Suspense (Warner Archive) Review
There really aren't that many ice skating noirs. And while that very well could be for the best, the 1946 picture Suspense proves that it's indeed possible to effectively merge the two worlds of chilly entertainment and even cooler displays of morbid unraveling. Here we have yet another delicious reminder of what we mean when we talk about the pleasures of film noir. It's a movie not terribly well known or appreciated but nonetheless in love with dark shadows and the ominous feeling one gets as things seem to work out just a tad too perfectly. What's especially odd about Suspense is that, in addition to having so many of the tropes of noir, it keeps making room for several ice skating numbers performed by Belita, the female lead who had been an Olympian at the age of 12 and later made a handful of movies. In the same way a musical can't help interrupting itself every few minutes for a song and dance, here we get intermittent breaks in the plot for Belita to ice skate. These interludes, like the Poverty Row version of Cyd Charisse's dance sequences in Party Girl, quickly become almost hypnotic, somehow serving the film well rather than as a distraction.
Made with a relatively large budget at Monogram Pictures following the success of Dillinger the previous year, Suspense gathered director Frank Tuttle, notable for his Ladd-Lake adaptation of Graham Greene's This Gun for Hire, and a solid team of talent both behind and in front of the camera. Barry Sullivan was making a play for leading man status as protagonist Joe Morgan, a luckless drifter who left Chicago for New York before turning up in Los Angeles and seemingly catching a break. He doesn't take long to rise up the ranks from peanut vendor to Albert Dekker's trusted second in command. As Frank Leonard, Dekker hangs over almost the entire film, a spectre present even when he's not on screen. Noirish complications arise as Joe finds himself drawn to Leonard's wife Roberta (Belita), who's also the star of the show he runs. Eugene Pallette, in his last film, plays the reasonably loyal lapdog, first for Leonard and then Joe, though his motivations often seem tough to entirely pin down. Add Bonita Granville, a former Nancy Drew, to the mix also, as the ex-flame semblance of Joe's past life who proves love affairs die exceptionally hard. She's excellent in a role that could have registered with far less concern.
The main problem Suspense may face to modern viewers is a skepticism regarding the plot. We've seen this before, right, with Gilda, also from 1946, bearing particular resemblance. The outsider who disrupts a marriage by positioning himself as a younger, more virile alternative to the beautiful woman's husband has been done repeatedly in film noir. Yet, the unfolding of events in Suspense manages to still feel fresh and unpredictable. This is largely due to a sustained uncertainty in Philip Yordan's script. As familiar as the basics can seem, the characterizations here are fairly novel in comparison, and much of the movie protects the two leads from harboring any criminal intentions. Joe and Roberta legitimately connect to one another but, unlike numerous other dips into this territory, there's no expressed flirtation with murder or eliminating the husband. A resolution to this infidelity isn't made immediately obvious in this instance. At first, anyway.
Leonard becomes proactive and that seems to make all the difference. This little twist serves Suspense well by letting its pair of main characters entirely off the hook. They may be on the path to adultery, if not there already, but their actions are otherwise on the up and up at this point. Leonard's apparent death via avalanche is little reason for guilt in Joe or Roberta. He was, after all, intending to kill Joe. Twisted sympathies always make for good noir. Frank Leonard isn't that admirable of a guy anyway, but when he tries (and fails) to shoot Joe the path is open and free for throwing our support in favor of the guy who'd earlier claimed he was someone who had "swung and missed" in life. Ah, noir, always happy to wreak havoc on those who step outside the comfort zone of normalcy. Joe just can't help himself. He rises up to the top, name in lights, and soon enough finds fate's cruel assertion of power. Leonard, alive and well, is framed in an extraordinary display of shadows by Karl Struss as he makes himself at home in his former office. The real kicker is that the inevitable struggle, resulting in an apparent fight to the death, between these two men isn't shown. The outcome is teased. The black cat Leonard had earlier been shown stroking can be seen jumping away out of the desk amid the company of a lifeless body. But the actual killing is completely ignored.
(end of spoilers)
The gathering unpredictability of Suspense plays out like a breath of fresh air that might dizzy the unfaithful. Things don't fall exactly as one might expect, and Belita is unorthodox enough to lead the viewer into questioning her character's motivations about most everything. Does Roberta care about her husband? Is she really fond of Joe? This conflict of loyalty comes to dominate the unspoken subtext of the relationships between Roberta and her men. When she's with either, she seems happy and content and, most intriguingly, loyal. Belita is believable as a woman torn between two men. She functions as the fragile backbone of the picture. Joe meanwhile seems to forget his previous bad luck and foolishly thinks he can maintain a comfortable life. It's noir Joe, where reminders come in the form of bullets and character flaws double as the protagonist's downfall. Whatever happened in Chicago took him to New York before he tried again in Los Angeles. That's three swings and three misses.
Aside from being single-layered and on a DVD-R without subtitles or extra features, Suspense gets by quite nicely in its incarnation as a Warner Archive title. The feature is presented in 1.33:1 and looks good. Grain is visible but not intrusive. Black levels look adequate. Just a few speckles and some scratches mar the otherwise respectable transfer. It's consistently more impressive than disappointing. Progressive and as sharp as one would reasonably demand, the film manages a quite nice transition to the world of ghettoized DVD-R releases via official studio editions.
The mono audio track is always acceptable, if understandably limited. Dialogue comes through rather clearly and consistently. A mild hiss is present. The lack of subtitles, as always with these Warner Archive releases, continues to be a disappointing and inexcusable weakness.
There aren't any extras on the disc, not even a trailer.