casablanca, Notorious, and Deception. There is a delicacy to his performance; like whispers in the dark, his words are soothingly hypnotic. Rains had one of the most mellifluous voices in Hollywood, and this is used to great advantage in a film partially set at a radio station. The Unsuspected offered Rains a rare leading role at this stage in his career, although director Michael Curtiz originally wanted Orson Welles for the part. Welles, of course, had first made a name for himself in radio. Curtiz had also sought Jennifer Jones and then Joan Fontaine for the role of Grandison’s shallow niece. Though both were fine actresses, Audrey Totter’s interpretation of Althea was dead-on.

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Of working with Michael Curtiz, Totter told film noir historian Eddie Muller, “He liked my work, and wanted to put me under personal contract. He’d started his own company and Doris Day was the only other one he’d signed up. But Metro wouldn’t let him have me. I’m glad they didn’t, because his company didn’t pan out, and was folded into Warners. Bette Davis was there, Ida Lupino—people who would have played my parts.”

Totter, who was born in Joliet, Illinois, in 1917, passed away just last December at the age of 95. She is best known for the many film noirs she starred in such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lady in the Lake, The High Wall, The Set-Up and Tension, among others. By the end of the 1950s, however, her film career was in decline and she turned to television. Films like The Unsuspected best showcase her talents as a femme fatale with an acidic tongue. It doesn’t hurt that the screenplay, written by Ranald MacDougall and Bess Meredyth, offers Totter some great lines to work with.

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In his biography on Claude Rains, John T. Soister writes,

“Rains and Audrey Totter, too, are almost too broad to be real, but they differ from the others in that they are mirror images, and each complements and fills out the other. Totter had come to find a comfortable niche in noirish thrillers, where her gold-digging propensities and eye-popping figure usually led some poor schnook straight to perdition. Here, her motives are always and everywhere transparent, while Rains, of course, is the unsuspected. The shapely actress is always lit well, her assets (and her actions) solid, seductive, and readily apparent; the actor is frequently a shadow or a reflection during his more reprehensible moments. Totter is the flesh, Rains is the spirit; together, they are one, with identical goals (if disparate methods). Rains’ several tete-a-tetes with Totter are the highlights of the film…”

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Also starring is the aforementioned Joan Caulfield as Matilda. She was a former New York fashion model who did mostly television work in later years and, like Audrey Totter, made her acting swan song in a 1987 episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Constance Bennett was one of the great stars of the 1930s, having appeared in films like What Price Hollywood? and Topper. Here, she has a supporting role as Grandison’s radio producer, Jane. Michael North plays Steven Francis Howard—a character whose appearance in the film is about as mysterious as the disappearance of the man playing him. North had appeared in movies prior to this under the name Ted North—he was in The Devil Thumbs a Ride that same year– but The Unsuspected was his last film. Little is known about what became of him. Hurd Hatfield (The Picture of Dorian Gray) has a small role as Althea’s drunken husband, and Fred Clark stands out as the police detective, Richard Donovan.

The Unsuspected recalls another film noir—Laura— and both films feature an oil painting of a young girl believed to be missing. It’s interesting that Dana Andrews, who starred in Laura, was supposedly sought by Curtiz for the Steven Howard role. As with Laura, The Unsuspected has a number of eccentric characters—well-to-do socialites with their own intrigues and financial desires. But it’s hard to say they are red herrings. The audience already has one person of interest in mind, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of seeing the murderer’s cat and mouse game unfold. The Unsuspected is not the recognized classic that Laura is, but in many ways, it’s a superior film noir with some extremely unsettling moments, such as the scene in the sound-proof studio in which Grandison has Matilda dictate a script idea. The words she transcribes will become an ominous note.

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If mystery is all you’re looking for, you’d probably be better served with an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Story is not everything, especially in regards to films like this. We appreciate these films more for their visual dynamic. The Unsuspected is one of the most strikingly photographed film noirs of the 1940s. Of course, when we use the term film noir we are referring to a visual style prevalent in crime films throughout the 1940s and 1950s. These films were very dark both in terms of theme as well as their look with their use of shadows and low-key lighting.

Primarily due to economy, many low-budget films at this time used the stylistics of what years later would be called noir. Studios like RKO especially made so many B movies that fit into this category. What’s interesting about The Unsuspected is that, like Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, it’s a major film made under the studio system that applies the same stylistic principles. What separates The Unsuspected from so many other crime films is the cinematography of Woody Bredell.

The English-born Bredell had been an actor in silent films before becoming a still photographer and then a cinematographer. In the early 1940s he worked at Universal where he photographed films like The Mummy’s Hand and The Ghost of Frankenstein. His work on Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was a clear indication of how atmospheric his work could be. Two exceptional examples of his visuals can be found in the films he made with Robert Siodmak, Phantom Lady and The Killers. In both, you’ll find the kind of single-source lighting seen in some of the best noirs of the era. An example of this in The Unsuspected comes early when we hear Claude Rain’s voice over the airwaves and we see an unsavory-looking character (Jack Lambert) sitting on a bed in the seedy Peekskill hotel; the neon light from the hotel sign outside illuminates the interior of the room. The letters flashing in the window spell out “KILL.”

Bredell’s photography in The Unsuspected rivals the best of another great noir cinematographer, John Alton. Bredell and Curtiz make this one of the most cinematic films you will find with their mobile camera and brilliant compositions. The lighting turns an upscale mansion into a shadowy den of hidden secrets and dark reflections. The mood and Gothic quality of the story is further enhanced by the brooding musical score of Franz Waxman. All these elements make this one of the most underrated of all film noirs. The Unsuspected was released in 1947, so it’s easy to see how this film got overlooked. It was a year that also saw the release of Out of the Past, Kiss of Death, Crossfire, T-Men, Desperate, Nightmare Alley, and others.

Claude Rains was honored this spring with two films, a short, and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
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The Unsuspected was not a hit with critics. Even Michael Curtiz was rather dismissive of it when he said that, “It looks as though I tried to make a great picture out of a story that wasn’t basically a great story.” But there’s so much more here than just story.

There are some films that manage to be great even with weaknesses. (Joan Caulfield and Michael North are not exactly Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews.) But The Unsuspected rises to the heights because everything else around Caulfield and North is so good. This is easily one of the most disturbing performances Claude Rains ever gave. Over the years, fans who have rediscovered this film rank it as one of the best of the period. I suspect you will feel the same.

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