Monday, May 27, 2013

The Unsuspected (1947)

Try and guess which movie this is... It deals with the death of a woman... There is a portrait painting of her hanging over a fireplace, and an outsider takes a keen interest in it... There's a devilish older man with a somewhat awkward relationship with this woman... It all takes place in upper class socialite circles... The woman turns out to not be dead after all... Oh, before you hit the buzzer, this is not 'Laura' from 1944. That's right, the movie I am talking about is 'The Unsuspected' from 1947. And while this movie has 'borrowed' heavily from the classic film noir, it is much more than a mere copy. It is actually a really clever, good and fun movie. And like 'Laura', it is a very stylish thriller.

'The Unsuspected' was directed by Michael Curtiz ('Casablanca', 'Mildred Pierce'), cinematography was done by Elwood 'Woody' Bredell ('Christmas Holiday', 'The Killers') and the musical score was done by the great Franz Waxman ('Sunset Blvd', 'Sorry, Wrong Number'). A very strong group of people at the helm of this production therefore, and it shows. And to be fair, Charlotte Armstrong's story was published after 'Laura' was released, so if anything we have Charlotte Armstrong to blame for the blatant similarities. Her story was adapted by Curtiz' wife Bess Meredyth and then turned into a screenplay by Ranald MacDougall ('Mildred Pierce', 'Cleopatra').

The movie opens with the murder, disguised as suicide, of Victor Grandison's secretary during one of his radio shows. 'Genial host, renowned writer, art collector and teller of strange tales' Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) is the host of a very popular real life mystery/crime radio show. He is very charming, suave, highly intelligent and lives in a large mansion. He's kind enough to have 2 of his nieces live in the mansion with him, Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield) who is presumed dead at the start of the movie and who was to inherit a fortune, and Althea Keane (Audrey Totter) who lives there with her alcoholic husband Oliver Keane (Hurd Hatfield) and who is pretty much broke. A week after the secretary's suicide/murder an uninvited guest to Grandison's surprise birthday party arrives, Steven Howard (Michael 'Ted' North) who claims to have married Matilda a few days before she died at sea. At the same time Matilda shows up again, who isn't dead at all but survived the accident at sea and needed time to recuperate and get herself together again. This triggers a chain of events that leads to a couple more murders, and the truth behind Steven Howard's motives and ofcourse, the identity of the murderer.

The movie has a lot going for it. First off, it looks absolutely beautiful. The lighting is quite extraordinary, especially with its use of long, moving shadows. There are also some really nice camera shots of people's reflections (the secretary's killer's reflection can be seen in the murder scene, revealing its identity, but you'll miss it if you blink), a large part of which are actually upsidedown.
Another visual gem is when small-time hoodlum Press (Jack Lambert), who's being blackmailed by Grandison, is lying on his bed in his hotelroom and the lights of the hotel (called the Peekskills) flicker on and off, showing only 'KILL' from his point of view... KILL - KILL - KILL.
Then there are 2 fun car chases, with the typical sped up footage of cars doing turns at impossible speeds. There is an unintentional funny moment when one of the cars changes color for a moment before going back to its original color.
The story also has some nice twists and turns that take it out of 'Laura' territory. There is an element of blackmail involved here with Grandison using a 16" vinyl platter recording machine to record conversations with people so he can blackmail them with it later on.
Grandison's background as a radio host also allows for some very interesting scenes of the recording of a radio show.

A separate remark needs to be made about the wardrobe of Matilda and Althea. The contrast between the characters of the nieces is also reflected in their wardrobe. At the start of the movie Althea wears light-colored dresses, and when Matilda first sees Althea again, Matilda is wearing dark clothes, as she just returned from a dark episode in her life. But as the movie progresses, and Althea shows more and more of her true colors, her dresses also become darker until they're pitch black. While Matilda soon starts to wear virgin white dresses, reflecting her good-mannered and somewhat naive character.

As far as the acting goes, Claude Rains and Audrey Totter stand out. Claude Rains does what he does best, playing a debonair, upper-class socialite who's always got an answer, a retort or a comeback. He is devilish and devious as Grandison who has alterior motives when it comes to his affection towards Matilda, while Totter's Althea is quite the bitch who is jealous of Matilda and stole Matilda's boyfriend Oliver out of spite. She's also resentful because Oliver turned out to be a no-good drunk and they've got no money of their own. Joan Caulfield is decent as Matilda, but she's hindered by the very demure, naive and tender character of Matilda. This movie would be the final movie role for Michael North, and maybe for the best, he's a decent actor but he does come across a bit stiff and wooden here as Steven Howard who, surprise surprise, never really married Matilda after all.

'The Unsuspected' is above everything else, a murder-mystery movie. It does fall into noir territories, but doesn't have the grittiness usually associated with noir. At least not on the surface. Some of the characters here are extremely vile underneath the thin veneer of upper-class politeness tho, and the cinematography is very noir, as well as very stylish. I highly enjoyed this movie, and highly recommend it. Don't let the comparisons to 'Laura' hold you back, this is a fun movie!

I couldn't find a trailer for this movie, but the aforementioned blinking KILL scene will do just fine:

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