Robert Siodmak’s 1944 film The Suspect is set in London in 1902, a fact that is immediately established by a title card following the opening credits: “It was an unpretentious street, but it had a pretentious name. That was the fashion in the London of 1902. They called it Laburnum Terrace.” Juxtaposed on a scene of genteel Edwardian ladies and gentlemen and a charmingly tidy series of row homes, this introduction suggests that something light, perhaps a comedy of manners, is coming up, but the reality is quite different. The Suspect is sometimes classified as film noir, but I’d call it a domestic melodrama with a crime subplot that draws on the visual vocabulary of film noir.
The fake-out continues a bit longer, as the first characters we meet, Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton) and his next-door neighbor Edith Simmons (Molly Lamont), are both perfectly charming. That’s the public face of contented suburbia, but the scene indoors, where people show their true faces, is something else again. The furnishings are sumptuous, but the people are nasty beyond belief (outside of the context of a melodrama, of course). Cora Marshall (Rosalind Ivan), Philip’s wife, is a shrew to end all shrews, and has driven their only son John (Dean Harens) out of the house. Things are even worse next door: Edith’s husband Gilbert (Henry Daniell) is a mean drunk who lives off his wife’s money and will later show he has no loyalty to anyone but himself.
Philip continues to show us what a great guy he is, first in a charming scene with Merridew, the very young office boy (Raymond Severn), and then by showing kindness to a young stenographer and typist, Mary Gray (Ella Raines), who has come to his office seeking work. Unfortunately, there are no open positions (and Philip considers the typewriter a “contraption” for which his office has no use), but she’s very pretty and very nice, and he’s clearly smitten by her. Walking home that evening, he spots Mary crying on a park bench, and with a little prompting, she confesses that she’s all alone in the world and has had no luck finding work. He takes her out to dinner (they should “pool our loneliness,” as he puts it) and they come to see more and more of each other.
Their relationship is entirely chaste, with Laughton appearing more as a doting uncle than a suitor, but gradually he realizes that he loves her, and the feeling seems to be mutual. First problem: Philip hasn’t mentioned to Mary that he is already married. Second problem: Cora won’t agree to a divorce (in fairness, divorce was not an easy thing to get in Edwardian Britain, and the woman would be considered much more disgraced than the man). What’s more, she has tailed him through the foggy London streets and seen what he is up to, and is more than ready to take revenge by causing a scandal. Philip breaks it off with Mary, and that’s all just in Act I.
Act II opens with some street peddlers discussing an “accident” that occurred in the household of an “ideal couple,” and it turns out that Mary has conveniently died in a fall down the stairs. Scotland Yard takes an interest, with Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) assigned to investigate the case. He takes the job seriously, conducting interviews with many neighbors and creating a nifty re-enactment of his theory of the crime, and lots more stuff happens, including deliberately false accusations, a poisoning and a planned emigration to Canada. What can I say? This film is a melodrama, so action and sensation take precedence over character development.
The Suspect is pure studio product, and there’s nothing revolutionary in either form or content here. Above all, this film is most definitely not interested in criticizing a social and legal system that failed to recognize that some marriages should not continue. Rather, as popular entertainment tends to do, it focuses on eliciting audience sympathy for the plights of some likeable individuals who are shown to have drawn a bad hand. Today, it’s most interesting as a product of its time, and as an example of a film that showed off the strong points of the studio system—a ready supply of talented actors, reliably good sets and props, and fine technical work from the likes of cinematographer Paul Ivano, editor Arthur Hilton, and composer Frank Skinner. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Suspect is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by film historians Troy Howarth, and trailers for five films.