I first encountered The Unsuspected in film school, and it has stayed in my memory ever since as an example of director Michael Curtiz’s technical flair. Viewing it again after some thirty years, the style is just as astonishing. What is more apparent is how the story is equally, if more problematically, distinctive.
The Unsuspected is practically a catalog of Curtiz’s showiest techniques. (It makes earlier efforts from the director like Casablanca and Mildred Pierce seem positively austere.) No opportunity for visual ostentation is overlooked. Most scenes are labyrinths of heavy shadows, stark contrasts and elaborate lighting effects. At one point, for example, the police visit the house where most of the action takes place to investigate the murder that sets the story in motion. To confirm that the electricity was working properly at the time of the death, the police turn the lights on and off repeatedly, which doesn’t clear up much plot confusion, but which does provide the excuse for a flamboyant, gratuitous visual conceit. Similarly, in an earlier transition, the camera swoops in on a radio speaker until the screen is engulfed in black. There’s then a cut to a dark railroad tunnel from which a train emerges. Everything is conceived for the most striking angle, or for shimmering lighting effects, or views through windows and doorways that reveal the elaborate mise-en-scène behind in an example not so much of film noir as film brilliant.
In the beginning, a shadowy figure moves through the main house, in a good example of this visual invention and some of the consequences of it. The killer is dressed in a black overcoat, collar turned up with a hat pulled down to obscure his identity. The depiction is so cliché, it’s practically a joke. But then once the murderer reaches his prey, humor turns to sadism and mystery becomes horror as the sequence ends with a gruesome shot of the victim hanging from a chandelier.
In fact, The Unsuspected isn’t a mystery at all, since the identity of the killer is revealed two thirds through the story. That is one of many twists and turns which, however, feel less like clever denials of expectation than indecision about what kind of movie The Unsuspected is meant to be. There are the mystery and horror elements. There’s a never fully developed romance, based on a lie, with a jealousy angle that ropes in a spoiled niece and a wastrel husband. There’s a subplot involving what might be called reverse blackmail. And more. Yet for all the goings on, the effect is strangely static, like a ballerina trapped in endless pirouettes.
Which is why the visual style is so important—it holds the movie together against the centripetal force of its incoherence. Does that emphasis on the execution distract from, or contribute to the problem? Probably both. The Unsuspected nonetheless remains high in my affections. It’s hard not to love something so outrageously beautiful.