Agatha Christie goes noir: The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz, 1947)

unsuspected

The Unsuspected begins with a murder: the secretary of renowned radio host Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) is strung from a chandelier to make her death look like suicide. Odd things are happening around Victor; only a few weeks previously, his ward Matilda (Joan Caulfield) seemingly perished in a shipwreck. In the meantime, a mysterious young man named Steven (Michael North) has emerged, claiming to be her husband – but when Matilda reappears alive, she has no memory of him. Throw into the mix Victor’s brassy blonde assistant Jane (Constance Bennett), his nasty niece Althea (Audrey Totter), and her alcoholic husband Oliver (Hurd Hatfield), not to mention a cop and crook or two, and we’ve got a complex house-bound murder mystery on our hands.

This film actually reveals the murderer, in a brief flash, in the opening scene. It’s taking the Colombo approach, then. It works here because the murderer’s motives remain a mystery, and more than that, the motives of everyone around this individual remain quite uncertain too. Take the initial murder: Althea is on the phone with the secretary at the time, and hears her scream, yet does nothing other than quickly establish her alibi for the time of death. This, and a host of other curious twists and turns, keep the viewer off-balance.

The whole film has an Agatha Christie air to it, but with fewer affectations. Maybe that’s a side-effect of the American setting. The film doesn’t believe in itself too much, either – while not a parody, it’s not completely serious. The fact that Victor’s radio show is about murder mysteries indicates that the story is knowing about its genre.

The Unsuspected is a marvellous looking movie. Curtiz doesn’t miss a trick – nearly every scene has some inventive use of light and shadow. It far surpasses the typical noir shuttered-blinds-lighting. There’s plenty of fine camera choices, too: here, we’re looking down on Matilda from a high angle as a figure (who proves benign, but startles her) hurries towards her; here, a victim’s shadow slumps in the frame before her body falls into view; here, we’re peering through a thin curtain at an illicit meeting, the camera pulling back to reveal the reactions of two people watching from outside.

The actors in The Unsuspected are almost as curious as their characters. Totter was a noir staple, perfect at paying bad girl roles. Caulfield is a favourite of Joss Whedon’s, which is something to puzzle over. Hatfield had a certain something about him, but never made much of an impact beyond the starring role in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – only his second film. Bennett is now less famous than her sister Joan, not for her lack of talent, but perhaps because she was almost disinterested in Hollywood. Michael North (the weakest link here) gets an “introducing” credit in this film, but had been in many films as Ted North, and has no acting credits after this one.

Claude Rains, of course, is Claude Rains. In this film he gets to do all the things we like him for. He could not be more perfect as a radio host who happily refers to himself as “mellifluous.” Take away the nicely baffling plot, the odd collection of co-stars, and the fantastic cinematography, and you’d still have a terribly enjoyable performance from Rains. That alone would make The Unsuspected good fun, but as the film stands, it’s one well worth hunting after.

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