It is very much a male-oriented film in subject matter and frame of reference with Charles Laughton commanding center stage. He is the very figure that we are meant to empathize with as an audience. But it’s precisely those qualities, along with the presence of director Robert Siodmak, that make it remarkably straightforward to read The Suspect as film noir even given its Edwardian setting.
Veiled in the murky London fog are the mundane strains of noir popping up within the home and the shrouds do well to imprint the British streets with a certain darkness in tone and shading.
In fact, it would be similarly done in other pictures such as The Lodger (1944) and Gaslight (1944) but this one, in particular, can be tied back to the genre’s unhinged male paranoia. Because the dark predilections of noir have often been tied to an overwhelming form of matrimonial suffocation. Not only wives nagging but also the embodiment of the femme fatale to reflect men’s fears returning from WWII to find a new movement of independent women.
The Suspect fits seamlessly into the former category. Is it right to read all of this into the movie in hindsight? I will allow others to enact final judgment but for my own purposes, I will choose to see it in this light. Though it lacks a true femme fatale, it is loaded with blackmail and the threat of scandal that leads to an underlying sense of utter despair.
But it’s necessary to backtrack and explain how events come into being. Charles Laughton is an honest gentleman who works as a bookkeeper only to go home to the ball and chain.
We get a taste of his insufferable wife (Rosalind Ivan) amid turbulent interactions with their grown son (Dean Harens) who vows to leave their home for good because he can’t stand his mother. It feels as if she’s been cast as the devils incarnate and she might as well be next to Laughton’s portly angelic character. There’s a glassy-eyed sincerity to him that plays softly to our ears thanks to an at times rasping delivery. A quiet charm exudes from him all the time. Everyone but his wife seems capable of seeing it.
One such person is Mary Gray (Ella Raines), a woman with the most stunning of wardrobes, both prim and proper and certainly capable of employment. Except she’s had an awful go of it trying to find a job and kindly Mr. Marshall can’t be of much help in that regard. However, what he can offer is a bit of innocent companionship because he imagines that they are both a bit lonely — which of course is very much the case.
At this point, he’s finally found a little enjoyment and there’s nothing more than a desire to have someone to relate with. Still, Mr. Marshall deems it most prudent to break off his friendship with Ms. Gray because after asking his wife for a separation, he is alerted that there is nothing doing. Worst yet, the cackling witch makes his life even more horrible; because that’s precisely what she has been created to do.
The next major event is all too expected, so expected in fact that the film doesn’t even bother showing it. The death or murder or accident is left off of the celluloid though certain outcomes are heavily implied. It’s partially jarring as we hardly have time to track with this jump in the sequence of events.
Again, there are happier times ahead as now Philip has married the lovely girl and they are blissfully content together as companions. But another villain is invented (or rather has been waiting in the wings). A lecherous next door neighbor who’s an incorrigible wife beater adhering to a “hurt or be hurt philosophy.” He is willing to falsely testify that he heard Mr. Marshall arguing with his wife the night before her “murder.”
Something must be done about it. This time the desperate Philip takes the firmest course of action he can muster to stop this affront. And suddenly events turn slightly intriguing becoming Rope (1948) for a man that we hold some empathy for and that’s where any amount of tension is born.
In fact, the duality in the marriages is one of the most fascinating motifs. Because you could easily see in an alternative turn of events some sort of killing off of respective spouses for an agreeable partnership to be forged. And that’s very well what this picture might have been if not for the presence of Ella Raines. She’s very much vital to the outcome without ever trying to be. Since it’s true that she has no motive, what she offers is seemingly so amiable and a very legitimate reason to murder in one man’s eyes.
To Laughton’s credit, whatever he was supposed to have done, he never ceases to have a conscience nor a capacity to love. Thus, it makes the police investigation surrounding him one that is imbued with meaning. We care what happens to him and to Mary as well. While we aren’t given much of anything, the final notes hint at something not completely inhumane. That’s all I can give you.