Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Claude, The Genial Host

Secretary Rosalyn White (Barbara Woodall) is alone in the home of her employer, radio personality and "teller of strange tales" Victor Grandison (Claude Rains). She is on the phone with Grandison’s niece Althea Keene (Audrey Totter). Althea hears a scream on the phone, then nothing; Althea then calmly goes back to her party. The next day, Rosalyn’s body is found hanging from the chandelier; the police deem it a suicide. Some months later, Althea hosts a party for Victor’s birthday. A surprise arrival is Steven Francis Howard (Michael North) who claims to be the husband of Grandison’s other niece, the recently deceased Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield).  Welcome to the world of The Unsuspected (1947).

As part of the Spring 2019 Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir blogathon, we're going to take a look at this interesting film - which is worth watching for the Homme Fatale of the piece - the always intriguing Claude Rains (with a quick nod to one of the queens of noir, Audrey Totter!).

Any opportunity to see Claude Rains in action is one that should not be missed. He does not disappoint as the seemingly sympathetic uncle in this intricate mystery story. It's easy to believe him as a radio host who tells tales of murder and mayhem - likely scaring the hell out of the listening audience (his butler tells Grandison that he doesn't listen to the radio show. It's too scary. Grandison's response - "Do you like your job?"). Mr. Rains gets second billing to Joan Caulfield, however he is almost the whole show. When he is on the screen, I dare you to be able to take your eyes off him. With his imperious presence, one is never quite sure where he stands with regards to his two nieces. We believe he is a loving uncle to Matilda, but there is always that doubt - the true mark of a homme fatal! While Orson Welles was originally sought for Grandison (TCM article), and Robert Alda was announced as the film's lead (AFI catalog), the film is enhanced by Mr. Rains presence.

Audrey Totter is excellent as the malevolent Althea. Ms. Totter makes Althea a mystery - we know she is up to something, but the question is "what?".  She also seems to get most of the best lines. It's always a pleasure to see Ms. Totter; she rarely got star billing in A pictures, but she adds gravitas to any film in which she appears. Like Mr. Rains, she was not the first person considered for the part of Althea - Ava Gardner, Jennifer Jones and Joan Fontaine were all in the running. While we can't agree that Ms. Jones was suitable, Joan Fontaine could have been interesting in the part (take a look at her as Christabel Caine in Born to Be Bad (1950) to see her as a down and dirty noir fatale).
Not without her own great bon mots is Constance Bennett as Jane Moynihan, the director on Grandison's radio program: "After slaving all day over a hot typewriter, there's nothing I like better than a swan dive into a bottle of bourbon." Ms. Bennett is excellent as the one person in Victor's cadre who isn't afraid of him or after something.

This was Fred Clark's (Police Detective Richard Donovan) first film role, and he is good as a policeman with a brain. He was 28 when he joined the Navy in 1942; when he left the services (he had transferred to the Army), he started his acting career. He made a number of excellent films, including Ride a Pink Horse (1947) and White Heat (1949), but he his primary success was on television. He died in 1968, at the age of 54.
Dana Andrews was originally cast as Steve, but he wanted to part to be expanded; when that proved impossible, he withdrew from the production (as did his suggested co-star, Virginia Mayo) (Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film by Alan K. Rode). Actor Michael North was "introduced" in the film, but he'd actually appeared in 21 films and shorts, mostly under the name Ted North. We found him to be somewhat banal, but it does work for the film to keep him more in the background. The Unsuspected may have introduced him, but it was also his goodbye to moviemaking as a performer. He left acting to become an agent, representing clients such as Red Skelton and Amanda Blake.

Hurd Hatfield (Oliver Keane) and Joan Caulfield (Matilda Frazier) are underused in the film. Neither are particularly dynamic actors, and both fade out next to the talents of Mr. Rains, Ms. Totter, and Ms. Bennett.  Quite honestly, you forget they are there after awhile. 
This The New York Times review was not particularly enthusiastic, (though they liked Claude Rains and Michael North). In more recent years, the film has been discussed for the atmospheric camera work achieved by director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Woody Bredell. (Film Noir Reader 4 by Alain Silver & James Ursini). Whether you watch it for the scenery, the acting, or the story, do consider giving this one a look. We'll leave you with the film's trailer:

This posting is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring 2019 Blogathon on Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir.


  1. Oh that Claude Rains - he makes everything better - and more complicated, doesn't he? We like him, but.... well, we know he's not to be trusted! He reminds me - a bit - of Waldo Lydecker - only less obvious. And we must never miss a chance to see Constance Bennett. Excellent choice for the blogathon and a well done post!

  2. The Unsuspected is a stylish mystery that should be better recognized than what it is. Rains is a devilish actor, at least to me, and he does well here. Glad you picked this little gem to include. Thanks for joining in.

  3. Bredell's cinematography may be my favourite in film-noir. I find it beautiful and hypnotic.

    On my last viewing (yeah, it's a repeat offender for me), I wondered if Grandison might have been the inspiration for the Simon Brimmer character played by John Hillerman on Ellery Queen (1975-1976).

    PS: "She drank too much milk and her seams were always straight."

  4. Constance Bennett! I first saw one of her movies on TV in 1987. It was MERRILY, WE LIVE. Later I saw WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? Also I saw her play supporting roles in AS YOUNG AS YOU FEEL and CENTENNIAL SUMMER. She was good in comedy & drama. She was an elegant movie star.

  5. This film is worth it for the cinematography and Claude Rains. Rains alone is perfect in this role, which is no surprise. However, it is a shame that other cast members, e.g. Hurd Hatfield, are underused.

    I'd also say this is a rare case where the film is better than the book.

  6. I still haven't seen this one! Thanks for posting. Love Claude Rains!

  7. Hopefully, many people will catch The Unsuspected thanks to your wonderful article. It's a great little whodunnit that has a great homme fatale in Claude Rains.

  8. What a fantastic choice for the blogathon! I've only seen this once and a very bad copy. The cast is superb, but Rains reigns supreme. What a freakin' actor he was! I love this entry. Always learn from your posts. Thanks!


  9. Thanks for highlighting this film. It sounds terrific (almost a horror?) and Claude Rains is worth watching in everything he's in.


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