From each writer of source novels adapted to film, you get a signature and recognizable style, even when their material is reshaped by Hollywood. From W.B. Burnett (Little Caesar, High Sierra, Asphalt Jungle) you get rugged and realistic hardened criminals, gritty underworld settings and machine gun dialogue. From Raymond Chandler you find the creeps often live in the most opulent mansions. From Charlotte Armstrong, whom some called Queen of suspensers, you get unseen horrors hidden beneath a highly dusted and waxed veneer of domestic life, a juicy hot evil center baked right into the familiar conventions of a regular women’s novel of the time, something writer Ariel Swartley nicely describes as being trapped in a Doris Day movie gone bad.
Charlotte Armstrong (pictured above) started out as a fashion writer and got some poetry published before writing a series of three mystery novels featuring character MacDougal Duff, in books which provided her opportunity for witty references to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Armstrong put aside the series mystery and went on to write 25 other suspense novels. One of these was 1947’s the Unsuspected, which was, as you might expect, much twistier and juicer than the movie. Her 1950 thriller Mischief was filmed as Don’t Bother to Knock, the film which gave us Marilyn Monroe gone captivatingly bad in a great psycho babysitter role. In 1957 Armstrong won the Edgar award for her work A Dram of Poison. In Armstrong’s stories you get unassuming, seemingly ordinary middle to upper class folks in common domestic settings and situations, scenarios tending toward the gothic, all with an undercurrent of danger and animosity from friends, family, and trusted company. Given her era, plus her wheelhouse and background in the fashion industry, I’m sure Armstrong was ever so elegantly coiffed and attired when she said, “maybe we are all potential murderers, and reading stories about that crime releases us in some way.”
One star of The Unsuspected is Joan Caulfield (pictured above), an actress practically but undeservedly forgotten today despite being quite popular in her day. She had looks and talent galore, but Paramount’s casting (save for a couple of films) gave her precious few roles that let her reveal or carry over what had made her such a well-reviewed stage success in her early years, and consequently some critics and reviewers rather unfairly dismiss her appeal, or write her off as dull, boring and/or vapid. To each his own, but there is a formidable Caulfield appreciation society that also includes Joss Whedon producer/director/writer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Avengers).
When Caulfield transitioned from modeling in catalogs and made her stage debut around 1942, much was made about her beauty, appeal and talent; she was named most promising newcomer, garnered many rave reviews, and was an instant hit as a pin-up for the military. She joined Paramount in 1944 and for many years was a top box office draw. Soon though, as the actress herself put it, they started pigeonholing her and giving her “Joan Caulfield roles,” i.e. stereotypical good girls, pretty as a mannequin and wholesome, but not too much acting to do beyond maintaining that façade. On loan to Warner’s and director Michael Curtiz, Caulfield got to make the first of her two noirs, The Unsuspected, a forgotten gem that has recently started moving up in the ranks as more people discover it on DVD and through repeated TCM showings. The plot of the Unsuspected is so twisted it makes a pretzel look straight; Claude Rains plays a radio crime show host, with the Dickensian ego-revealing name of Grandison. His secretary commits suicide, and her fiancé Michael North shows up to try and prove something hinky is afoot–he believes she was murdered. To get into this mansion chock full of nuts, North poses as the hitherto unknown husband of Rains’ wealthy niece Joan Caulfield, who happens to be missing and presumed dead. But there are more surprises because“Laura” –excuse me, I mean Joan Caulfield– is not dead at all, and shows up to upset everyone’s plans, thereby making herself an even greater focus of jealousy, greed and obsession. Joking aside, despite some similarities to Laura’s not-actually-dead-character plot, The Unsuspected really stands on its own as a classic noir. There’s gorgeous dark cinematography, and gripping if sometimes outlandish performances, by Rains as the cunning but over-confident killer, by Audrey Totter as the man-hungry schemer who slinks around the mansion firing off well aimed and well timed acidic one-liners, by Hurd (“Dorian Gray”) Hatfield as the broken man who once loved Caulfield but got conned into marrying Totter, and by Constance Bennett as Rains’ assistant. The convoluted story gives everyone a lot to do except for Caulfield, who ends up with the rather difficult role of being little more than a portrait brought to life, a living breathing plot device who stands there and has to look beautiful while serving as the object of everyone else’s outsized idealizations or resentments.
During filming, Caulfield fell while running on a slippery floor, and suffered a fractured cheekbone, a sprained wrist and a bruised hip, and yet was back to continue filming the same scene an hour later. After making her other noir Larceny, with John Payne, Caulfield was still unhappy with her roles, but still in high demand and the object of many different studios’ offers, so she went freelance. She split with Paramount after her contract came up for renewal and went on to work on stage and TV. In 1950 Caulfield married producer Frank Ross, ex-husband of Jean Arthur. After a few years of marriage, Caulfield had a minor TV success under her belt with My Favorite Husband, playing the role which Lucille Ball had first popularized on radio. In 1957 Ross would produce for his wife the series Sally, but working together seemed to destroy their marriage and also set the tone for a bumpy year for Caulfield — in March 1959, she was in a bad car accident, in April divorce proceedings began, and in May, at the age of 35, Caulfield discovered she was pregnant with a son. In the year after his birth, Caulfield married her dentist, with whom she had a second son. She appeared on TV and in movies and continued to work on stage, and remained a popular draw when she toured.
Caulfield died of cancer in 1991, aged 69, and the very next day came news of the death of Jean Arthur; the man who connected them through marriage, Frank Ross, had died the previous year. Besides that strange coincidence, Caulfield’s bio provides some neat trivia fodder, and an interesting and lasting connection to pop culture. She starred in The Petty Girl as the human embodiment of the idealized pin-up made popular by illustrator George Petty (speaking of unfairly overlooked and forgotten talents that were wildly popular in their day). Caulfield was also (according to an urban legend) one of the first actors to popularize the term “phoning it in” to describe the smallest and easiest of roles. She’s a character in the mystery novel Dead in Their Sights, by John Dandola, but she has another, much more notable fiction connection. When J.D. Salinger was waiting in line to see Dear Ruth, he saw the marquee that read William HOLDEN and Joan CAULFIELD …Holden … Caulfield…a combination from which an iconic literary character was born.
It’s tough to say how seriously Caulfield took acting; in her early years she seemed to laugh at the very idea of it, and later often marveled at how she even managed to get in to the profession and keep going. In other interviews, though, you can sense she long felt the sting of being underrated and mishandled, mentioning the possibly great roles lost due to studio decisions. Regardless, she had her place as one of the screen’s top beauties and is well-remembered by movie buffs. In my research I found a small archive of “pen friends” letters exchanged between US and UK children after the war. In one of them, a British girl writes, “Last Saturday, my friend & I went to our Odeon Cinema to see “Blue Skies.” Have you seen it? I thought Bing, Fred, & Joan Caulfield were marvelous. I think Joan Caulfield is the prettiest woman in the films. Do you think so?”
see it TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 27 @ 02:30 AM est on TCM
(a version of this article was previously published in Dark Pages Magazine)