Noir in 1947: The Unsuspected
The first 10 minutes of The Unsuspected are what I like to call “PN” – Pure Noir. (Actually, I just made that up.)
First, there’s the suitably noirish score by Franz Waxman that introduces us to the opening credits. Just listening to those creepy strains lets you know that you’re in for a dark ride. And then there’s the very first scene — the shadow of a behatted gent walking stealthily across a dimly lit room. Soon after, we see the reflection of a man in a moving train, superimposed over the darkened streets outside as he speeds through the night. And then, a solitary fellow lies smoking in bed in a seedy hotel room, the neon sign showing the hotel’s name outside his window, intermittently casting a glowing light in the room. The name of the establishment is the Hotel Peekskill – and through the open window, the man seeks only the word, KILL. KILL. KILL.
Now, that’s noir. PN, if you will.
The Unsuspected offers a typically complex noir plot – the film opens as the aforementioned behatted gentleman kills a young woman, then makes her death look like a suicide. The woman, Roslyn Wright, was secretary to Victor Grandison (Claude Rains), the host of a popular radio show on which he recounts gruesome real-life tales of murder. As it turns out, Roslyn’s death is the second that Victor has experienced recently – just a month earlier, his beloved ward, Mathilda Frazier, was killed in a shipwreck at sea.
Cultured, intelligent, and wealthy (at least, he appears to be), Victor lives in a grand country mansion. He gives us a key to his personality when he says in one scene, “I’ve discovered that everything worthwhile costs a little money.” And he wasn’t kidding. He lives like a king, complete with a manservant, beautiful objets d’art and several cars in his garage. Other inhabitants of the mansion are Victor’s trampy niece, Althea (Audrey Totter), and her husband, Oliver (Hurd Hatfield), and we learn Althea stole her hubby from Mathilda just weeks before they were to be married. Others joining this mélange of characters are Richard Donovan (Fred Clark, in his film debut), chief of the local homicide bureau, who feeds Victor the background for his broadcasts; Jane Moynihan (Constance Bennett – who in one brief scene looks startlingly like her sister Joan), Victor’s wise-cracking, impeccably dressed assistant; and Steven Howard (Michael North), who shows up at a surprise birthday party for Victor, claiming to have married Mathilda three days before her death.
Before long, the principal characters discover that Roslyn’s death was actually a murder, and shortly after they learn that Mathilda isn’t dead after all – she’d been rescued and recovering in Rio DeJaniero. Her return earns mixed reviews – Victor is delighted; Althea (who has wasted no time moving into Mathilda’s room) is disgusted; Oliver – who is never far from a drink – is conflicted; and Steven, who picks up Mathilda from the airport upon her arrival, finds that she does not remember him at all.
Without giving away the entire plot (which I have a tendency to do), suffice it to say that the film offers up a couple more murders, much intrigue, a first-rate chase scene, and some great one-liners – including my favorite, from Jane, when she confesses, “After slaving all day over a hot typewriter, there’s nothing I like more than a swan dive into a bottle of bourbon.”