Way, way better than his more lavishly produced The Uninvited the previous year, Lewis Allen’s The Unseen is an intriguing, eerie, occasionally terrifying murder mystery. Adapted from Ethel Lina White’s novel Her Heart in Her Throat by Hagar Wilde and Ken Englund, with additional polishing by Raymond Chandler, no less, the film also invokes Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. An unsolved years-ago murder and the fog-drenched London setting complete the suggestion of menace lurking. Since childhood, I have counted this one of my favorite Hollywood entertainments.
The protagonist is Elizabeth Howard, a transplanted 22-year-old Bostonian who accepts the post of governess to widower David Fielding’s two young children and encounters a series of clues that her employer is a killer. Her predecessor left under mysterious circumstances, the boy, Barnaby, may still be in contact with her (he has strange phone conversations with somebody), and another murder recently befell a woman in the street, late at night, on Salem Alley, right near Fielding’s house. Could Hollywood allow handsome Joel McCrea to play a killer? His Fielding is certainly moody, with a quick temper.
This is an exceptionally witty film. Its bravura opening, at fright night, spins off the title. First, there is voiceover—the radio-type commentator is “unseen”—filling us in on the murder twelve years earlier; now there’s a light, unbrokenly passing through the darkness of Fielding’s house and the adjacent one, which has been boarded-up and vacant since the murder, noticed by a woman in the street walking home; and, finally, we are teased by the title into not seeing chasing this woman what she ultimately “sees” at forfeit of her life: the “unseen” presence that murders her. The Unseen is indeed not done with fresh murder.
Gail Russell, Ginger Rogers’ protégée and Duke Wayne’s future mistress, is dreamily self-composed as Elizabeth, and McCrea is at his best as David. Nona Griffith is sweet and adorable as Ellen, the little sister whom Barnaby keeps more or less terrorized. Ellen’s ache for Elizabeth’s friendship will break your heart.
Warning: After you see this film even once, Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer”—a “ghost song,” since it was posthumously published—will no longer soothe your heart nostalgically. It will scare the shit out of you.
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