Robert Siodmak, 1944
Starring: Charles Laughton, Ella Raines, Dean Harens
Philip, a shopkeeper, is stuck in an unhappy marriage to a miserable woman. His life takes a turn for the better when he meets Mary, a young typist looking for employment. They quickly strike up a friendship, which quickly deepens into something more. Ashamed that he has let it carry on so long, Philip breaks things off with Mary and asks his wife for a divorce. She cruelly refuses and he resigns himself to improving their marriage. But she’s determined to get revenge, to ruin both Philip and Mary, even though their relationship remains platonic. Mary falls to her death and it is unclear whether this was an accident or Philip’s doing. He is hounded by a local police inspector, but marries Mary and goes on to have a very happy life – that is, until his drunken, wife-beating neighbor gets wind of the investigation and decides to blackmail Philip.
Based on a novel by James Ronald, The Suspect is one of the early film noir efforts from virtuoso director Robert Siodmak. It’s one of the rare noir works set in period London and, while watching it, I wondered if it can fairly be called noir rather than just a regular suspense film. It is a not a run of the mill thriller in the sense that the script has little excitement, but heaps of ambiguity. Did Philip kill his wife? The film hints that he did, but never states it outright. It also is left completely open-ended as to whether or not he will turn himself in for the crime, though he is pictured walking serenely through the streets of London when he is supposed to be sailing to Canada.
Philip is a fascinating character, made more so by the wonderful Charles Laughton. His magnificent performance is what makes this film so worth watching. Philip is a quiet, lonely man. At first glance, he seems to be like Edward G. Robinson’s character in Scarlet Street, a desperate man in an unhappy marriage who befriends a beautiful young woman going through some hard luck. But Philip is not the same type of pushover. His wife is horrible (I wanted her killed within 4 minutes and 30 seconds) and nagging, but he owns his own business and puts his foot down about things like staying late at work and having a separate bedroom. Unlike most noir protagonists, he is neither gripped by guilt or a sense of doomed fate. By the film’s ending, there is the feeling that both (potential) murders are justified and Philip deserves to lead a long, happy life, which is arguably more subversive than most noir.
The Suspect is also noir-like in the sense that many of the film’s relationships are based on anger, manipulation, selfishness, loneliness, and despair. Philip and his wife openly dislike one and another, and while Philip tries to follow a path that will allow them to seek separate happiness, his wife is bitter and angry, determined to hurt him in as many ways as possible. This relationship is paralleled in that of their neighbors: the wife is kind and good-hearted, while her husband (an excellently cast Henry Daniell) is a wife-beating alcoholic who steals what little remains of her inheritance. Like Philip’s wife, he is an all-around nasty person who richly deserves death.
While it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Ella Raines (Phantom Lady) would marry Charles Laughton, the film makes it believable through their performances and a solid script. Though she may be young and beautiful, it’s suggested that Mary is desperate, dejected, and thoroughly down on her luck. Another sort of film noir would follow her downward spiral into crime, debauchery, or prostitution. Instead, she is given the rare gift of sublime happiness, presumably because she follows her heart, rather than convention. It helps that there’s a scene where she explains her attraction to him. She first makes up an imaginary lover that her friends drool over, then tells the truth that he is imperfect, but incredibly kind-hearted and lonely, just like herself.
The Suspect is perhaps a more minor effort, but anyone who remotely enjoys murder-themed thrillers, suspense-films about marital discord (of which there were many in the ‘40s and ‘50s), or Charles Laughton will find it worth watching. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be available on DVD, though you can find it streaming for free on Archive.org.