Sunday, October 25, 2009

Suspense (1946)

1946 was a big year for film noir. Two years earlier Double Indemnity was a smash. The-yet-to-be named film-noir style was the rage in Hollywood. All American movie studios scrambled to put out the next big Cain-like crime thriller. After the '46 release of the classic noirs The Postman Always Rings Twice and Gilda came Monogram's biggest budgeted film, Suspense.

Suspense - with a storyline that's almost exactly like Gilda released a month before - was put together by the King Brothers after their huge success Dillinger with Laurence Tierney a year before. Monogram was one of the Poverty Row movie companies. Monogram films always looked cheap. Even good films like Decoy and The Guilty are a challenge to appreciate when many of the actors are unprofessional and the sets appear to be ready to fall down. Only Suspense would be different. The notoriously thrifty King Bros. threw a million into the project. They hired This Gun For Hire director Frank Tuttle to helm the project. The solid and unique sets were constructed - instead of reusing old ones. The legendary Karl Struss was brought on as the cinematographer and the writer of Dillinger - just nominated for an Oscar for the work - Philip Yordan worked on the script. Yordan (one of the great noir writers - penning many thrillers including The Harder They Fall and The Chase) was nominated again for an Oscar later in his career for the yawner Detective Story - but The Big Combo in 1955 would be his best noir work.

Barry Sullivan
was hired in his first leading role and young figure skater Belita was brought in as the female lead. Did I mention Suspense is a figure-skating film-noir hybrid?

The story is pure film noir

Joe Morgan (Sullivan) - looking like a street bum- stumbles into town and cons his way into a job. After a shave he become a peanut vendor for Frank Leonard's ice skating night club. Joe moves up quickly and is soon managing the place while Frank is out of town. He also comes up with a very dangerous skating routine for Frank's much-younger wife Roberta (Belita). Joe starts making the moves on Roberta and soon they're having an affair. When Frank takes Roberta away for a romantic getaway Joe finds an excuse to drive up to the snowed-in cabin and invite himself over for the weekend - much to the annoyance of Frank. While Joe watches the beauty queen practice her routine on a frozen pond the next day, jealous Frank tries to shoot his rival with a big-game gun. Unfortunately an avalanche kills him before he can kill Joe. Or did it? With Frank gone Joe is now clear to pursue Roberta. However, complications make things tough for him. His ex-girlfriend shows up (Bonita Granville) and she's crazy-obsessed with him. Meanwhile Roberta is convinced that her husband is still alive and stalking her. The unexpected twists that follow puts Suspense firmly in the film noir category.

Not a total success

Suspense isn't a classic film noir for several reasons. Even with all the talent hired for the film Tuttle did not have a great story to work with - unlike This Gun For Hire based on the Graham Greene book. However, the dialog is snappy and the film looks great. Karl Struss isn't known as a film noir lensman (although he did do the handsome Journey Into Fear with Orson Welles) which is a shame because his work here is fantastic to look at. I would have liked to see more noir from him. His best work is one that probably influenced all noirs during the classic period - 1927's Sunrise. Struss uses shadows to great effect in Suspense.

A few of the standout moments in Suspense include a trip to the zoo that looks like it was cut straight from Cat People; Belita jumping through jagged swords; and a scene in the woods (the set designers create a cozy atmosphere in the cabin then the camera peals back to reveal a crazy ornate spiral staircase going up to the bedroom. Every set and backdrop in the film look surreal.)

The actors

Barry Sullivan is good in the lead role but he was just not a leading man. Sullivan found much more success as a second banana in films like The Bad and the Beautiful.

Sullivan is just about forgotten today. Even his later roles on TV he is unrecognizable. He never became a star he probably hoped he would after Suspense but he was a reliable film supporting actor until his retirement in the early 80s. Some of his noir roles that followed were interesting. Jeopardy with Barbara Stanwyck, No Questions Asked and Loophole are all worth watching.

Belita - who's unique bio is featured this month at the Film Noir Foundation - wasn't the greatest actress but the camera loved her and she looked like a movie star. She seemed to only show any range of emotions when she was skating.

The skating numbers are a bit of a problem as well. They look great - in a strange Salvador Dal穩-like way. How many figure skating acts feature the female lead smoking? As corny as the first skating number is I found it sleazy - and somewhat entertaining. However, whenever subsequent numbers popped up in the film the story comes to a screeching halt. Belita would star again with Sullivan in The Gangster a year later - without her skates. When she died in 2005 obituaries mentioned mainly her skating career (Belita did represent England at the 1936 Olympic games at the age of 12) but mostly ignored her acting. She only made a handful of films but today - looking back- she's seen as one of the queens of noir thanks to potboilers Suspense, The Gangster, and The Hunted. I have to say she successfully mimicked an American accent perfectly in her films.

Albert Dekker plays Roberta's husband. He's most famous for playing Burt Lancaster's rival in The Killers released only a few months later in '46. Dekker is basically George Macready in Gilda. (Deckker's death in the film Suspense can't top how the actor died in real life as Bill Hare notes in his review of The Killers.) Dekker is also in the classic Mike Hammer film Kiss Me Deadly.

Bonita Granville is excellent (maybe the best performance in the film) as Joe's ex. Granville became famous for playing teenage Nancy Drew in the 1930s. As she grew up she tried to shake that good-girl routine in Monogram thrillers like Suspense and The Guilty. Later she would have her greatest success as a Television producer with her producing partner and husband.

Joe's beefy mentor Harry is played by Eugene Pallette. Pallette is familiar character - and voice- in classic films. Suspense would be Pallette's last film.

Frank Tuttle

After Suspense, film directing veteran Tuttle would continue to work regularly in and out of Hollywood - many times getting projects based on the reputation of the classic This Gun for Hire. Some of Tuttle's later films are excellent action thrillers - even if they are as rare as Suspense. A Cry in the Night, Gunman in the Streets and (re-teaming with Alan Ladd - in color!) Hell on Frisco Bay are three standout films.

Not Top Shelf but enjoyable

There's a lot to like in Suspense. In the past the film - despite being a box office success in its day - was only seen by noir collectors trading copies of the film or at film noir festivals. Now that it's available on DVD (through the Warner Bros. Archive) it will no doubt find a larger - and possibly cult- audience. Just don't expect it to be a top-shelf noir and you'll enjoy yourself. Suspense isn't suspenseful but the tale told on cold hard water is a fun watch.


Written by Steve-O

1 comment:

  1. Belita leaps through the Vagina Dentata of Death! Wadda act!


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