Classic film noir is, for the most part, rooted in the urban American experience of the 1940s and 1950s, set amidst the bustle and the ambition of the modern city where the electrical power and the automobile accelerated the pace life. Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect (1944) winds the clock back to an earlier era of gaslight lamps and the horse-drawn carriage. It’s been called “gaslight noir,” but I think of it as cobblestone noir, a less culturally loaded term.
The Suspect presents a classic noir situation—a meek husband falls for a lovely younger woman and removes his wife (Rosalind Ivan) from the equation—by way of a Gothic romance in turn-of-the-century London.
Charles Laughton brings quiet dignity to the decent but spineless Philip, who endures the cruelties of a bitter wife without standing up for himself or his son. Ella Raines brings a similar mix of independence, modernity, and devotion to the role of young working girl Mary that she gave Phantom Lady, her first of three films with Siodmak.
The Suspect is more restrained and soft-spoken than Siodmak’s best film noirs in both style and sensibility. The central murder is suggested simply in a glance, a lingering look at a vacated space, and a fade to black. In the film’s tour-de-force sequence, an illustration of murder brought to life with dramatic lighting, simple but elegant camera choreography, and off-screen narration by a dogged Scotland Yard investigator (Stanley Ridges) trying to shake up his suspect, the flickers across Laughton’s face could be shame or guilt just as much as fear of discovery.
Siodmak is almost too generous to the long-suffering Philip, who murders only despicable characters who maliciously threaten to kill his happiness, but that’s also what makes us conflicted as the investigation closes in. The inherent decency in the character drives the film’s climax more than the plotting does.
Dean Harens and Henry Daniell costar.
Black and white
The Kino Blu-ray and DVD releases feature commentary by film historian Troy Howarth.