The Unsuspected (1947)

The Unsuspected (1947) is a multiply textured mystery and suspense film noir starring Claude Rains as a handsome patriarchal radio show presenter, who specialises in true crime. For film noir — it's a way of life.

Technology and murder combine in The Unsuspected in the form of Claude Rains' own master studio where he engineers as much evil as he does family entertainment, with his hi-tech equipment.

Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) plays a character more embedded in crime than most, and hosts a murder mystery radio show. 

“The unsuspected is anywhere, everywhere,” Grandison tells 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.”

The first four minutes of the film do break murder mystery convention however, and also express the ironic joy of the title. Everyone watching knows who the killer is, even if nobody on screen suspects — because they will be suspecting the unsuspected.  

It is in fact one of the most stylised openings in film noir, with murder, shadows, the all important telephone and confusing exchanges. The noir atmosphere continues throughout amidst plot twists, car chases and revelations.

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…”

Jack Lambert in The Unsuspected (1947)

Firmly in the camp of fantasy film noir, in which murder is usually presented less as something reprehensible and violent, but as a salacious device that we are not entirely intended as serious. The gap between film noir and true crime remains strange and wide, insofar as there is really nothing true about such unusual circumstances where people bump each other off — in this case, almost for fun.

In film noir a ghoulish sense of the possible creates suspenseful dramas around widely recognised themes such as wealth, technology, love, and often places them in a home. IN the case of wealth and the home, the combination is perfectly cinematic and dramatic. Claude Rains as media star Victor Grandison has a home that is a castle, a media complex and a creepy art nouveau palace of threat and mystery.

Fred Clark in The Unsuspected (1947)

Like Laura (1944), The Unsuspected deals with the death of a woman; there is a portrait painting of her hanging over a fireplace, and an outsider taking a keen interest in it. 

There's a ghoulish and powerful older man with an awkward relationship with this woman, and all of this takes place in upper class socialite circles.

Darkness and light in The Unsuspected (1947)

Like Laura, The Unsuspected is a stylish thriller with a large cast, and plenty going on. Claude Rains the debonair mastermind at work in The Unsuspected has two of his nieces living 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 broke.

Claude Rains in The Unsuspected (1947)

A week after the secretary's murder — the creepy murder at the head of the action, which is made to look like a suicide — an uninvited guest arrives. This is Steven Howard (Michael North) who claims to have married Matilda a few days before she died at sea. At the same time Matilda shows up again, and it turns out she isn't dead at all but survived the accident at sea and needed time to recuperate.

All of which strangeness triggers a chain of events that leads to a couple more murders, and the truth behind Steven Howard's motives and then as the finale, the identity of the murderer. Fantasy it is — not only does the murderer have a fondness for keeping incriminating recordings and other evidence, but in succession commits five murders — three of these in his own home. 

Downtown smog in The Unsuspected (1947)

The wardrobes of Matilda and Althea offer an entire noir texture of their own, and present of course the contrast between the characters of the two nieces. At the start of the film Althea wears light dresses, and when Matilda first sees Althea again, Matilda is wearing dark clothes, having now recently returned from a dark episode. 

As the noir progresses and Althea shows more and more of her self her dresses also become darker until she is wearing only black. This contrasts with Matilda who at this stage is wearing white dresses, reflecting her good and somewhat naïve character.

As a murder mystery The Unsuspected is a great example of its times, an escape and a romantic play using some technology as a trick to imprison and entrap. The Unsuspected is not full with film noir grit and language, and nor does it show much in the depths of paranoia and human failure, but it does bask in splendid and constant shadow work.

Jack Lambert in The Unsuspected (1947)

Claude Rains as Grandison is the splendidly 'unsuspected' murderer with a busy schedule of death. The deaths are fantasises, and seem quite pointless for a man with so much money and power. Although he is not analysed as such, Claude Rains as Victor Grandison may be a complete psychopath, piling murder upon murder with no reason, other than the joy of getting away with it all. 

Director Michael Curtiz is aided by Woody Bredell, who is most likely responsible for the epic shadows and other light formations — some of which are upsides down —  shadows and light which raise this murder mystery into the realms of noir. Woody Bredell who worked on the 1940s Universal Horror films and also with Robert Siodmak during that director’s Universal work which produced a few film noir classics.

"Jack Lambert as the blackmailed killer lies in bed smoking. The radio is on and Alexander Grandison is detailing the story of his particular crime. The only source of the illumination in this dingy hotel room comes from a partially obscured flashing neon sign. The letters that are visible through the window seem to echo the thoughts of the uncomfortable murderer as it keeps blinking 'KILL...KILL...KILL'."

Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir An Encyclopaedic Reference to the American Style. The Overlook Press (1992).

Fred Clark as the homicide detective on the case remains cagey and a tangible threat throughout, but the psychological conceit and fun of this film is the idea that there may be people who are entirely unsuspected by everybody of crime, because they are too nice and too respectable, and too loved in the eyes if many to be a reasonless killer, evil and twisted. For want of any further psychological explanation, this is best left at just that — Victor Grandison really has no motive and evil for its own sake is the true preserve of the powerful.

Claude Rains’ performance as Victor, a smiling cobra who’s smooth as silk and deadly as a razor. Victor is outwardly  kind and gentle, masking the murderous beast within. He’s wound tighter than a drum, and it’s not until the final scene where, while broadcasting his show, he realizes he’s been found out and is trapped, that he cracks under pressure and makes his confession. 

Claude Rains in The Unsuspected (1947)

There is time in The Unsuspected for no less than two car chases, with the second chase completing in a junk yard, which seems the stark polar opposite of the socialite mansion where the film is set. 

Audrey Totter in The Unsuspected (1947)

Audrey Totter is the movie's main attraction, and seems more at home than any of the actors here. Her character Althea says of Mathilda that "she drinks too much milk and her stockings are always straight", and its zingers like this that bring a full on wisecracking noir sensibility to the fore when it feels it may be lacking. 

Audrey Totter in fact adds the seething and crisp atmosphere to the house, playing a perfectly mean character as she does best, and does so with the best lines in the picture:

Althea Keane:  You look as though you'd been fished out of several oceans!

Althea Keane: If that's a Brazilian gown, I'll leave for Argentina in the morning.

Althea Keane: You seem interested.
Steven Francis Howard: Fascinated. You know, it's very much like Montreux in his middle period. Who painted it?
Althea Keane: My husband... in his sober period... before he married me.

Still however, what is more film noir than a beautiful dead woman who is not really dead, and an ageing powerful male villain who kills anyone who might interfere with his plans for her?

Choosing the poisoned champagne in The Unsuspected (1947) 

With powerful intent, The Unsuspected shows what could be gotten away with in the fun and dark spirit of the purest 1940s classic film noir, where fantastical elements combined with murder, mystery and psychology to create an almost uniquely bizarre and fantastical story that does not feel predictable, and is always compelling, lurking as it does in the dark.

There are almost no rules to this kind of noir storytelling. Solid foundations are not required because a character can simply 'get amnesia'. Super vivid characterisation reminds us that reality is not a requirement, and least of all in film noir. Although nobody emerging into the 1950s versions of the same film noir stories, seemed to get the message there.

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