Set in London's suspiciously innocuous-looking Laburnum Terrace in the early years of the 20th century, THE SUSPECT revels in the sort of hard truths about humanity often explored in the film noir. Numerous trials test our lead protagonist's sense of right and wrong, none more prominent than the dour countenance of a divisive wife contrasted with the unbounded delight of a youthful brunette. By the time the final act is in motion, every imaginable noir force seems arrayed against Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton).
A conscientious shopkeeper with an air of gravitas, Philip is the trusted employee who shuts off the lights and locks the door at the close of each business day at Frazer & Nicholson, retail purveyors of tobacco. At home his position is noticeably less stable. His agonizingly high-maintenance wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan) drives an attention-getting opening act when she chases their son John (Dean Harens) off to Canada. John notes the final straw was when his mother incinerated hours of his work during one of her tantrums. This incendiary family event prompts Philip to relocate his sleeping quarters from the master bedroom to his son's vacated room, a move that infuriates Cora. While at work Philip encounters Mary Gray (the always radiant Ella Raines), a trained stenographer in search of employment. Philip expresses no need for her services, but reveals empathy for Mary when he later finds her sobbing on a park bench. The two become friends and begin to spend time together, an obvious problem on multiple levels, especially given the extreme personality type Cora has registered.
One of film noir's most significant recurring themes is that the institution of marriage is at risk. The major plot mechanics of DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) provided a compelling reference point for noir films that followed, including SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946). All of these titles and many others question the viability of marriage and whether long-term gratification for either party is realistic. THE SUSPECT adheres to the identical formula with destabilized marriages next door to each other. In the opening sequence, it is clear Cora has stretched Philip to his breaking point. In testament to the violent potential bottled up within him, he lets her know it is probably best she has no way of knowing exactly what sort of thoughts are bouncing around in his brain. When Cora stalks her husband on a foggy nocturnal street, the atmosphere recalls the unsettling bus sequence of director Jacques Tourneur's horror-noir CAT PEOPLE (1942), another film of the era that seriously questions the notion of the mutually fulfilling marriage. Interestingly, another suspenseful segment that comes toward the end of THE SUSPECT involves a cat. After the stalking segment, Philip discloses his marital status to Mary during what he proclaims will be their final date (ironically, Mary anticipated his proposal). In an attempt to create a fresh start for both parties, Philip speaks honestly as he asks Cora for a divorce:
"...we've never been happy together...not once all the years we've been married."
Cora refuses to suffer the indignity of divorce; the very idea of being viewed as a woman who could not hang on to her husband enrages her. Despite his admirable effort to end a relationship that was platonic anyway, at home Philip again is confronted with an irate Cora, who believes her husband was fraternizing with a "hussy." Cora promises to expose the affair on Christmas Day(!) and unleash life-wrecking scandal for both Philip and his "loose woman" on the side. The combat between husband and wife ends with the unseen death of Cora, who meets her demise at the bottom of her home's staircase, a structure that always seems to function as noir's danger zone.
At the next-door neighbor's residence, another marriage is in dire straits. A man of many shortcomings, Gilbert Simmons (Henry Daniell) is a hard-drinking, good-for-nothing husband to his perfectly pleasant wife Edith (Molly Lamont), who shows classic signs of being physically abused by the man she supports with her allowance. Aware Philip is in an awkward position in regard to the death of Cora, Gilbert attempts an open-ended blackmail scheme. "Hurt or be hurt in this world," theorizes the detestable Gilbert. And yet another bad marriage appears to be in the making: John is matched with Sybil (Eve Amber), whose insufferable laugh surely has the capacity to make any relationship implode.
Another noir theme central to THE SUSPECT is the emphasis given to the way male characters are perceived by others. In a table-setting sequence planted early, Philip chastises the young boy Merridew (Raymond Severn) for demonstrating the classic behavior of the future embezzler. Philip's ability to wear the mask of moral rectitude is boosted by the local townsfolk who see Philip as a dignified man. Most of the film's details are intended to align us with Philip, especially within his home. He does not appear to deserve the non-stop verbal abuse Cora dishes out on a daily basis (admittedly few men would merit such mistreatment). The viewer is meant to side with Philip throughout most of the narrative, though a turning point is inserted with the introduction of a detective, a borderline requisite character in film noir of this vintage. Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) of the Scotland Yard is quick to deduce Cora easily could have been murdered, despite a coroner's verdict of accidental death. Huxley stages a convincing re-enactment of what the viewer must assume really happened that Christmas Eve. The determination of Huxley ultimately shifts Philip into full-on downward spiral mode. Fittingly as Philip attempts to escape to Canada, Merridew reappears to wish his elder farewell. The boy says his mother sincerely wishes he one day will mature into a fine man like Philip! This scene nicely encapsulates the film's pessimistic take on masculinity, that every man has the potential to emulate Philip. The redemptive concluding sequence implies that, in spite of a powerful confluence of noir forces acting against him, Philip's plight was self-inflicted.
The relationship between Philip and Mary does not come without a strain on credibility: Charles Laughton was roughly twice the age of his on-screen romantic partner portrayed by Ella Raines and probably not half as good looking. Why a woman who presumably could get any man she wants would be so lonely and immediately interested in Philip is a tough sell. I realize I describe an age-old problem of the movies hardly unique to film noir, and seldom if ever was Raines matched with her physical equal. That is to say Raines could not help but exude some of the traits of the noir femme fatale, even when her character was not overtly evil or seductive. But deliberately of not, Mary is the character who lures Philip into a treacherous noir landscape where danger lurks around every corner. Though the filmmakers do not point the finger at Mary for Philip's eventual destruction, there is no argument that her introduction serves as a catalyst for all the unfortunate events that follow.
1944 was a banner year for the emerging genre of film noir, giving us the aforementioned DOUBLE INDEMNITY as well as DANGEROUS PASSAGE, DARK WATERS, DESTINY, LAURA, MINISTRY OF FEAR, MURDER MY SWEET, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT and WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, among others. Director Robert Siodmak did not limit his noir output to THE SUSPECT: his CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY and PHANTOM LADY also hit theaters that year. Siodmak continued to contribute heavily to the genre over the following years, which saw the release of his undisputed classics THE KILLERS (1946) and CRISS CROSS (1949). As for the film under review, THE SUSPECT performed well at the box office and inspired positive critical assessment. Working from the 1939 novel THIS WAY OUT by James Ronald, the adaptation was credited to Arthur T. Horman while Bertram Millhauser wrote the screenplay. Cinematographer Paul Ivano teamed with Siodmak again for THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945) and CRISS CROSS. Ella Raines worked with Robert Siodmak three other times: PHANTOM LADY, THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY and TIME OUT OF MIND (1947). Rosalind Ivan would portray another memorably shrewish wife in Fritz Lang's SCARLET STREET (1945). To promote THE SUSPECT, Universal condensed the material into a 30-minute radio dramatization that featured Orson Welles in the role of Philip Marshall. The Lux Radio Theatre presented a 60-minute adaptation on April 9, 1945, with Laughton, Raines and Ivan on board.
|Inanimate objects granted more emphasis than the protagonist|
The Blu-ray version of THE SUSPECT now available from Kino Lorber is on par with their consistently high standards. The dual-layered BD50 disc boasts a new 2K master scan framed at 1.375:1, which looks appropriate and solid in motion. Film historian Troy Howarth contributed the new audio commentary track. His energetic review of this noir condemnation of an essentially decent man is particular strong when focused on the career of Charles Laughton, an actor not remembered as an important film noir contributor, but who appeared in John Farrow's stellar THE BIG CLOCK (1948) and directed the outstanding noir film THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), sadly underappreciated in its day. Howarth identifies THE SUSPECT 's various ironies, as when Philip offs his wife not to protect himself, but to preserve the reputation of Mary. Howarth also observes it is Huxley, the film's major law enforcement official, who is responsible for the underlying dynamics that spur Philip to commit his second murder. In a related irony, the resolution to both murders comes only after Huxley compels Philip to look inward.
Especially for a film set in 1902, Howarth points out an unusual theme for this era of filmmaking: domestic abuse may lurk behind what seems to be a peaceful exterior setting. Furthermore, the viewer is left to consider whether homicide is sometimes justified. David Lynch would stake out similar territory more famously with BLUE VELVET (1986), especially in terms of sunny appearances versus dark realities, but Robert Siodmak (among others) broke that ground. Howarth builds a credible case for Siodmak as auteur, despite the fact the filmmaker was a contract director assigned to helm projects with the assistance of varying cinematographers. Be that as it was, an auteur element to Siodmak's creative process always is in evidence. There is a persistently shadowy, moody look to his films that extends from his Hollywood output to his later European productions. Even some of his work best defined within the context of other genres maintains noir elements, i.e. SON OF DRACULA (1943) and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946).
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