Claude Reigns Supreme: THE UNSUSPECTED (Warner Brothers 1947)

As a classic film blogger, I’m contractually obligated to cover film noir during the month of “Noirvember”, so every Tuesday this month I’ll be shining the spotlight on movies of this dark genre!


Claude Rains  received second billing in 1947’s THE UNSUSPECTED, but there’s no doubt who’s the star of this show. Nobody could steal a picture like Rains, as I’ve stated several times before – his sheer talent commands your attention! Here, he gives a chilling portrayal of a cold, calculating murderer in a Michael Curtiz noir based on a novel by Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, and runs away with the film. Joan Caulfield gets top billing, but let’s be honest – it’s Claude’s movie all the way!

The film begins with a frightening scene played mostly in shadow, as a figure creeps into the office of Victor Grandison (Rains) and murders his secretary Robyn Wright while she’s on the phone. The call is cut off as she screams, and the figure hangs her body from the chandelier to make it look like a suicide. We get a brief glimpse of the killer’s face reflected in the polished desk…

That face belongs to Grandison, who we learn is the host of a radio series called “The Unsuspected”, and here Rains (as Grandison) uses his mellifluous cultured voice to relate true-crime tales of terror to his listening audience. A surprise birthday party is given in his honor at the mansion he lives in, owned by his late niece Matilda Frazer. Accompanied by his producer Jayne Moynihan, Victor’s greeted by his guests, including his other niece, the slutty Althea Keane and her lush of a husband Oliver, whom she once stole from Matilda. Homicide detective Richard Donovan, a friend of Victor’s, is also on hand, as is a mysterious stranger named Steven Howard.

Howard, it seems, married Matilda before she died in an accident at sea. Victor is suspicious of Howard, thinking he’s out for Matilda’s money (which Victor’s been lavishly living off), and has Donovan do a background check. Turns out Howard has money of his own (his dad’s in oil), and Althea takes an interest in him. But Matilda is not dead, and she returns home with no recollection of who Howard is…

The strength of THE UNSUSPECTED lies in Rains’s performance as Victor, a smiling cobra who’s smooth as silk and deadly as a razor. Victor is outwardly  kind and gentle, masking the murderous beast within. He’s wound tighter than a drum, and it’s not until the final scene where, while broadcasting his show, he realizes he’s been found out and is trapped, that he cracks under pressure and makes his confession. Anyone interested in a Master Class in film acting need only to watch Claude Rains perform in this film – or any of his films, for that matter!

Nominal star Joan Caulfield (Matilda) was a popular player in the 1940’s and early 50’s, usually cast in lighter, more comedic fare. She’s okay in this one as the loving niece of Rains, but let’s be honest… the film’s remembered today as a showcase for Rains’s talent. Constance Bennett (Jayne) was a big star in the 30’s, now moved into character roles as she’d gotten older. Audrey Totter , adding another superb ‘Mean Girl’ characterization to her impressive film noir resume, is at her bitchy best as Althea. Hurd Hatfield doesn’t get much to do as soused spouse Oliver, Fred Clark (making his film debut) as Donovan is good as always, and Jack Lambert stands out as Victor’s sometimes accomplice Poole. Michael North (usually billed as Ted) failed to impress me in the key role of Howard.  There’s plenty of other Familiar Faces to spot: Nana Bryant, Bess Flowers (in the birthday party scene), Art Gilmore (as Victor’s radio show announcer), Douglas Kennedy , Harry Lewis, and Ray Walker .


This was Curtiz’s first film for his new production company and he made the most of it. His skillful direction is aided by DP Woody Bredell , who worked on all those 40’s Universal Horror flicks and with Robert Siodmak during that director’s Universal run of film noir classics. Frederick Richards’s editing really stands out, and Franz Waxman provides another classic score. There are echoes of LAURA and GASLIGHT in THE UNSUSPECTED, but the film’s not derivative; it’s a powerful noir drama made by pros, and though it may not be at the top of anyone’s film noir lists, it’s a damn good one, with Claude Rains leading the way in another memorable performance.

Roger of the Skies: VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN (United Artists 1971)

Producer/director Roger Corman finally cut ties with American-International Pictures after they butchered his apocalyptic satire GAS-S-S! Striking out on his own, Corman’s next movie was VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN, a World War I epic about famed German aerial ace The Red Baron and the Canadian pilot who shoots his down Roy Brown. There are grand themes, as Corman sought to make a statement on the futility of war, the end of chivalry, and the mechanized savagery of what was to be “the last war”. The film looks good, shot in Ireland, with exciting aerial footage, but despite all the outer trappings VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN is still a Corman drive-in movie.

John Philip Law also looks good as Baron Manfred von Richtofen, the aristocrat/warrior who became the feared Red Baron. Law was always great to watch, whether as the blind angel in BARBARELLA, the black-clad supervillain in DANGER: DIABOLIK, sexy Robin Stone in THE LOVE MACHINE, or the fabled sailor in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Unfortunately, his acting left a lot to be desired, for Law had the range of a popsicle stick, and was just as wooden. His Red Baron lacks the charisma necessary to make the audience care about him, and scuttles the film’s impact.

Don Stroud was originally slated to be Von Richtofen, but instead has the role of Canadian Roy Brown, who ultimately shoots down the Red Baron. Stroud adds some life to the movie with his performance, as he did in films like COOGAN’S BLUFF, BLOODY MAMA, ANGEL UNCHAINED, and JOE KIDD,  and as Mike Hammer’s cop pal Pat Chambers in the MICKEY SPILLANE’S MIKE HAMMER TV series. A very underrated actor usually stuck in supporting parts or leads in ‘B’ flicks, Stroud gets a chance to shine here and runs away with the film’s acting honors.

There’s some incredible aerial action  shot by DP Michael Reed and choreographed by real-life RCAF pilot Lynn Garrison (who’s interesting life story can be read on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Garrison.  The planes were leftover from 1966’s THE BLUE MAX, and Corman shot the whole thing in Ireland rain or shine, believing a war wouldn’t take the day off because of weather, so why should he? The dogfights between Von Richtofen’s men and the British flyers are realistically done, though the climactic battle itself is, well, anti-climactic.

Barry Primus (BOXCAR BERTHA, NIGHT GAMES) is young Hermann Goering, member of Von Richtofen’s squad whose actions foreshadow Nazi atrocities to come. Veteran Hurd Hatfield (THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY) lends his touch of decadent elegance to the brief role of German plane manufacturer Anthony Fokker. Corin Redgrave (son of Sir Michael , brother of Vanessa and Lynn), Ferdy Mayne , and Stephen McHattie also appear in support.

Corman’s modern-day knights of the air saga isn’t a complete success, but is worth a look for fans of the auteur’s movies. I’d love to see what Quinten Tarantino could do with this material, preferably with a large part for Christoph Waltz. Are you listening out there, QT?

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