Wednesday, November 12, 2008
NOIR CITY #2: THE UNSUSPECTED
The Ususpected by Charlotte Armstrong (1945)
Judging strictly by the cover art, I've always pigeonholed Charlotte Armstrong in the Had-I-But-Known school--Mignon Eberhart plus a few IQ points, perhaps, or Mary Roberts Rinehart minus the brooding mansion. Hardly the stuff of which noir is made.
And judging from The Unsuspected, the eponymous basis for the 1947 Michael Curitz film, I haven't been missing much.
The premise, albeit uninspiring, is not without hope. Rosaleen Wright, secretary to Luther "Grandy" Grandison, a noirish stage/screen director, has committed suicide under suspicious circumstances: hanging herself at her desk in the middle of the workday! Her cousin Jane and fiancee Francis smell a rat. Her "suicide note" was copied from a book of old Scottish trials. They suspect Rosaleen stumbled on Grandy's scheme to bilk to fortune of Mathilda, one of his two wards. In search of evidence, they infiltrate the Grandison compound: Jane as secretary, Francis as the conveniently missing-at-sea Mathilda's "secret husband." If this all sounds familiar, you've been reading your Woolrich!
Alas, unlike Mr. W., Ms. Armstrong's gift is for taking bad melodrama and making it worse. Mathilda quickly re-enters the picture (apparently she couldn't be bothered to radio the news of her dramatic rescue) but only makes a muted fuss over her "husband." Meanwhile, Grandy manipulates his wards as he continues his evil plot. Unfortunately, his other ward Althea (the one without $$) tells Francis that one detail that implicates him. Grandy quickly arranges an "accident" for her and attempts to have Francis tossed into a municipal garbage incinerator. Unfortunately for cynics, Mathilda plunges into the garbage pit and forestalls this most dramatic of ends. And yes, one character tells Francis that they needn't have gone through all this fuss "...if only you'd known."
It's actually a lot worse than it sounds. Armstrong leaves out huge chunks of interesting stuff like how Francis ingratiates himself into Grandy's home. Hell, she doesn't even include the text of the "suicide note." Although Grandy does have the makings of an interesting noir heavy and the garbage pit has its cinematic possibilities, this is one case where the movie can't help but to be better than the book.
"The Unsuspected" screens at the Castro Theater on Friday, January 30.