A noir love that strains credulity

Jim Lundstrom

Take one part German Expressionism, one part French Existentialism, fold in a good dollop of the collective angst of the 1940s and you have several of the elements that made Robert Siodmak a name to be reckoned with in the history of film noir.
The German-born director fled Nazi Germany 90 years ago – in March 1933 – having learned that Joseph Goebbels was about to have him arrested for “sick sultriness and airless muddle-headedness” for his 1933 film The Burning Secret, a tale of adultery that offended the delicate sensibilities of the Nazi propaganda minister.

If the Nazis were good for anything, it was for sending talent such as Siodmak, his screenwriting brother Curt (The Wolf Man), and fellow directors Fritz Lang, Edgar Ulmer and Billy Wilder, to name but a few, to Hollywood, where they put their stamps on not only the stories being told, but in the way they were being told.

Robert Siodmak fled from Germany to Paris, where he continued making films until 1939, when again he fled the Nazis, this time landing in Hollywood. He churned out several B picture potboilers for various studios before signing to a seven-year contract with Universal, where his brother Curt worked as a screenwriter. Robert directed Curt’s script for Son of Dracula (1943) and the next year made the Technicolor camp classic Cobra Woman with Maria Montez, of whom Siodmak said, “Montez couldn’t act from here to there but she was a great personality and completely believed in her roles.”

It was his next film, Phantom Lady, that began a remarkable string of dark crime films, and Phantom Lady is one of the “Four Key Noirs” of Siodmak being shown on the Criterion Channel, along with The Suspect (1944), The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949).
I was going to start at the beginning with the very fun Phantom Lady, but since I had never even heard of the 1944 The Suspect, starring Charles Laughton, who you could say I am a fan of, well, I have to ask, why have I not heard of this?
Before streaming made life so much easier for classic film fans and I was on a mission to see every film noir ever made, I kept lists of films that I had yet to see. Never did I see a mention of The Suspect in the film noir genre. In fact, in all of my extensive film research, I never ran into any reference about this movie.

So, let me start by saying just for directing one film, the amazing 1955 The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum in his best role as a psycho preacher with the words LOVE and HATE tattooed across his knuckles. It’s one of my very favorite films. But it was a flop at the time and Laughton, who Siodmak said was a great director of actors, took it personally and never made another film, even though Hunter showed he had incredible cinematic vision.

In addition to that there are more than three decades of Laughton’s film performances that I enjoy, from his turn as Dr. Moreau in the 1932 Island of Lost Souls to Capt. Bligh opposite Clark Gable in the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty to Quasimodo in the 1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and David Lean’s 1952 Hobson’s Choice – ah, I’ve skipped many. There are just too many to name, but let’s just say right on through to his final role as a curmudgeonly U.S. Senator in Otto Preminger’s 1962 political drama Advise & Consent, there is a lot to see of Charles Laughton.

So it brings me great distress to piss on The Suspect. What in the world were they thinking when they cast the rotund – press of the day referred to him as portly, but rotund is more like it – Laughton as the love interest for the gorgeous, radiant, intelligent and much younger Ella Raines? Laughton was 45 at the time and Raines was 24.

Why, oh why would Mary, the beautiful character played by Raines, fall for and eventually marry the lumpy lumpenprole character played by the naturally physically unappealing Laughton.
But Ella Raines is so good, so pure in her intentions as an actress – you can see that – that she almost pulls it off. Almost.
There is a scene where Mary is at the dress shop where she works thanks to Laughton’s character. She is explaining to her workmates why she can’t go to a party with them, because she has a date. She spins a fairy tale description of her slim, handsome, well-to-do lover. She then explains that she was lying and, in fact, her boyfriend is unromantic, like herself, and weighs “14 stone if he’s an ounce.”

Fourteen stone? Are you kidding me? Fourteen stone is an English weight that equals 14 pounds (I learned that pulling Brussels sprouts and cutting cabbage and cauli while working as a farm laborer in Lincolnshire for 40 pence a stone back in the summer of 1974).
The Laughton character is more like 20 stone, or 280 pounds, than 14 stone (198 pounds). In profile Laughton reminds me of a non-mustachioed William Howard Taft, our lardass 350-pound President. Laughton’s head seems to poke out of his fatness like a turtle head upside down in its shell.
Laughton’s character does not have much going for him except that he is vaguely kind. Is it a kindness that stands out from his peers? I don’t know. We aren’t exposed to that.
I think we are just supposed to sympathize with the Laughton character, and I just can’t do it. He’s a fat, creepy weirdo in my book.
Well, he is kinder than his wife-beating neighbor, played by the always smarmy Henry Daniell, but it would not be difficult to be kinder than that amoralistic character.
You can tell the Universal ad guys who promoted the film upon its release in 1944 also had trouble believing the love story, for they did this double tag line:
“His was a strange secret!” and “Hers was a strange love!” Those tag lines are next to their representative characters, Laughton’s big face only, and Raines in what looks like very stylish 1940-era clothing. There is nothing to indicate the story takes place in Edwardian times and Raines never exposes as much skin in the movie as she does in the poster. In fact, there’s an amusing scene when she models a bathing costume of the time and wonders if it’s too risque. I said bathing costume for a reason. In no way would you call it a bathing suit. Far too much clothing involved.

Despite having to suspend disbelief regarding this unholy attraction, it’s an interesting movie. It’s interesting only, I think, because Siodmak is the director. There is no mistaking that he learned his trade in the silent era and that he was steeped in visual storytelling, evident in a wonderful scene where Phillip Marshall (Laughton) is being followed through the foggy London streets by his battle ax wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan), who wants to know how her husband spends his nights when he is coming home. It’s completely silent except for the clack of Cora’s shoes on the cobblestoned streets.

Another example of Siodmak’s visual storytelling comes after Cora has died, supposedly falling down the narrow stairway to her bedroom. Scotland Yard Detective Huxley has come to talk to the grieving husband, and tells a story of how Marshall might have killed Cora. As he describes the scene, the camera acts out the disturbing scene the inspector paints.

Here’s a brief on the story. Phillip Marshall is manager of a London tobacco store. He is married to Cora, the biggest shrew of a wife ever put on screen. After Cora drives their son John (Dean Harens) out of the house with her constant haranguing, Marshall moves into John’s room and has as little contact with his wife as possible.

At work one day, Mary Gray (Raines) goes to the shop to ask Marshall for a job, presenting herself as a very progressive young woman who knows how to work a typewriter. Marshall has nothing for her, but when they meet again on the street, a meeting orchestrated by Mary, he invites her to dinner and promises to help her find a job, which he does. They begin to spend more time together. Cora gets suspicious and, in one of the great sequences of this film, she follows her husband through foggy London.

When Cora learns of the existence of Mary, on Christmas Eve she threatens Marshall by saying she is going to expose the tryst between him and Mary. But before she can do that, she is dead. Marshall’s story is that she fell down the narrow stairway leading to her bedroom, but a sly detective suspects Marshall of murdering Cora. When the cop questions Marshall’s wife-beating neighbor (played by the smarmy Henry Daniel), the neighbor decides to use the information he got from the detective to blackmail Marshall. 

To end that threat, Marshall poisons the neighbor and dumps him in a canal behind his house.
With Cora gone, Marshall marries Mary. They decide to move to Canada, but as they are waiting for their ship to depart, Detective Huxley bumps into Marshall, pretending to be seeing someone off. But he is there to plant an idea in Marshall’s head, which he does in very Columbo-like fashion. We are left with the impression that Mary and Marshall's son John, who joined them for the trip to Canada, will hook up because they are the same age and Marshall will be heading for the gallows.

Next week, the orgasmic drumming of Phantom Lady.