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Tag Archives: Ted North

The Unsuspected (Oct. 3, 1947)

If you’re looking for proof that a mystery doesn’t have to be difficult to figure out to be thoroughly involving, look no further than Michael Curtiz’s The Unsuspected.

Claude Rains stars as Victor Grandison, the “genial host” of the radio program The Unsuspected on the fictional WMCB network. Grandison has turned his fascination with gruesome crimes into a lucrative career recounting tales of real-life murders to a nation of rapt listeners.

Roslyn Wright (Barbara Woodell), Grandison’s secretary, is the killer’s first victim. She’s working late in Grandison’s mansion in Croton, New York, when the door opens and a man’s shadow is thrown over the wall behind her. He strangles her, then hangs her from a chandelier to make it look like suicide.

Grandison lives with his niece, Althea (Audrey Totter), whom he maneuvered into seducing and then marrying Oliver Keane (Hurd Hatfield), who was set to marry Grandison’s other niece, Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield). Matilda is currently missing, presumed dead, after the ship she was traveling on was lost at sea. Althea is a grasping, scheming young woman who will do anything for money. Her husband Oliver really loved Matilda and has seemingly been on a bender since he married Althea.

The plot kicks into gear when Steven Francis Howard (Ted North) shows up, claiming he married Matilda shortly before she was lost at sea, and consequently is the heir to her fortune. This news is not taken well by Grandison, who has been moving the people in his life around like chess pieces in order to gain control of Matilda’s fortune.

Part of the fun of The Unsuspected is how the entire thing plays out as though it’s one of Grandison’s radio plays come to life. He’s the master of ceremonies, pushing and pulling, scheming and finagling.

He even uses 16″ transcription discs — which were used to record radio shows for later broadcast — as a part of his schemes, to divert and confuse people.

As I said, the identity of the killer isn’t difficult to suss out, and The Unsuspected is more of a thriller than a mystery, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a first-rate thriller, brilliantly directed by Curtiz and gorgeously shot by his cinematographer, Elwood “Woody” Bredell. Even though the story itself is standard stuff, the film is full of arresting visuals, recurring motifs like faces reflected upside down, and brilliant little moments like the one in which Mr. Press (Jack Lambert — recently seen as the villainous “Claw” in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma) sits in a dark hotel room. The neon sign outside says “Hotel Peekskill,” but when the shot cuts to inside the room, all we can see is “kill,” blinking on and off hypnotically.

The film isn’t perfect. Ted North isn’t a very good actor, and his scenes lack a certain something. (Interestingly, North is listed in the opening credits as “Introducing Michael North,” even though this was his last film. It was the first time he was credited as “Michael,” not “Ted,” but he’d had significant parts in plenty of films before, most recently The Devil Thumbs a Ride.)

But Curtiz wisely doesn’t make North the focus of the film, and allows Rains to carry things, propelled by taut pacing and Franz Waxman’s compelling score. Aside from North, the actors are all good, especially Totter, whose role is enjoyably juicy. I also really liked Constance Bennett as Grandison’s witty, smart-mouthed assistant, Jane Moynihan. She delivers my favorite line of the picture: “After slaving all day over a hot typewriter, there’s nothing I like better than a swan dive into a bottle of bourbon.”

If you enjoy classy, well-made thrillers, The Unsuspected is well worth seeking out.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.

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