Claude Rains stars in this complex murder mystery. He’s the “unsuspected” one (as Victor Grandison/’Grandy’), true crime radio show host). Using a cunning strategy of carrying out the very set of deeds that his show features, Grandison murders a couple of people until his cover ‘story’ is blown. There’s producer Jane Moynihan (Constance Bennett) and homicide detective (Fred Clark), and goon-of-all-trades Press (Jack Lambert).
The plot involves Grandy’s attempt to maintain a lavish lifestyle by taking advantage of his niece, heiress Matilda (Joan Caulfield). When she’s thought to have died in South America, Grandy, as her guardian, stands to inherit the estate. But then, a man claiming to be Matilda’s husband, Steve Howard (Ted North), shows up.
Steve and Victor are suspicious of each other’s motives; especially because Matilda, who is in fact returns in just fine condition, doesn’t remember ever have being married. Meanwhile, Victor’s other niece, Althea (Audrey Totter), already tied up with Matilda because her husband Oliver (Hurd Hatfield) was her cousin’s ex, feuds with him over Victor’s culpability. Oliver unwittingly makes himself a target.
Actually, it was Victor’s secretary Rosyln’s suspicious death that gets things going. Howard is in fact posing as Matilda’s husband in order to find out how Rosalyn died; he was Rosalyn’s lover. The theme of a young woman seemingly come back from the dead, with a couple of suitors/gigolos coming out the woodwork, became a successful recipe with 1944’s Laura. Let’s see how The Unsuspected stacks up against that noir classic.
Well, we start with two Laura-esque bits: a murder, preceded by a prowler in a swanky house–skulking about under a portrait of the heroine that hangs over the mantle. Not the art-moderne chic of Laura’s flat; rather an old dark house.
After a restaurant scene with Victor and Althea, there’s a surprise party at the Grandisons. Oliver is getting drunk, as usual; Howard pops up. Althea seems intrigued by him. As they talk under the portrait, she tells him about Matilda; that she’s missing, and so on. Does he know her? Yeah, Matilda’s his wife.
We knew that. Anyway, Jane shows up on Victor’s heels. Howard is snooping around the deadly chandelier, but he’s interrupted by Donovan. A bit later, Victor meets up with Steve, and basically interviews him. Victor doesn’t believe him, but the detective cautions him that it’s such an improbable story that it’s probably true.
We see (guess who?) Matilda boarding a plane in Rio. Back home, Victor dictates his latest story to Jane. She’s a real cut-up. Donovan has the skinny on Steve–he’s legit. It’s obvious, too, that Althea has her glue hooks into Steve. He admits that Matilda might not have loved him as much as he did. But Victor comes with the news that Matilda is alive, and coming soon.
Althea lets them know that her cousin has always taken (men) from her. Steve picks up his wife, but she doesn’t recognize him. She seems to look forward to seeing Grandy more than Steve. She’d not only been shipwrecked, but had had a nervous breakdown. She won’t even acknowledge when others remember that they’re married.
Sort of reverse gaslighting. The presiding judge can’t even convince her. Back to the mansion: the shifty-looking Press is holding a gun on Victor. He’s the one that Victor has fingered as “The Unsuspected” murderer of his current true crime take. He’s got a recording of the guy confessing as well–to Rosyln’s murder. Of course, that was in the context of the hood’s act on Grandy’s show.
To lay it all out, we’ve got an actual murder, that is reenacted on the radio. So, is the guy who played the murderer guilty of the murder? Or has he been framed? It’s impossible to know; but we do know that the murder happened at Grandison’s house.
Anyway, when Steve brings Matilda back to the house she kicks Althea out of her old room. Steve and Victor discuss Matilda’s mental state, and the marriage. Althea serves drinks to Steve and Oliver; she could care less what her husband thinks. More strange conversations upstairs, as Victor guilt-trips her with leaving Oliver in the dust long ago.
More significantly, he lets on that he thinks Steve is posing, and the whole marriage thing is a hoax. An instant gust of wind, and Grandy’s stalking around outside. Back in town, Steve meets up with Jane; she’s been doing some sleuthing for him about Rosyln. This is getting to be like Peyton Place, with Oliver drooling around Matilda.
Eerily, she barges in on Jane, expecting to find Rosalyn. Donovan digs up the file on Rosalyn–one photo shows the clock, which stopped in her struggle. Then the phone records, other details. At the house, where it always seems to be night, Oliver can’t help chatting up Matilda. He still loves her. Donovan, downstairs with Victor, announces, with unintentional irony “You finally have a murder case in your own home.”
‘Purely routine,’ on the night in question, were Victor’s whereabouts? Althea’s? Speaking of her, she’s gluing herself to Steve. She’s bitter, jealous, broke, and drunk “I like to break things!” He tells her that he gave info to the cops about Rosalyn; she admits that she was around that night, and heard Rosalyn scream.
Oliver wants to just disappear. When Althea demands to know why, he responds “Alright, I’ll give you one [reason]; in carefully selected four-letter words.” Back to Grandy’s studio–he puts on a record, a recording of Althea and Oliver arguing over Steve. She says she only married him to get him away from Matilda. It’s done in real time, as they’re in an adjoining room.
Althea pretty much fingers Grandy for Rosalyn’s murder. Grandy encourages Oliver to leave. Now he’s got Althea cornered in the sound-proof room, confronting her for telling Oliver. He tells her that he knows that she made the last call to Rosalyn; he’s got her six ways to Sunday, as she’s dependent on him.
Anyway, Grandy’s plan for her doesn’t involve four-letter words, rather a chrome six-shooter. Bam! But why is he recording this too? Now, he’s in the garage, sabotaging the brake lines in one of the cars. Guess which car he suggests that Oliver take? Thus we begin one of the more interesting runaway car crash sequences. [We’ll come back to this after the domestic mess is tidied up.]
The first part of the thrill-ride is great; downhill on mountain roads, Oliver really carves his way along. This is real stunt-work–no speeded-up film. But the crash itself has some surprises. It’s not uncommon in movies for the car that’s headed off the cliff to be different that one that tumbles down the hill (saves budget to actually wreck an old wreck). But this thing changes twice: from a light-colored ’40 Plymouth coupe to a dark early ’30s sedan, then finally to a mid-’30s coupe!
Back at the house, Steve tries to warn Matilda to split. Apparently, the story’s that Victor and Althea arranged with Oliver to break it off with Matilda. Victor next plays the tape of the Althea/Oliver fight; then, he finds Steve and Matilda to ‘help,’ as though the fight is live action. That way, he can lure them down to the studio.
What makes this ruse work is that the house of a recorded gunshot, and Althea’s corpse on the floor, suggest that she’d just been shot by Oliver. That dude is going off the deep end… It’s kind of overkill (bad pun) to sick the cops on Oliver; I guess Grandy figures it’ll look the frame-up more squared if he doesn’t just let him crash, but make him guilty of murder into the bargain.
Donovan discovers, thanks to quick work, that Althea’s fatal shot came from –the gun it came from–we’re supposed to read his mind as to who’s gun it is. At a fancy restaurant, Matilda meets up with Jane and Steve. Now the big reveal: he had faked the marriage deal. He figures that the only way to find out what happened to Rosalyn was from the inside; his cover as Matilda’s husband provided a skeleton key, so to speak.
Sounds plausible: her breakdown and disapperance gave him both the time and opportunity for his scheme to work. He did bribe the waiter in the earlier scene, and the judge? He was Rosyln’s uncle. Now, though, Matilda won’t bad mouth Grandy; but she admits to the old guy that she’s in love with Steve. Another disingenuous statement comes when she laments that Steve doesn’t “know you as you really are.” He just says “perhaps he does, my dear, perhaps he does.”
He sure does. She offers to help with his broadcast. He clues her in on the plot, dictating. It sounds like a verbal suicide note. Oh boy, here comes Steve. And, remember the goon Victor was blackmailing? He’s needed again. Press (the goon) shows up. Steve finds the record of Althea’s shooting; he calls into Donovan with this new tip.
But, the old wires-are-cut deal cuts the call short. Grandy starts burning the records; I guess the line to the guest house is ok, because Steve’s able to call Matilda and set up a rendevous there. Press short circuits that elopement by literally boxing Steve up in a crate (after knocking him around).
“I seem to have reached the breaking point” says Grandy when Matilda tells him that Steve has disappeared. Oh, he just took his car in for something; actually Press has him in the back of his Chevy pickup. Oh boy, Grandy’s offering a drink to Matilda. But, just before she takes a sip, Press calls. She thinks it’s Steve, but Press hangs up when she gets on.
Now she does drink-up. He deposits a load of sleeping pills next to her: reviving for a sec, she just sees the fatal chandelier, and everything else gets blurry. Plus there’s her ‘suicide note,’ that is, the dictation that she took earlier. Just in the nic of time Donovan arrives; after breaking down the door, Matilda’s rescued. (Steve’s aborted call must’ve triggered the response).
Although a half-loaded pick-up doesn’t sound like a racer’s ride, it’s Press’s turn to play thrill driver. In the police car, Donovan’s giving orders over the radio. Matilda, very unrealistically, has completely recovered from the drugged drink. Press heads for his job site, an enormous junkyard. Hoping that the crane operator will hasten to pick up the crate and dump it in a roaring fire, he gets a move on.
The cops hold up the crane, and fish out Steve in the wooden sardine can. Amazingly, there’s enough time for the whole gang to converge on the swanky studio where Grandy is pretty much spilling the beans. Last scene is a nice noir touch: he and a few cops file down a shadowy alley, through a narrow gate, obviously to jail. The absolute end.
I thought I’d like this a lot more than I did. The plot got so thick I could’ve croaked before all the dust settled. The premise is promising, the atmosphere works well, and the car chases are spectacular (much-needed jolts of action in this otherwise talky movie).
The casting is very good. Totter has the snarky sophisticated look just right for Althea, Caulfield makes a suitably angelic Matilda, and Grandy couldn’t be any other than the smirking, beady-eyed Rains. Oliver is kind of a milk-sop, but then he’s supposed to be. Jane and Max are semi-comic relief, semi-reality checks; they seem like nuts, but only in contrast to the real nuts. Press is an all-purpose goon.
The problem is all the melodrama. You would think the two couples were a bunch of twelve-year-olds, for all their desperate entanglements–none of which seems very significant. It was a surprise that Steve had faked his way into the family; but not surprising that it was because of yet another relationship.
It’s true, as many critics note, that as good as Rains’ performance is, he does look physically out of place among the other guys. Not such a big thing. What is a big deal is that Rosalyn’s murder, which sets the whole plot in motion, doesn’t seem to have a motive. The other murders are attempts to cover up the first one; but are we really to believe that Grandy had reached some psychological tipping point, so that he couldn’t not kill Rosalyn?
It would’ve helped to have some background on Grandy and Matilda. She’s had two traumatic experiences in a short period of time; why is this all off-screen? Grandy, who comes off as a sort of caricature of a serial killer, suddenly becomes an ‘active’ psychopath. It’s usually good to hit the ground running; that’s what helps The Unsuspected start with a flourish. But about halfway through, it just bogs down.
This is definitely worth watching, for Rains and Totter especially, and some of the supporting characters as well. If the viewer can’t remember when who supposedly loved who, or why and whether these two or those two might’ve been married, don’t worry. Just watch Jane and the butler trade quips. 7/10