Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Unknown (1946)

Some nasty business has been going on in the old Southern Martin family about two decades ago, leaving daughter Rachel (Karen Morley), and sons Edward (James Bell) and Ralph (Wilton Graff) in thrall of their dominating mother Phoebe (Helen Freeman) and in various states of mental un-health; the only sane member of the family is their black butler Joshua (J. Louis Johnson) - who is also one of the few black characters in 40s movies I’ve seen neither there to demonstrate the supposed superiority of the white cast, nor to provide the kind of comic relief that makes a boy want to slug the filmmakers. The interactions between said white cast and him are of course still rather painful to watch. Of the family, particularly Rachel is bad off, hearing the cries of her long lost baby daughter and having lost track of minor details like what decade it is quite some time ago, living in a kind of perpetual young womanhood.

Things change when the matriarch dies and the mysterious benefactor who financed her schooling orders young Nina Arnold (Jeff Donnell) to go to the reading of Phoebe’s will on the old Martin plantation. Nina, it turns out, is Rachel’s long lost daughter. Fortunately for Nina, her – still mysterious – benefactor has hired international men of adventure and private detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough) to help and protect her, for there’s something very wrong in the house even if you ignore the whole decadence and madness vibe. The baby noises Phoebe hears seem to be quite real, for example, Nina’s new uncles are nasty old men beyond expectation, and somebody who likes to dress like a proto-giallo murderer is sneaking through the dark trying to kill our heroine.

The third and final Columbia movie based on the popular radio show I Love a Mystery, again directed by Henry Levin, changes up tone and style quite a bit, turning from the two-fisted charms of the pulpy mystery to the melodramatic joys of a – still pulpy so don’t worry – Southern Gothic old dark house tale.

One’s appreciation of this development will certainly depend on one’s sympathy for the type of melodrama that’s generally part and parcel of Southern Gothics, or rather, on one’s tolerance for the film’s broad application of it. The acting of everyone involved except for Donnell, Bannon and Yarborough – fittingly given their position as outsiders – is as broadly melodramatic as a film can get away with, more than just bordering on areas some viewers will read as camp and/or will feel decidedly uncomfortable with.

Melodrama’s the watch word not only for the acting: The Unknown’s plot and mood are just as melodramatic, which makes complete sense when you see both as an expression of the genre-mandatory decadence and madness (the beautiful twins, the film would probably call them), the feeling of a world moving on outside while the Martin family inside can’t – or won’t - move with it. In this context, it can hardly be an accident that Rachel specifically is trapped in a perpetual past. It also seems rather poignant to me that Nina’s addition to the family, as someone who is young and very much not part of the noble tradition of come-down slave-owning shits by anything but blood, is the thing that might drag at least some family members back to sanity and the world, unless they manage to drag her down with them.

Levin tells this tale with his usual professionalism but also a good sense for the appropriate shadowy mood. While you can’t exactly feel the decay of the house (40s low budget filmmaking in general being not really up to that particular task independent of the talent of the directors involved), Levin provides the film with its fair share of cheap yet effective Southern Gothic thrills, and never loses control of his scenery-chewing cast, unless you think letting them chew the scenery is already losing control of them.

It’s not what I expected of the final I Love a Mystery film, but The Unknown is a very pleasant surprise as a film that knows very well what it’s doing and does it well, too.

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