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Tag Archives: Michael Curtiz

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.

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Night and Day (Aug. 3, 1946)

If you’re looking for a biopic about Cole Porter that tells the real story of his life, Michael Curtiz’s Night and Day is not for you. If, however, you’re merely looking for a sumptuous Technicolor musical extravaganza starring Cary Grant with great songs throughout, then it fits the bill.

The film was made with Porter’s supervision and full approval, so failures early in his career are blamed on everything but mediocre songwriting and production, and questions about his sexuality are never addressed.

The more recent Porter biopic, De-Lovely (2004), which starred Kevin Kline, implied that he was bisexual, but plenty of other sources claim he was gay, which makes more sense. His 35-year marriage to Linda Thomas was successful, if sexless, but all that means is that the two shared a genuine friendship and enjoyed each other’s company. Also, the seamier details of Porter’s parties during his time in Paris in 1917 and 1918 — “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs” — wouldn’t have been appropriate material for a Hollywood production in the ’40s, even if Porter had been completely open about them.

Porter was an undeniably great songwriter — and one of the few Tin Pan Alley composers to write both music and lyrics — but even here the movie sanitizes things, since Porter’s lyrics were notoriously risqué. For instance, when the song “Let’s Do It” is played, you’ll heard about how “educated fleas” do it, but nothing about how roosters do it “with a doodle and a cock.” And musically, Ray Heindorf’s orchestrations tend toward the saccharine. By the end of the picture I felt as if I’d heard the same piece played over and over again.

Some of the whitewashing in Night and Day is purely ridiculous, though. Why was Porter’s first Broadway production, See America First, which was written with his Yale classmate Monty Woolley, a flop? Not because it was a critical disaster, according to this movie, but because the opening night crowd was drawn out into the streets by late-edition newspapers carrying word of the Lusitania sinking. Never mind that in real life, the New York American called the play a “high-class college show played partly by professionals.” In the world of Night and Day its failure was wholly due to a disaster outside of Woolley and Porter’s control. (Incidentally, Woolley plays himself in Night and Day, but perhaps owing to his age, his character is recast as one of Porter’s Yale professors instead of his contemporary.)

While there is no intimation that Porter may have ever produced mediocre work, there are gay undertones in the picture, if you care to look for them. Alexis Smith as Porter’s wife Linda spends a lot of the film looking dissatisfied and neglected. And the dramatic arc hits its climax at the 90-minute mark when Cole and Linda are pulled apart by the pressures of success. “You’ve put me in a small corner of your life, and every once in awhile you turn around and smile at me,” she tearfully tells him. In the film, their marital difficulties are resolved, but in an unconvincing, wordless final scene.

While the drama of Night and Day may be dishonest, the music is not, and it’s a great-looking movie.

Mildred Pierce (Oct. 20, 1945)

Mildred_PierceIf you’ve only seen the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce, you’re forgiven for never wondering whether the striking murder set piece that opens the film and informs the entire picture was an invention of the producer and the screenwriters that never occurred in the novel.

It was. But it’s a brilliant invention. Even though long stretches of Mildred Pierce (told in flashback) are essentially melodrama, the sequence that opens the film is one of the greatest examples of film noir I’ve ever seen. It is nighttime. Heavy shadows fall over caddish playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), resplendent in a tuxedo, as he is gunned down in a Malibu beach house. Not every shot hits him. A few smash into the mirror behind him. But enough hit him to kill him, and he falls to the floor. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) flees from the house, walks down the boardwalk, and looks as though she is contemplating suicide by jumping into the Pacific Ocean, but is stopped by a policeman. She talks her way out of the situation and later entices the beefy and amorous Wally Fay (Jack Carson) back to the house on the beach and locks him in, with the intention of pinning the murder on him. The scenes in which Wally realizes Mildred has left him alone in a locked house with a corpse and a revolver and he attempts to escape are stunning, and are one of the greatest noir sequences in film history.

Unlike Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), another noir classic adapted from a novel by Cain, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce takes a lot of liberties with its source material. This is partly due to necessity. I loved Cain’s novel, and found it every bit as good as his 1934 crime classic The Postman Always Twice and more believable than his 1937 novel Serenade, which is about a male opera singer who loses his voice after he gives in to homosexual temptation. Cain’s Mildred Pierce contains no murders, just plenty of bad behavior, and the most despicable character waltzes off at the end with no punishment in sight. Apparently the moral tone of the novel was troubling to the Breen Office, so producer Jerry Wald devised a murder plot with a culprit who could be punished, which sufficiently palliated the concerns of producer and studio head Jack L. Warner, and he purchased the rights to the novel in 1944. The script for the film went through eight different versions before Ranald MacDougall’s version was accepted. William Faulkner and Catherine Turney both made uncredited contributions. (And we can all thank our lucky stars that Faulkner’s scene in which Mildred’s maid, played by Butterfly McQueen, consoled Mildred while singing a gospel song was either never filmed or was left on the cutting room floor.)

Mildred Pierce is a fantastic film. Crawford’s longtime nemesis Bette Davis and fellow fading star Rosalind Russell were both considered for the lead role, but both turned it down. It’s impossible for me to imagine anyone but Crawford playing Mildred Pierce. She brings not only her finely controlled histrionics to the role, but her own life history as a woman who crawled up from nothing.

When the picture opened, it was a huge hit, both with critics and audiences. It was nominated for best picture, best actress, best supporting actress (for Eve Arden, who plays Mildred’s wisecracking best friend), best writing, and best black and white cinematography. Joan Crawford won the Academy Award for best actress, and accepted the statuette at home, where she was sick in bed. (Her adopted daughter Christina claims she was faking, but this is hardly the worst accusation she has lobbed at her mother.)