Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Unsuspected (1947)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                    Writer: Ranald MacDougall
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: Elwood Bredell
Starring: Claude Rains, Joan Caulfield, Audrey Totter and Ted North

The Unsuspected is an incredibly convoluted story that ultimately winds up being a satisfying noirish murder mystery. Claude Rains is a radio personality who is famous for reading true crime stories. While delivering his broadcast one night his secretary is murdered in his study and the scene is made to look like suicide. At Rains’ birthday party a few days later, Ted North shows up claiming to have been married to Rains’ niece, Joan Caulfield, who died a few weeks earlier in a shipwreck at sea. When she shows back up after having been rescued and convalesced in South America, everyone is surprised, including her cousin, Audrey Totter, who had already moved into her room. To make matters more complicated, Caulfield doesn’t remember marrying North. Caufield is rich, but apparently so is North, so that can’t be a motive for deception. Also, Totter married the man Caufield was in love with, Hurd Hatfield. And that’s just the beginning of the twists.

The screenplay is based on the novel by Edgar award winning mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, and the screenplay was written by Ranald MacDougall, who was best know for adapting James M. Cain’s Midred Pierce for the screen. It’s a taut script, and that’s partially one of the problems the film has. It takes a good hour into the film to really get straight all of the characters and figure out what’s going on. Up until then a lot of characters enter the picture without a lot of explanation as to what they’re doing there. Still, if the viewer stays with it, it delivers it’s own kind of reward when the plot begins coalescing at a rapid pace in the last half hour. Some critics have compared the film to Laura because of a picture of Caulfield over the fireplace and her presumed death, but there doesn’t really seem to be any pretense to this by the filmmakers as she returns early in the film and the painting has no real function after that.

Rains does a nice job carrying the film, with his smooth demeanor and unflappable personality. The weakest role is definitely that of Joan Caulfield, who was a model before she became and actress and it sort of shows. Audrey Totter grabs the camera by the horns and makes full use of her acting abilities as Rains’ other niece. Constance Bennett is equally as assertive in her role as the director of Rains’ radio program. She’s brassy and, unfortunately, the script is a little too self-deprecating in the lines she has to deliver, as she’s quite lovely even this late in her career. Jack Lambert plays a killer who is under the thrall of Rains, for some reason, and the wonderful character actor Fred Clark makes the most of a small but vital role in the story. All of the actors have a scene or two in the film that is quite impressive and though it’s decidedly a second-tier cast they make a good ensemble.

The story is pretty much a straight murder mystery, though some critics recognize in it some nice noir touches by director Michael Curtiz. Most of these, however, are in the first few minutes of the film when Rains’ secretary is being murdered and intercut with Rains’ radio broadcast. It’s a stalwart outing for Curtiz, and he has some memorable moments. One is when a street scene is shown through the window of a moving bus, and then the camera pushes through the window onto the scene itself. The film score by Franz Waxman is good, but lacks the kind of memorable melodic hooks that are associated with the best of his works. The Unsuspected is by no means a great film, but it is enjoyable, especially for the work of Michael Curtiz. For fans of Claude Rains, however, it’s a must see.

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