Michael Curtiz plays a sly game in The Unsuspected a marvelous mystery that manages to preserve the venerable trappings of the English weekend-at-the-country-house murder (with some of the gimmickry that implies) while setting it amid a nest of Manhattan smart-mouths. He shows us who the murderer is in the first few minutes of the movie (and echoes his revelation several times) but does it so glancingly that it fails to register. And even if it did, The Unsuspected proves such a banquet of writing, acting and visual detail such as the neon sign on a hotel in Peekskill flashing only its four last letters to a room inside that it wouldn't be spoiled at all.
Looming shadows stalk through the baronial upstate manse of Victor Grandison (the ineffable Claude Rains), host of a wildly popular true-crime radio show. Next thing, his loyal secretary is hanging from a chandelier (an apparent suicide, but we know better). This ghastly occurrence doesn't faze the house's other occupants his gold-digging niece (Audrey Totter) and her boozehound husband (Hurd Hatfield), possibly because Totter was on the phone with the victim as she uttered her last scream but never bothered to report it. Or it could be that everybody's still in shock over the loss of another niece (Joan Caulfield), who has perished in a ship's fire while crossing the Atlantic.
Into their lives strides a Mysterious Stranger (Ted North), claiming to be Caulfield's widower. He's received variously: Rains treats him with cordial suspicion, Hatfield with glum distaste (he had a thing for Caulfield, too) while Totter throws herself at him, `vibrating.' And then who should turn up, safe and reasonably sound, but Caulfield herself. The plot is admittedly a little complicated (made more so by the resemblance between North and Hatfield, with their bland, unhappy faces, and between Totter and Constance Bennett, who could pass as her older sister (playing the Eve Arden role of the wise-cracking spinster helpmate). But it's nothing that a few more homicides can't clear up....
With Casablanca and Mildred Pierce behind him, Curtiz was at the height of his powers for The Unsuspected, and Warners plainly gave him full rein for this lavish production. He's matched every step of the way by the wondrous Woody Bredell, who supplies richly detailed, always evocative cinematography (it's a smashing-looking movie). Nor does the script falter: Every line gleams with witty malice. Though Caulfield unfathomably gets top billing, she pales next to Rains and Totter in top form, with Bennett a close runner-up. The movie boasts just about everything.
Why, then, isn't it better known? Usually labeled film noir, it's really more of a high-style 40s sophisticated mystery, as was Otto Preminger's Laura (and, like Laura, it hinges on a beautiful young woman, presumed dead, who unexpectedly re-emerges). But while Laura receives reverent homage as an evergreen classic (`They don't make em like that anymore'), The Unsuspected remains relatively unknown except to fans of the noir cycle. Yet it's every bit at good a movie certainly no less plausible and honed to an even finer level of elegance. Go figure.
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