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The Suspect

Director: Robert Siodmak. Screenplay: Arthur T. Horman, Bertram Millhauser based on the novel This Way Out by James Ronald. Producer: Islin Auster. Director of Photography: Paul Ivano. Music: Frank Skinner. Art Directors: John B. Goodman, Martin Obzina. Editor: Arthur Hilton. Costume Designer: Vera West. Cast: Charles Laughton (Philip Marshall), Ella Raines (Mary Gray), Molly Lamont (Edith Simmons), Stanley C. Ridges (Insp. Huxley), Henry Daniell (Gilbert Simmons), Rosalind Ivan (Cora Marshall), Dean Harens (John Marshall), Raymond Severn (Merridew), Eve Amber (Sybil Packer), Maude Ebune (Mrs. Packer), Clifford Brooke (Mr. Packer), John Berkes (Det. Sgt. Pennyfeather), Katherine Yorke (Model), Rebel Randall (Model), Barbara Gray (Model), Sheila Roberts (Model), Edgar Norton (Mr. Frazer). Released: Universal, December, 1944. 85 minutes.

Plot Summary

Philip’s wife, Cora, drives their son, John, out of their home. Without further need to keep up marital pretences, Philip moves into John’s bedroom, infuriating Cora. Philip meets Mary and starts taking her out to restaurants and shows. Philip asks Cora for a divorce, but she refuses. Cora finds out about Mary and threatens to ruin Philip and Mary’s lives. Making it look like an accident, Philip kills Cora. After the funeral Huxley shows Philip how Cora’s death could have been murder. Mary and Philip get married. It is all going well until Huxley talks to Gilbert, Philip’s malevolent and penniless next-door neighbor. Gilbert tries to exploit Huxley’s suspicions. He tells Philip he will say he heard him kill Cora unless Philip gives him money, for the rest of his life. Instead, Philip poisons Gilbert and prepares to move to Canada with Mary and John. Just before they sail, Huxley goes on board and tells Philip that Gilbert’s wife is going to be charged with murder. Huxley believes the story will force Philip to come back on shore and give himself up because of his “sense of decency.”

Commentary

Philip is the manager at a tobacco shop, where a young boy, Merridew, also works. Philip facetiously chides Merridew for pilfering coins from a stamp box. Taking Philip seriously, Merridew insists that he is not an embezzler. Philip rejoins, “It’s the first step that counts. After that it becomes too easy.” This remark foreshadows Philip’s downfall. From the opening scene, The Suspect makes Philip sympathetic and his murder of Cora understandable, if not justifiable. The film also tries to excuse Gilbert’s murder. However, unlike Cora, Gilbert probably can’t make good on his threats. Unless Huxley gets a witness, he can’t prove Philip killed Cora. Gilbert admits he heard nothing the night Cora died. With Gilbert’s reputation as a “first class rotter,” it is doubtful he would be believed if he gave “evidence for the crown.” Yet Philip worries that accusations by Gilbert could put him “in a very awkward situation.”

Charles Laughton’s restrained performance underscores Philip’s gentle nature. Nonetheless, Philip resembles the name of the street where he lives, Leburnum Terrace. The laburnum is a shrub with bright yellow flowers, and all parts of the plant are poisonous. As Philip says, “I like people and I never want to hurt them.” However, he will kill people to keep his life free from scandal. Since he has “never been a fighter,” he won’t stand up to Gilbert. But he also won’t allow Gilbert to take advantage of him. A coward in public but iron-willed in private, Philip’s reaction to Gilbert’s blackmailing costs both men their lives. Instead of refusing to pay Gilbert any money and daring him to commit perjury, Philip does what is “too easy.” He commits another murder. This time he doesn’t get away with it. 

The strength of The Suspect is in the performances. One key weakness is the lack of suspense. Every scene that suggests suspense may be built up promptly goes flat. Philip hears someone following him on a foggy street. He steps into a doorway and watches Cora walk by. John’s girlfriend shrieks when she feels something under the sofa (where Gilbert’s corpse is hidden). John reaches down and pulls out a cat. As soon as Huxley says Philip’s not going to leave the ship and turn himself in, Philip steps into view. The other chief weakness is the lack of noir style. There is one strong but brief expressionist shot of Philip moving toward the sofa to get rid of Gilbert’s body. Huxley’s re-enactment of Cora’s murder lasts a couple of minutes and is a tour de force. The style in the rest of The Suspect is about as mild-mannered as Philip is to Merridew.