Film Noir Friday: The Suspect (1944)

the-suspect

3mls

Robert Siodmak helms The Suspect, a twisting 1944 film noir with a sincere dose of London fog. This picture features a screenplay by Bertram Millhauser and Arthur T. Horman and is based the novel This Way Out by James Ronald. The great Paul Ivano is the cinematographer.

The tale takes place at an interesting time in London’s history under the brief reign of King Edward VII, just at the end of the Victorian era. Its protagonists are members of the working class and people of modest gains, with money and employment coming up a lot in conversations. This subtle touch adds a shred of economic concern, but the main thrust of the tale is more visceral.

Charles Laughton stars as Philip Marshall, an accountant at a tobacconist. He’s a kindly enough man, but life at home is hell on account of his ruthless wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan). Cora has even chased her son John (Dean Harens) away with her abuse and Philip decides to live in a room across the hall, much to his wife’s chagrin.

One day, Philip meets young typist Mary Gray (Ella Raines) as she’s looking for a job. They strike up a friendship that includes trips to the theatre and dinners out in small, tucked-away restaurants. Philip is falling for her, so he asks Cora for a divorce. She says no. Some time later, she falls down the stairs to her death and her husband is suspected of murder.

Other characters are worked into the mix when Scotland Yard inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) comes snooping around and the neighbour (Henry Daniell) tries to blackmail Philip about the crime. This reveals alternating poles to the story and pulls a darker nature out of Philip, who has been relatively ambiguous from a moral standpoint.

The Suspect is at its best when it explores how Philip finds happiness with Mary and how far he’s willing to go to keep it. It keeps the death of Cora vague and doesn’t show the actual incident, leaving the conversation to the scuttlebutt of neighbours and the pecking of Huxley. Later, another crime is decidedly less unclear.

Laughton does well to make Philip Marshall a relatable and likable man. He is shown offering scarce mercy to Merridew (Raymond Severn), a boy who has been taking money from the till. And his kindness to Mary is something, as she really is struggling through Edwardian London in search of employment and really does like his company.

The Suspect is not the most thrilling of the films noir and it functions more like a parlour melodrama at times, but there are moments of tension worth mentioning. One finds John’s tittering girlfriend (Eva Amber) nearly discovering a corpse under the couch, with the cat springing out instead.

Siodmak and Ivano do craft an aesthetically dreary London, with plenty of street-shadowing to conceal Philip and Mary as they go about their mild affair. But the “action” is in the bits of drama and in the performances, with Laughton leading the way and Ivan stealing scenes whenever a piercing wife is required.

In the end, The Suspect isn’t an overpowering film but it is a satisfying one. The performances and the compelling themes elevate it past the strains of melodrama, while the characters tramp through their various motivations with bracing honesty. And then there’s Raines, whose appearance in an Edwardian swimming dress might just push this one over the edge.

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