The DVD portion of my DVD/VHS combo player has been giving me fits of late, so I may have to get a new player soon. But that’s OK, because in the meantime, I’ve been enjoying movies I taped off cable years ago, movies that never received a VHS release or have yet to be released on DVD.
Titles like Universal’s “The Suspect” (1944), which I recorded off Showtime in the early 1990s. It’s a pity the film isn’t available, because it’s a jewel of a film, and features one of Charles Laughton’s finest performances.
Laughton’s many memorable portrayals are still remembered today, be they cruel (Bligh), determined (Javert), sly (Crassus), pitiable (Quasimodo), decadent (Nero) or evil (Moreau). All wonderful characterizations, but the same actor who so superbly mastered the above roles also played gentle and kind, and these too rank among the actor’s best roles. I’m thinking Ruggles, of course, and his role as the dying millionaire in the wonderful “It Started with Eve” (1941). Add “The Suspect” to this list.
How good is Laughton in the film? He’s so good, he easily makes us believes the young and beautiful Ella Raines could fall in love with him.
The film is set in London in the first decade of the 20th century, a fine setting for suspense films of this type (though you would never guess that from the above poster art).
Phillip Marshall (Charles Laughton), a respected tobacconist, is married to the prize shrew of all time Cora (Rosalind Ivan), as mean, petty and spiteful a woman who ever lived. He can’t stand the sight of her, she’s contemptuous of him, but she refuses to grant him a divorce. Her pettiness even causes their grown son John (Dean Harens) to move out.
Mary Gray (Ella Raines) comes to the tobacco store looking for work and Marshall senses a lonely, kindred soul in Mary. He suggests they pool their loneliness and share a meal together. Inspired by his kindness and basic decency, the meal leads to a friendship, which leads to romance.
On Christmas Eve, Cora and Marshall have a terrific argument when she accuses him of seeing another woman. They retreat to their separate bedrooms, both seething with anger.
The next day Marshall reports her dead, saying she hit her head after falling down the stairs. It seems accidental, but Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) isn’t so sure. He can’t prove anything, and because we didn’t see what happened, we’re not sure if he did kill her or it really was an accident.
Meanwhile, their next door neighbor, Simmons (Henry Daniell) has heard the loud arguments in the past, and decides to blackmail Marshall. Simmons is married to his long-suffering wife (Molly Lamont) who is trapped in an equally loveless marriage.
Simmons is one of those superior types who think the world owes him everything but doesn’t want to lift a finger to accomplish it. Simmons may be Daniell’s finest characterization, after his role in “The Body Snatcher” (1945). Nobody could essay superior smugness better than Henry Daniell.
There’s a deliciously ironic plot twist that I wouldn’t dream of revealing. I will say that for three fourths of the movie, we’re not sure if Marshall killed his wife. We think he did, but we’re not sure.
Laughton is tremendously appealing in this film. It’s not a showy characterization, but shows he can play retiring and quiet dignity as well as his more well-known flamboyant characters. If any person deserved some peace and serenity in his life, it’s Phillip Marshall.
There’s a wonderful scene where Raines is questioned by her girlfriends about her boyfriend. She tells them how big and strong successful he is. They look at her with envy and then she tells them the truth. He’s an older gentleman who is lonely (she doesn’t know he’s married) and is nothing to look at, but is so thoughtful and caring that she couldn’t help but fall in love with him.
Even after they marry, their relationship only deepens. For the first time in a long time, Phillip Marshall knows happiness. But alas, thanks to the blackmailing Simmons, that happiness may be short lived.
“The Suspect” was based on a novel by one James Ronald. The screenplay was written by Bertram Millhauser, who wrote quite a few of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies of the 1940s.
Director is Robert Siodmak, here right smack in the middle of his most creative period. The film is almost noir-like in its look at relationships. Those who are lucky enough to find the right person better enjoy it while they can, because it can’t last. Decent people are ripe pickings for the pettiness and evil which live next door.
“The Suspect” is a winner on every level. I do hope Universal sees fit to release it on DVD one day. It deserves a wider audience and Charles Laughton’s Phillip Marshall deserves to be in the pantheon of great Laughton performances. .