The Great Villain Blogathon: THE UNSUSPECTED (1947)

This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Kristina at Speakeasy, Ruth at Silver Screenings, and Karen at Shadows & Satin.  Check out the other entries here!

“The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist” – Charles Baudelaire

The opening scene of THE UNSUSPECTED shows us the murder of a young woman.  It then follows this up with several shady characters, all of whom could be the murderer.  But as we will see it is the unseen person, the unsuspected man, who is the most dangerous. 

Warning Spoilers Ahead! The ending of the film will not be revealed but we are going to talk about several plot points!

 Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) is a famous radio personality, known for his gory and thrilling crime dramas.  He is on the air sharing one such story when his niece Althea (Audrey Totter) phones his home and reaches Victor’s secretary, Roslyn White.  Althea is looking for her lay about husband Oliver but Roslyn hasn’t seen him.  While Althea is speaking with her, Roslyn is interrupted by a shadowy figure at the door.  She screams and then the line goes dead.  Althea slowly hangs up the phone and returns to her dinner companion.  Meanwhile Roslyn’s dead body is set up to make it appear that she committed suicide.

Not too long after Althea is throwing a surprise birthday party for Victor when she receives the unwelcome news of a party crasher.  A young man by the name of Steven Francis Howard (Michael North) has arrived and claims to have been married to Victor’s other niece, Matilda (Joan Caulfield).  Matilda had been in love with Oliver and was devastated when Althea stole him away.  To recover from her broken heart, Matilda went on a cruise abroad only to be lost at sea.  Victor soon turns up with his director Jane Monyihan (Constance Bennett) and is shocked to hear of this new addition to the family, especially since Matilda’s estate is about to be settled. Suspicious, Victor invites Steven to stay at the house while friend of the family and policeman, Richard Donavan, does some digging into Steven’s story.  But Steven checks out and it seems that his story is genuine.  It is about this time that Victor receives news that Matilda is alive and on her way home, after spending some time to recover in Brazil.

Steven goes to meet Matilda at the airport and while she is very grateful for his kindness and assistance, she does not remember being married to him.  She is surprised when Steven knows information about her family and when she meets the Justice of the Peace who married them.  She still has no memory of the marriage and refuses to believe Steven, however.  Back at Victor’s estate, Matilda tries to settle in when she finds that Althea has taken over her room.  The two women argue, mostly about Oliver who is now drinking quite heavily, and Matilda kicks Althea out of her room.  Victor meanwhile has been snooping and has found a snapshot of Roslyn in Steven’s coat pocket.

Steven is elsewhere, having a secret meeting with none other than Jane.  The two are convinced that Roslyn did not commit suicide and Jane provides Steven with a letter that Roslyn wrote the day before she died.  Steven takes the letter to Richard, to have the homicide department look into.  The police reopen the investigation of Roslyn’s death now with a motive of murder.  The police come to visit Victor to examine the crime scene more closely.  Althea meanwhile has taken Steven off for a private chat where she confesses to him that she called Roslyn the night that she died and heard her scream.  Victor is close by and overhears everything.  He later takes the time to record an argument between Althea and Oliver, regarding Oliver’s continued pining for Matilda, and then goes to speak with Althea in his private (and sound proof) office.

Althea confesses that she knows that Victor killed Roslyn but that she didn’t tell the police because she didn’t want anything to happen to him.  It seems that Victor and Althea have been enjoying spending Matilda’s money, something that Roslyn suspected.  Victor admits his part in Roslyn’s demise readily and then shoots Althea, killing her.  Moving quickly he goes out to one of his cars and cuts the brake lines.  When Oliver tells him that he is leaving the estate, Victor hands him the keys to his private car and then goes to get Oliver his coat.  Into the pocket Victor slips the gun that killed Althea and then sends Oliver on his way.  Not long after Oliver is killed in a fiery car crash, the murder weapon still in his pocket.  Victor then rigs up the recording of the earlier argument and lets it play as Steven and Matilda come down the stairs.  Shots ring out and the party finds Althea’s body.  The police now believe that Oliver killed Althea and Roslyn before being killed himself.  Satisfied they close the case but Steven is not so convinced.  He meets with Matilda to tell her three things.  One; that he lied to her about their marriage, two; that he grew up with Roslyn and is searching for the truth behind her death, and three; that she is not safe because her dear uncle Victor is the murderer.

At its original opening the film was not well reviewed, rather it looked upon as a weak version of LAURA.  And yes there are similarities, the painting over the fireplace for one, but this is a far more stylized and modern noir than it is given credit for which may have led to this film being somewhat overlooked.  This is a shame because not only is there a terrific film pedigree to be had here, Michael Curtiz and Max Steiner for heaven’s sake, but there is also a deliciously evil villain played by the fabulous Claude Rains.  While he will always be the only Prince John for me, Claude Rains does a great job as Victor Grandson and creates a villain that not only commits terrible crimes and diabolical schemes, but one that we enjoy watching right up to the end.  Victor Grandison is a villain that would be just as comfortable in the world of GAME OF THRONES as he is in this 1940s noir.

There is some question as to why Victor decided to kill Roslyn and I think that the reason is much darker and twisted than just she got too curious about the money.  I think Victor kills because he wants to and he knows he can.  He kills because he thinks he is smarter than everyone else and wants to prove it by remaining unsuspected even while he is committing terrible crimes.  I think his true ambitions are much more motived by personal satisfaction than simple material gain, and this is what makes him such a modern villain.  Now it is very common to make television shows and movies about serial killers and murders who commit crimes simply because they want to, because it is fun, because they enjoy the sense of superiority, even because they were bored.  To us, Victor and his desire to kill because he can is nothing new or even really shocking.  But in the 1940s this wasn’t the usual motivation of the film villain.  More often than not they committed crimes because they were bad people, fallen women, or hardened criminals.  They killed because they were insane, violent, or just evil.  To create a villain who kills for different reasons entirely made this film distinctly different from other noirs of the time.

Here is my theory on Victor and his descent into murder.  He created a radio drama about crime because it always interested him.  For a time he was able to create stories that satisfied him and his listeners, but then one day he decided to seek out some outside help for greater authenticity. Somehow he found Pres, his pet murder, and managed to get a recording of Pres’ confession of his crimes.  Using this recording as blackmail he milked Pres for more and more gory tales of the world of murder.  Perhaps he even coerced Pres into committing more crimes and more murders.  Pres was good inspiration for a time but soon Victor began to wonder how hard could committing crimes be if an idiot like Pres could do it?  Why couldn’t an intelligent person like Victor do it, and do it better?  So maybe he began stealing Matilda’s money and this satisfied him for a time.  He enjoyed the feeling of superiority he got from taking money that wasn’t his, and no one ever questioned it.   But then Roslyn started poking around and Victor decided that he would have to kill her.  But he wouldn’t do it in the same rough handed way that Pres did.  He was different, more intelligent, and so his murder would be complex and fool-proof.  He would commit the perfect murder and remain free because no one would suspect him.  When Althea threatens to reveal everything Victor decides to kill her and Oliver, once again committing a complex crime that would keep him free from suspicion.  Moving like a puppet master above the entire scene, Victor sets in motion a series of events that will keep his past crimes hidden and his cash flowing.  He is the king of his castle and all the world.  As he tells Pres;

Don’t come here again. I’ll call you if I need you. In your place I rather enjoy playing God.


28 thoughts on “The Great Villain Blogathon: THE UNSUSPECTED (1947)

  1. Colin April 13, 2015 / 8:23 pm

    This really is a wonderful, relatively unheralded, film noir and you’ve written well on it. Rains was, of course a class act and he’s ideally cast in this one. Audrey Totter was another first rate noir star and adds so much to everything she appeared in.
    Having said all that, I think what stands out most in this movie is the direction of Curtiz – a highly polished piece of work form one of the most versatile men ever to work in Hollywood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging April 13, 2015 / 8:33 pm

      Thank you! It is definitely more stylized than some other noirs!


  2. Silver Screenings April 13, 2015 / 9:15 pm

    I agree that Claude Rains makes for a terrific villain. His character is so well-spoken and so smart, that he’s actually rather frightening.

    Thanks for including this gem in our blogathon. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, and it’s time I see it again! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  3. girlsdofilm April 13, 2015 / 9:41 pm

    The life imitating fiction idea sounds like an interesting concept; the idea that Rains is smarter so he can commit the perfect murder. I’ve always found that such an interesting concept as it recurs in so much film/literature but always with a different context.
    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. shadowsandsatin April 13, 2015 / 11:54 pm

    Great selection, Liz! I’ve long been an admirer of The Unsuspected, and Victor Grandison is one of the most villainous villains I’ve ever seen. I appreciate that you can’t easily figure out the plot, and I love the performances, especially Claude Rains and Audrey Totter. Thanks so much for being part of the blogathon and for contributing this excellent post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. mikestakeonthemovies April 14, 2015 / 11:19 am

    Claude Rains just adds so much to a role like this. He’s a joy to watch in most anything but this is the era I feel he shines most. Great pick.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging April 14, 2015 / 12:13 pm

      I love Claude Rains in anything but he always seems to have fun being a villain!


      • mikestakeonthemovies April 14, 2015 / 12:20 pm

        Well said. I’d like to think while reading scripts he took great pleasure in plotting his performance for these roles.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nowvoyaging April 14, 2015 / 1:12 pm

        He is terrific in everything really! I saw a quote where he basically said that in movies you get to be as bad as you want with no consequences. Then he was like, “Look at the lovely girl I just shot!”

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Marsha Collock April 15, 2015 / 12:35 am

    I’ve never seen this film – and based on your excellent post, it sounds wonderful. Of course, anything with the suave and stylish Mr. Rains HAS to be good, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging April 15, 2015 / 12:38 am

      Very true! Warner Archive has a good copy! This was a film I never heard of before I saw it on TCM but I loved it so much I had to buy it!


  7. Kristina April 15, 2015 / 1:48 pm

    I’m a big fan of this movie so I totally agree with your assessment of it being really underrated and too easily dismissed as a Laura wannabe. This cast is wonderful and the writing clever, but you can’t have any of it work without the juicy villain that the fabulous Rains makes here. And I love that Dickensian name too, Grandison… excellent pick and you did a wonderful post on it, thanks for being part of this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging April 15, 2015 / 1:53 pm

      Thank you! And thank you for hosting! It looks like my second pick turned out pretty well! πŸ˜‰


  8. Christy April 16, 2015 / 1:21 pm

    Great film, often overlooked. Absolutely adore Ckaude Rains as the villain.

    Would have added a warning of spoilers to your intro since you went through the whole plot, but I like to leave mystery that urges people to seek film out. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging April 16, 2015 / 5:14 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion! I usually go through part of the plot but stop before the big twists! There are still more surprises left that I didn’t talk about but I’ll be sure to add a warning next time!


  9. Judy April 16, 2015 / 6:50 pm

    Haven’t seen this, but I’d love to see it as I’m a fan of Rains – he’s also great in a villainous role in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. Great choice and enjoyed your piece. I’ll also return for a reread after seeing the film!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. jennifromrollamo April 20, 2015 / 3:10 am

    A movie I haven’t seen yet-thanks for your excellent review of it and villain Claude Rains, such a great actor!

    Liked by 1 person

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