The Suspect (1944, Robert Siodmak)

The Suspect is the unlikely tale of middle aged shopkeeper Charles Laughton, who forms a friendship with a young woman in need (Ella Raines), which gets him in trouble with his wife, Rosalind Ivan. There are complications—the film’s established Ivan has been a horrible wife to Laughton and a bad mother to their son, Dean Harens, even getting in the way of the young man’s potential at work; she and Laughton no longer sleep in the same bedroom. And he’s been perfectly appropriate with Raines, as far as advances go.

The film’s rather smart in that regard, not ever letting Laughton seem like a lech; in fact, when it comes time for someone to confess their adoration, it’s Raines mooning on about Laughton to her fellow shop girls. The film’s very careful about how it presents Raines and Laughton; they’re utterly passionless with still completely devoted.

Unfortunately, in addition to an unpleasant, uncooperative wife at home, Laughton’s also got an absolute asshole of a next door neighbor, a perfect Henry Daniell, who’s not above a bit of blackmail. Daniell’s married to suffering Molly Lamont, who’s pals with Laughton because they’re both friendly and their spouses are not.

Tragedy soon befalls the neighborhood, leading to police inspector Stanley Ridges noising around. His first appearance in the film has some of Suspect’s best filmmaking, if only Ridges’s voice weren’t so unimpressive when he’s narrating this terrifying reenactment sequence. The writing’s good, the direction’s good, the photography and editing (Paul Ivano and Arthur Hilton, respectively), but Ridges’s read of his dialogue is terrible.

Ridges will be responsible for ruining as much of The Suspect as one can ruin without taking into account the hoops they must’ve gone through to keep this thing Code-compliant. It is, after all, about a married man whose only way to find true happiness is to rid himself of his loathsome wife. And she was a bad mom and proud of it. And she does dare Laughton to do it. So if he did do it, would he really be responsible….

The film’s usually intriguing so long as it seems like Laughton’s got a surprise up his sleeve. He breaks with expectation a few times in startling ways, good and bad, and it’s a lot of fun. Until it isn’t and the plot just scampers along trying to find a twist to reveal. Director Siodmak keeps the red herrings to a minimum, which actually turns out to be too bad given how poorly the whole thing wraps up. The third act’s a disaster.

The first act’s good, the second act’s not as good but good (Raines loses screen time in direct contradiction to when she should be getting it), then the third act’s a mess and somehow to ending is even worse.

If the script and the Code didn’t fail Laughton, it’d be a great part. Raines is charming and gets to wear some great hats but it’s a very shallow part. Ivan’s good. Harens is in it so infrequently he’s fine. Lamont’s good.

And Siodmak’s got some excellent direction. But far from enough to make up for the narrative problems, much less Ridges’s woefully inadequate antagonist. Thanks to Ridges, The Suspect ends up wasting everyone’s time, particularly Laughton’s.

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