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THE UNSUSPECTED Warner Archive DVD review

by Mark Gross

Fans can purchase titles at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold

THE UNSUSPECTED (1947) Runtime 1hr 43min

Produced and Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, from the

novel by Charlotte Armstrong. Cinematography by Woody Bredell. With Claude Rains,

Joan Caulfield, Audrey Totter, Constance Bennett, Hurd Hatfield, and introducing

“Michael North”. Warner Archive MOD DVD. Extra: trailer.

Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve seen “The Unsuspected”. For me, watching this

film is a little like consuming a chocolate mousse cake along with a few demitasse cups

of espresso, and then, as a chaser, having some chocolate truffles. In other words, “The

Unsuspected” gives me a wonderful buzz. It’s rich and delectable. It’s a marvelous

exercise in style, but it’s more than style. It’s a world I’d love to live in—a mingling of

high life and lowlifes, dry martinis and jeopardy, bon mots and desperate deeds. All those

canted angles and sinister shadows make me tingly. It’s Noir heaven. It may be visual

overload, but it’s the opposite of superficial. The film’s events, though fanciful, have a

very real connection to what’s going on beneath the surface of things.

“The Unsuspected” begins on a dark and stormy night. I wonder if Snoopy, that

peripatetic pup who’s always scribbling “It was a dark and stormy night”, ever saw this

film. Anyway, there’s lots of lightning and thunder and deep shadows. In particular, the

elongated shadow of a man holding a noose wearing the kind of hat the Headless Horseman might have worn, if he ever needed a hat. And there’s a house. Ah, what a

house! The House on Haunted Hill was a mere shack compared to this. You’ve got two

story high Rococo windows, vaulted ceilings, a raging fireplace to make that shadow

even more demonic, and in the next room, a meek, mild, middle-aged woman waiting to

be murdered. Doesn’t every old dark house have a middle-aged woman waiting to be

murdered? She screams; but before she does, the telephone rings. So she answers it.

That’s right, Ladies and Gentleman; it’s Audrey Totter, Ms. Born to Be Bad and Loving

It, on the line. She probably has a Tarantula tattoo on her right breast, but unfortunately,

it’s covered up. “Is my wandering husband there?”, Ms. Totter intones into a pay phone

from some smart café with a hunk on her arm. Try to imagine her voice slinking

provocatively across the wire. It’s not only palpable, it’s fairly physical. It might wrestle

you to the ground if you’re not careful. It’s the call of the wild and the song of the siren

in one compact, lipsticked sigh. She should have been nominated for an Oscar for best

Sound Effect. “I haven’t seen him,” the middle-aged woman replies. Then, finally, she

screams, for that shadow has become corporeal and is strangling her, knocking the lamp

over, as the lighting scheme becomes even more baroque. Back in the café, Ms. Totter

hears the sound of screams and struggle over the receiver. “What’s that?” Mr. Tall,

Dense and Handsome asks. “Wrong number,” Ms. Totter replies, and hangs up. So, are

you interested yet? I know I was.

About that house; it’s a production designer’s dream, along with every composition,

which must have been storyboarded, for it has some of the most extreme angles, with

close-ups of eyes or screaming mouths or tangled hair in one corner of the frame and a

dark, deep-focus room which seems to go on forever behind them. I’m surprised a butler

didn’t walk through those cavernous spaces announcing, “Phone call for Mr. Charles

Foster Kane.” As for the house itself, it seems to be the size of two football stadiums, as

someone is always getting murdered in one part, while the cops are looking for the

murderer in the other. I almost expected the murderer—it’s not too hard to figure out who

he is, but that’s part of the fun--to say to the cops as he leaves to perform another

dastardly deed, “Excuse me while I slip into something more lethal”. And then there are

those massive, wrought iron doors. Well, we actually don’t see them, except the shadows.

Whenever anyone enters or exits, those deep shadows flutter across the walls and the

faces of everyone in the house, like a moving finger of fate. They must have used every

cookie on the lot, some even on cranes, to cast those multiple shadows. I’m sure

Barnabas Collins is green with envy, wherever he currently resides.

Michael Curtiz is the director. You know him. He’s done everything, from two-strip technicolor

horror (“Doctor X”) to Elvis Noir (“King Creole”). He uses a moving camera the way

Jean-Claude Killy used to ski cross-country. Some of the crane shots in “The

Unsuspected” are so delirious, I began to think Curtiz used the same method for coming

up with sequences as Busby Berkeley; that is, sitting in a hot tub in the wee hours and

drinking a surfeit of martinis. They remind me of sentences in Proust’s “Remembrance of

Things Past”, which start out simply enough, but before you know it, you’ve read two

and a half pages and it’s still going on. For instance, there’s a character we’re introduced

to on a train and then, after following him for a while, the camera, getting a little bored, I

guess, moves out of his compartment, through the window, away from the train, down the

tracks, across the Hudson River, up a street in the pouring rain, follows a car until it stops

in front of the Peekskill Hotel, moves up the façade to a big neon sign, goes into a

window, down a corridor and into a room, where a man lies on the bed, with part of the

neon sign, “Kill, Kill” flashing off and on in the window behind him. You see what I

mean? It’s got, as Kay Thompson might say, “Pa-zaaz!”.

Visually, the whole film is crazy-wonderful. Photographed by Woody Bredell, who was

DP on “Phantom Lady” and “The Killers”—the kind of films where you needed a

flashlight to see who was doing what to whom—“The Unsuspected” has more dark

corridors than a cocktail lounge has cosmopolitans, enough chiaroscuro to make

Caravaggio retain a copyright lawyer, an old dark manse—supposedly a 15 minute drive

from Manhattan—with enough winding staircases to keep Bela Lugosi occupied for

decades, and to top it all, two insanely, High Camp performances from Claude Rains and

Audrey Totter. What more do you need in a Noir? Did I hear someone say plot?

Well, there is a plot, and it’s a pretty ok, though it’s mostly “Laura” and Cornell

Woolrich’s “Black Alibi” in a blender. Claude Rains is this charming but slightly sinister

radio host who can go from affable to psycho in the flick of an eyelash and presents tales

of true crime live on the air. There also seems to be the beginnings of a true-crime crime

wave at his home. Being an artistic type, the murderer documents these crimes by

recording them on disc. Why, you ask? But you’re not supposed to ask. This is the kind

of film where a character finds one of those discs aurally documenting a murder, and

rather than run to the police with it, which you or I would do, puts it on the turntable and

plays it with the sound turned way up, all the while knowing the murderer is in the next

room, but thinking, oh, he’ll never come in here!

OK, this plot has enough lapses to rival that half-block wide sinkhole in Philadelphia, but

I still love it, though there could have been more motivation. “Over-inquisitiveness”

which the murder accuses a victim of before shooting him, is as good a reason as any, but

I want to know what kind of over-inquisitiveness. On that point, and many others, the

murderer, and also the film, remains mute. I think it’s part of the work of the screenwriter

to come up with a back-story, and while I could think of multiple reasons why the murder

did what he did, that’s supposed to be in the film, or at least, I was taught that in

Screenwriting 101. I was particularly disappointed as the screenwriter was Ranald

MacDougall, who reworked novels by James M. Caine and Ernest Hemmingway to

create two of Michael Curtiz’ 1940’s masterworks, “Mildred Pierce” and “The Breaking

Point”. Those scripts dazzle with their inventiveness, whereas in “The Unsuspected”, I

suspected the scriptwriter might have been one of the murderer’s first victims. It’s that

underwritten. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because you can’t stop watching, nor stop

caring about these people. Even if it’s a little confusing, things keep happening: murders,

out of wedlock clinches, and the consuming of many cocktails. To paraphrase Hitchcock,

it’s a slice of cake, not life, and this is about as bounteous a slice as you’re going to get in

any Noir.

So, let’s look at the performances. Beyond Claude Rains, who pronounces each word so

tenderly, it’s as if he’s loath to let go of them, there’s Audrey Totter playing the Tramp

From Hell, in black lace peek-a-boo dresses—not too peek-a-boo, mind you, as this is in

the height of the production code—but you get the idea. Her character is drunk and

disorderly and hot to trot and she steals the movie from Claude Rains, believe it or not,

kit and caboodle, which is quite an achievement, whenever she’s on camera, which isn’t

enough, but she’s so wild and wonderful, it’s worth waiting for.

Then there’s this portrait shrouded in shadow of Claude Rains’ niece and ward, who’s

missing at sea, presumed dead, and her husband, who appears from nowhere, or at least,

that’s who he says he is, though nobody knows about him. But I can’t go on, it’s all too

much. Still, I guess I should talk about them a little, I’ll call them the lovebirds; played by

“Michael”/Ted North and Joan Caulfield. Why does Mr. North have two first names?

Well, his real first name was Ted, but Michael Curtiz wanted to introduce him to

moviegoers in this film, and since he had already been in a movie as Ted, Curtiz changed

his first name to Michael, and volia, meet the new and improved Mr. North. Whatever the

name, “Michael”/Ted is never really ready for that close-up. In fact, he’s not ready for

much of anything, other than appearing confused, as if he got on the D Train instead of

the N at Columbus Circle. And though Joan Caulfield looks great as a misty portrait,

once she shows up in person, it’s similar to that oft-quoted review by Dorothy Parker:

“Her performance ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.”, except Joan Caulfield

doesn’t even make it to B. Fortunately, they’re completely overshadowed by everyone

else and end up being little more than walk-ons in their own film.

Not only are Claude Rains and Audrey Totter fabulous; there’s also Fred Clark, in his

first film role, as a police detective, going from schlepper to mensch quicker than you can

say autodidactic, a haunted Hurd Hatfield from “Picture of Dorian Grey”—someone

actually compliments him on his portrait, it’s that kind of movie--plus Constance Bennett,

with enough charisma to launch a string of yachts, doing a hilarious take on a gal Friday,

delivering the line: “After slaving all day over a hot typewriter, there’s nothing I like

better than a swan dive into a dry martini.” These characters aren’t only larger than life;

they’re bigger than those movie screens. They jump out at you, like Jeff Daniels in “The

Purple Rose of Cairo”, to wander about. So if you do decide to watch this film, I would

recommend making some martinis for Ms. Bennett first. She’ll be very appreciative, I’m


Not only was I surprised how good the film was—it’s much better than its reputation

would warrant; in fact, if you’ve never seen it, drop whatever you’re doing, and get it,

immediately—but I was also charmed by the Warner Archive’s presentation on DVD.

Other than a few milky frames that flare up now and then, the visual quality is marvelous,

considering it’s standard def. The blacks are rich, the whites luminous, and the depth of

field is fairly substantial, giving a decent oomph to Woody Bredell’s lustrous

cinematography. The only extra is a “trailer”, which isn’t a trailer at all, but a repeat of

the opening scene.

So, my rating for this will be a little different. Plot: 3 out of 5. Style and acting (except

for the two lovebirds, but they don’t really count) : 5 out of 5. Total: 4.5. Recommended

to those who love the actors, director, and High Noir style. Not quite as recommended to

those who are fussy about whodunit plots, but you might really love it anyway. I did.

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