Monday, March 13, 2023

Neglected Gem: The Suspect (1944)

Charles Laughton in The Suspect (1944).

Robert Siodmak began his filmmaking career in Germany, hot-footed it to France when Hitler came to power and wound up among the many German émigrés in Hollywood, including his friend Billy Wilder, who had co-written his first two films, People on Sunday and The Man in Search of His Murderer. (Siodmak was on the last ship to America before the Nazis marched on Paris.) His American career never made him as famous as Wilder or Fritz Lang, but he made some very good pictures, including The Spiral Staircase, The Killers and The Crimson Pirate. Perhaps the best of them is The Suspect, adapted by Bertram Millhauser and Arthur T. Horman from a novel by James Ronald, which Criterion Channel is showcasing this month.

It’s an evocative, unsettling thriller set in turn-of-the-century London. Charles Laughton, in a brilliant performance, plays Philip Marshall, whose life – and that of his twenty-something son – is blighted by Philip’s wife Cora, a woman whose whining self-absorption has an underlayer of viciousness. Rosalind Ivan, who plays her, delivers a memorable portrait of shrewishness as a personality disorder, long before that term was available to us. Cora drives their son (Dean Harens) away and her husband to a kind of in-house estrangement, since she refuses to consider a divorce. By chance Philip meets an impoverished young woman named Mary Gray (Ella Raines, the heroine of Siodmak’s eerie, atmospheric Phantom Lady and Eddie Bracken’s co-star in the great Preston Sturges satirical comedy Hail the Conquering Hero – both released the same year as The Suspect). He helps her get on her feet, and they fall in love. Knowing that he can’t get free of his wife, Philip tries to stop seeing Mary but he’s unable to; she’s the bright light in his life. When, inevitably, Cora finds out and threatens to expose the affair and ruin Mary’s life too, Philip kills her and makes it look like an accident.

What makes The Suspect so unusual is our sympathy for Philip, whose homicidal behavior registers to us like the impulse of a rat gnawing its way out of a trap. Somehow Siodmak manages to keep us securely in Philip’s corner while working up the atmosphere of a period murder story that transpires amid the London fog and the shadows of the city’s lanes and byways. (The impressive cinematography is by Paul Ivano, who mostly shot B pictures and, later, TV shows.) It’s a dark movie with a likable hero. Imagine if Farley Granger’s Guy Haines, the tennis player with the awful wife in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, had no doppelgänger – no psychopathic Bruno Antony to dispatch her without his consent but on his behalf. That’s the experience of Siodmak’s movie; it twists the viewer’s heart. You can hardly wait for Philip to get the opportunity to help Cora out of the world, but when it happens you know fate is camping on his doorstep.

This is one of the few murder narratives from this era – Otto Preminger’s Laura is another –where the casting is close to perfect. Henry Daniell plays the Marshalls’ neighbor, a loathsome drunk who makes the existence of his kindly wife (Molly Lamont) as much a misery as Cora makes Philip’s. Stanley Ridges is the Scotland Yard inspector who is sure Philip is responsible for his wife’s demise but can’t prove it, but who dogs his suspect like a pulp version of Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert – a role, incidentally, that Laughton himself played in the 1935 version of Les Misérables. But the movie belongs to Laughton, who, with extraordinary skill and tremendous subtlety, guides us to every emotional way station along his character’s arc. It’s rare that a Laughton performance falls short of excellence; this one may be the finest he ever gave.

Here’s a supplementary list of Charles Laughton movies that are also worth checking out: The Old Dark House, If I Had a Million, Island of Lost Souls, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Ruggles of Red Gap, Mutiny on the Bounty, Rembrandt, The Beachcomber, The Big Clock, The Man on the Eiffel Tower, Hobson’s Choice, Witness for the Prosecution, Spartacus.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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