“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.