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A longtime director at Warner Bros., Michael Curtiz already had helmed such hits as Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945) when he tackled The Unsuspected (1947), a murder mystery. Film noir was then at the height of its vogue and The Unsuspected has much in common with other movies of that genre, particularly Laura (1944), with its eccentric cast of suspects, most of them decadent socialites. And the film's innovative camerawork by Woody Bredell is one of its most celebrated attributes, bearing favorable comparison to the moody chiaroscuro lighting of The Killers (1946), also filmed by Bredell.
For The Unsuspected, Claude Rains' mellifluous voice was perfectly put to use in an atypical leading role as Victor Grandison, the host of a true-crime radio program. Following the mysterious death of an employee at his mansion, Rains becomes embroiled in an elaborate plot involving impersonation, blackmail and murder. Things begin to unravel when an enigmatic young man appears on his doorstep and attempts to solve the killing in the Grandison home.
Rains had worked with director Curtiz on nine other films, including Casablanca, and the Errol Flynn vehicles, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). As for Curtiz, The Unsuspected marked his first venture as an independent producer.
Originally seeking Orson Welles for the part that eventually went to Rains, Curtiz also was forced to bypass his initial choice of Jennifer Jones (and then Joan Fontaine) for the part of Rains' niece. Instead he cast Audrey Totter, a rising starlet featured in several notable noirs, including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Lady in the Lake (1947), opposite Robert Montgomery. Although Curtiz could be a tyrant on the set, Totter got along well with him and later admitted (in Dark City Dames by Eddie Muller), "He liked my work, and wanted to put me under personal contract. He'd started his own company and Doris Day was the only other one he'd signed up. But Metro wouldn't let him have me. I'm glad they didn't, because his company didn't pan out, and was folded into Warners. Bette Davis was there, Ida Lupino - people who would have played my parts."
Totter recalled the shoot as a pleasant experience, although Curtiz was a workaholic who demanded the same from his cast and crew. His wife claimed that, although he slept only five hours a night, he often talked in his sleep about films. While shooting The Unsuspected, the director once commandeered guests at his own dinner party, rearranging food and seating arrangements to try out different set-ups for the shoot of the dinner-party sequence in the film.
Yet, even with Curtiz's skilled direction, Bredell's evocative cinematography, sharp dialogue, and a first-rate cast including Constance Bennett in a notable supporting role, The Unsuspected was not an immediate hit with critics. The New Yorker labeled it "a seedy mystery in which the corpses of murdered people are piled around like buns in a bakery's day-old shop." Even Curtiz later admitted, "It looks as though I tried to make a great picture out of a story that wasn't basically a great story." However, Curtiz scored an immediate box office hit with the other film he directed in 1947, the acclaimed portrait of family life in turn-of-the-century New York City, Life With Father.
In recent years The Unsuspected has been singled out as an underrated example of the genre and is chock full of quintessential noir scenes like this one described by Carl Macek in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style: Jack Lambert as the blackmailed killer lies in bed smoking. The radio is on and Victor Grandison is detailing the story of his particular crime. The only source of 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."
Director: Michael Curtiz
Producer: Charles Hoffman Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall, Bess Meredyth, based on the novel by Charlotte Armstrong
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Cinematography: Woody Bredell
Costume Design: Milo Anderson
Film Editing: Frederick Richards
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Joan Caulfield (Matilda Frazier), Claude Rains (Victor Grandison), Audrey Totter (Althea Keane), Constance Bennett (Jane Moynihan), Hurd Hatfield (Oliver Keane), Fred Clark (Richard Donovan), Jack Lambert (Mr. Press).
BW-104m. Closed captioning.
by Genevieve McGillicuddy