The Unsuspected

Here we see Warners taking a page from Fox's true-crime pseudoducmentary book for a credit sequence:

In general, if I had to pick one film that exemplified the trends of the late 1940s, I could do worse than The Unsuspected (WB-Curtiz Productions, Michael Curtiz).

In house independent production. The 1940s was a period in which tax structures encouraged independent production, often with stars or directors producing their own films and releasing them through a parent studio. The Unsuspected is both a Warners film and not. It was produced by Curtiz, a WB director and relied heavily on the studio's talent. Consequently it looks and feels like a Warners film, yet it departs in its imitation of Fox and others.

Noir and gothic narrative. The Unsuspected borrows liberally from Laura, with a literary radio host and a haunting portrait. It also suggests other noir sources, like Nightmare Alley. It takes the noir hallmark of pushing the enigma of the narration to its stretching point in the opening scene, in which all of the major characters and scenarios are introduced, yet without the clarifying exposition that situates them for the spectator.

At the same time, there is a strain of the women's gothic: the cavernous house, the young woman in distress, and windows that suddenly fly open. Oh, and there's the Laura-esque portrait:

The portrait is of Matilda (Caufield), a young heiress who lived in the family house with her beloved uncle Victor/Grandi (Raines) and her cousin Althea (Totter). It is not giving too much away to say that Matilda returns from the dead - the narrative here departs from Laura by turning into a gothic story focused on the danger to Matilda.

Noir Style. Most obviously, this opening scene partakes of noir style and iconography - it feels to me like Warners is doing RKO drag...

This includes the subjective camera. The film is not an extended experiment in subjective narration, like Lady in the Lake or Dark Passage, but clearly Notorious has had its influence in the scene in which Matilda gets drugged.

A-Film Stylistic Flourish. The Unsuspected is not pure noir, though, not even pure A-film noir. Curtiz's style here is only part Mildred Pierce - the rest of the time it is the elaborate, fluid style common to the decade's prestige product. Roving, emphatic camera and complex blocking abound. And lots of mirror shots with confusing spatial implications.

Deep-focus spatial articulation. Patrick Keating has argued that tenets of classical cinematography became default because of their functionality. Watching some of the late 40s films, I am inclined to think that deep-focus and deep-space arrangement became a new default, only one not always keyed to functional ends. It feels to me as faddish as the use of zoom in 1960s cinema.

Realist location shooting. The interiors are done in studio, but the film breaks out for exterior scenes shot in New York and its environs. The cinematography is contrasty and fast, reminiscent of Fox's pseudodocs.

Coded sexual perversion. Missing here is Laura's gay subtext (at least I don't see one), but like Laura the film paints its heterosexual pairings as pathological. Matilda is too attached to her uncle, who in turn seems to fester with a desire he can not consciously allow. But even the "proper" match, Matilda and Steve, is odd, a pairing based on chance and duplicity.

Amnesia. There are a crop of 40s films depicting amnesia. Instead of a shell-shocked soldier, here it is Matilda who cannot remember the crucial accident. But Steve too seems without a past, a soldier who may have been in love with a murdered woman, but did not know her well. With so much backstory that is minimally explained, The Unsuspected seems paradoxically unconcerned with the past.

Critique of the Public Sphere. The film borrows the device of the radio broadcast from Laura, but here the emphasis is different. Where the former played up the effete literary quality of Waldo, Victor represents the mass public in its middlebrow-ness. Here the film is more in line with the representations of radio in Letter to Three Wives and other 40s films which implied cinema's medium superiority.

Come to think of it: Some people ask me what I am looking for when watching these 1947 films. The above list is as good as any of my preoccupations.


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