Saturday, January 05, 2013

Tonight's Movie: The Unsuspected (1947)

THE UNSUSPECTED is an engrossing, intricately plotted story of murder and deception, based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong.

Claude Rains plays radio host Victor Grandison, a crime show star who in real life consecutively arranges for the deaths of his secretary and niece, with more murders planned in his busy schedule.

It's a bit hard to understand why a man with so much wants to kill so many, but it seems that part of the motivation is greed. (I was never quite clear how killing his secretary was going to help him financially; maybe she knew too much? Or maybe he was just completely crazy.) Grandison always seems to be one step ahead of those who would stop him, managing to stay informed of their moves at all times. It will take a lot of work to trip him up, because in the eyes of most, he's "the unsuspected."

This was an enjoyable film with an excellent cast, including ethereal Joan Caulfield as Grandison's niece Matilda, an heiress initially presumed dead in a shipwreck; Audrey Totter as another niece, the bitter Althea, who stole Matilda's love Oliver (Hurd Hatfield) for herself; Fred Clark as a cagey homicide detective; and most enjoyably, Constance Bennett as Grandison's witty radio producer. Michael North plays Steve Howard, who claims to be Matilda's husband, but she seems to have forgotten their brief marriage since the trauma of nearly dying at sea.

The story carefully unspools, punctuated by a couple rather shocking moments, including a disturbing climax in a junkyard, of all places. I was strongly reminded of the near-death at a construction site at the end of last year's Mark Wahlberg film, CONTRABAND (2012); truly, everything old becomes new again.

Rains, with his mellifluous voice, is perfect for the role of a radio host, and he's so cool at all times that one can see why he goes so long without being suspected as a killer. Caulfield and Totter provided an interesting ying and yang, with Caulfield's distraught Matilda nonetheless strong enough to go toe to toe with her jealous cousin Althea, in part because she has financial power which Althea lacks.

Hurd Hatfield and Audrey Totter were on loanout to Warner Bros. from MGM; Hatfield doesn't get to do much more than sit at the bar and drink, but Totter is a lot of fun, as always. Constance Bennett and Fred Clark are terrific, with the film getting an extra zing of energy each time they come onscreen. I only wish they'd had more scenes, though I suppose there really wasn't time in this 103-minute film.

I wasn't sure what to make of Michael North as Matilda's husband; initially I thought his acting weak, but he grew on me as the film went on. I'd like to know more about North; he had previously made a number of films under the name Ted North, but here he received a special billing card "Introducing Michael North." What's particularly curious is that this was his last film, released the same year he divorced actress Mary Beth Hughes. North was born in 1916, and IMDb does not indicate that he has passed away. A Google search hasn't turned up much info, even on a site devoted to Mary Beth Hughes; she and North had a son named Donald.

As an aside, Bess Flowers Fan Club members won't be at all surprised to know that the dress extra who must have been in more party and nightclub scenes than any actress in history can be spotted leaving Grandison's surprise party early in the film.

Although a majority of the scenes take place in Grandison's mansion or radio studio, THE UNSUSPECTED still manages to have some terrific noir style, including some especially great shadowy shots, filmed in black and white by Woody Bredell.

The director was Michael Curtiz. The musical score was by Franz Waxman.

THE UNSUSPECTED is available from the Warner Archive.

It's also been shown on Turner Classic Movies; the trailer is at the TCM website.

February 2018 Update: I had a great opportunity to see this film on a big screen at UCLA as part of their Michael Curtiz retrospective.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I love it when Althea says of Mathilda that "she drinks too much milk and her stockings are always straight". Nobody lobs the zingers like Audrey Totter!

3:41 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I like Michael "Ted" North in this film and as a mystery still to be addressed. How do we find him or find out about him...? Could be he is still alive under an altogether different name. Could Donald North shed light on this? Would he?

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just seen this film. I found Michael North and Joan Caulfield weak leads. (By the way, Joan was Claude Rains's ward, not his niece.)
His only explanation for the secretary's murder was that she was inquisitive.
I think Gail Russell would have been ideal in the Caulfield role.
Claude Rains never disappoints and I agree Constance Bennett was funny.

1:38 PM  

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