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Michael Curtiz graced us with his presence on Wednesday, ushered in by the informative introduction of Noir City’s very own Alan K. Rode. Rode has written a book about the director of such Noir classics as The Breaking Point, so the Castro Theater got a crash course in Curtiz 101. We were then treated to the thrilling rollercoaster ride that is 1947’s The Unsuspected. With its return of the presumed dead missing woman story and its larger than life public figure character, The Unsuspected owes a bit of debt to Preminger’s Laura. But Curtiz and screenwriter Ranald MacDougall use these familiarities as mere jumping off points for a twisty thriller whose dialogue is as dangerously sharp as its sudden plot turns.
11-time Curtiz collaborator Claude Rains stars as the awesomely monikered Victor Grandison, star of the most popular--and most macabre--show on the radio, The Unsuspected. The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and Grandison knows how that evil works its way down to their fingers. Each episode is a sordid tale of grisly mayhem such as The Woman With The Missing Head, with every murderous morsel described in Rains' sinister tone. This is back in television's infancy, when radio was still king. But radio programs still had to earn ratings to stay on. It's a dog-eat-dog world, especially here in Noir City, so the quest for ratings may lead to desperate measures being taken.
The plot of The Unsuspected sounds like something Grandison would use to entice his listeners. Grandison's secretary is murdered in an impressively shot opening sequence, her body hanged from his house's chandelier to make the death look like suicide. Whodunit? Or since this is a very twisty mystery, who's involved with doin' it? Could an accomplice be Althea Keane (Audrey Totter), Grandison's bad-girl sister, who telephoned the secretary just before she was murdered? Was it Jane (Constance Bennett), Grandison's assistant and co-writer of his ghoulish radio program? Or is it Oliver (Hurd Hatfield), Althea's drunk of a husband whom she stole from her biggest nemesis, Matilda (Joan Caulfield).
It's certainly not Matilda, as she's dead at the time of the murder. But, just as in Laura, the mysterious pretty dead girl in the painting over the mantle shows up very much alive. This really pisses off Althea! With Matilda out of the picture, she's become the grande dame of the Grandison Estate. Victor favored Matilda, and now that she's back, she's got a lot of favoring to catch up on. This makes Althea cattier than an alley filled with empty tuna fish cans. Plus, drunken Oliver is completely open to rekindling romance with the one that got away.
Matilda has bigger fish to fry. She becomes the focus of a side mystery; she can remember everything about her time being shipwrecked, but she can't seem to recall that she married a man named Steven Francis Howard (Michael North) the night she went to sea. Steven makes a credible case for their nuptials; he seems to know everything about Matilda. She knows nothing about him, but when her heart starts leaning in Steven's direction, she thinks she might be suffering from selective amnesia.
There's a good reason Matilda doesn't remember marrying Steven: The event never happened. So, now we have another mystery!
This movie has more mysteries than Scooby-Doo!
Steven had plans on marrying the murdered secretary. And he's suspicious that Victor Grandison had something to do with her demise. Since Rains is in creepy charm mode, he's a viable suspect. He's up to no good already, secretly recording people and then editing the recordings to say things his subjects never said. He also has an incriminating recording he uses to blackmail the heavy who does all of Grandison's dirty work. Both the heavy and Grandison's edited recordings will have their reckoning before fade out.
The Unsuspected is a very suspenseful picture, so I'll say no more. It's worth seeing not just for how Curtiz and company cleverly untangle the knots they tie, but also for the delicous dialogue and performances. Most notable are the two female Noir veterans, Constance Bennett and Audrey Totter. Bennett gets some of the sharpest lines in the script, and Totter plays the mean sister to an Oscar-worthy hilt. I've always harbored an unhealthy love for Totter, but after this performance, I was ready to rob a bank for her.
The Unsuspected made me think of Angela Lansbury's TV show, Murder, She Wrote. I have a theory about that show: Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer who killed everybody on the show so she could have fodder for her numerous books. She was Basic Instinct before Basic Instinct. It's up to you to find out if Victor Grandison is Jessica Fletcher before Jessica Fletcher. Anything is possible on the radio that beams content into the eager ears of the denizens of Noir City.
Next up: Robert Altman's '40's Noir and Burt and Kirk four decades before Tough Guys.