Charles Laughton Pines For Ella Raines in Robert Siodmak’s 1944 Thriller.



In The Suspect, Charles Laughton plays Phillip Marshall, a mild-mannered shopkeep who’s intensely dissatisfied with his home life. His wife, Cora (played with venomous relish by Rosalind Ivan) is the worst kind of shrew.  When Mary Gray (Ella Raines), a young stenographer, approaches Phillip for work, the two strike up a friendship. Phillip is thrilled to gain the attentions of a pretty girl, who isn’t harping on him all the time, but he keeps things strictly platonic (though Mary, who doesn’t know Phillip is married, hopes for something more). After Cora discovers the supposed affair, and threatens to expose both Phillip and Mary, she winds up dead of an apparent “accident.” Phillip is free to wed Mary, and live happily ever after, but Police Inspector Huxley suspects Phillip to be responsible for Cora’s death.

Laughton’s role in The Suspect is, at least for a casual film buff, a role against type. He’s best known for his blustery, villainous roles in such movies as Island of Lost Souls, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His Phillip Marshall is quiet and reserved. There’s little flash and zero bombast to his performance, even as the character finds himself being drawn deeper into a web of lies and intrigue. It is Ivan who gets the juicy role here, as the nagging wife (a role similar to the one she played in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street). Her every word is poison, and she hurls vindictives at Laughton like knives. It’d be a performance too over the top, if it weren’t so enjoyable.

Which is the biggest problem with The Suspect. Aside from a handful of set-pieces, the movie lacks a lot of much-needed energy. It comes to life anytime Cora is ranting on screen. There’s a scene where she follows Phillip to his rendezvous with Mary that’s all nighttime shadows, fog, footsteps echoing on cobblestone streets and furtive glances. And the camera really comes to life in the sequence where the inspector outlines for Phillip exactly how he thinks the murder happened. The camera swoops up the stairs, hides amongst the shadows in the dark hallway, focuses on Cora’s bedroom door, waiting for the unwary victim to appear. Laughton is at his sweatiest as Huxley narrates the tale.

But the rest of the film is rather sedate. Even the investigation into the murder feels lackluster, as there’s no sense of the law closing in on Phillip. Huxley doesn’t uncover any real evidence, he just badger’s Phillip hoping the man will give something up.  The operatic flourishes you’d expect from a film billed as a ‘film noir’ just don’t exist here, save those mentioned above. It’s tone is just too warm and genteel throughout.

The director, Robert Siodmak, is no stranger to visual panache. Siodmak got his start directing in Germany, in the early 1930s, and he brought his Expressionist influences with him when he came to work in the States.  This style would serve him well as he directed horror films (Son of Dracula), adventure thrillers (Cobra Woman) and Film Noir (The Killers and Phantom Lady, also with Ella Raines).  The Suspect is clearly meant to be seen as a Noir. Just look at that cover artwork: Raines dressed in that slinky red dress, the underlit head of Laughton looming behind her. Never mind that the film’s story takes place in the Edwardian era, and there’s nary a slinky red dress in sight. There is a bathing suit, however, and I won’t spoil that surprise for you!

Kino-Lorber’s blu-ray release of The Suspect comes packaged with a feature-length audio commentary track by film historian Troy Howarth. There is also a collection of trailers. The film has a crisp, new 2K transfer and is presented in its original Academy aspect ratio in wonderful black and white.  It looks and sounds great.