Monday, January 19, 2015

Noir City XIII #3: The Unusual Suspects

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XIII pieces, go here)

Last time in Noir City, we booed and hissed Bad Joan Fontaine. Today, we'll look at those who were bad to Joan Fontaine. 

Alfred Hitchcock directed many variations on the "Man Wrongly Accused" plot. In Suspicion, his second consecutive film with Fontaine, Hitch plugs his favorite actor, Cary Grant, into the formula. Except Cary isn't wrongfully accused. He's guilty with a capital T. Grant's Johnnie knows it, Fontaine's character knows it, the director knows it and the audience knows it. Perhaps the only thing that doesn't know it is Suspicion itself. 

Therein lies the problem I've always had with this picture. The powers that be wouldn't allow Cary Grant to be depicted as a total asshole, so the ending was changed. Never mind that Grant gives a fantastic, villainous performance. He's fearless in allowing his seductive charms to suddenly mutate into sadism. Whether coldly watching his pal, Beaky (Nigel Bruce) go into anaphylactic shock from a brandy allergy, or verbally threatening his wife, Grant is always a believable, desperate heel.

As Lina, Fontaine makes a very good foil for Grant. She nimbly carries Hitch's suspenseful moments, making us feel equally suspicious about Johnnie. As Lina goes from spinster candidate, to luckiest newlywed in the world, to potential murder victim, Fontaine registers each change with subtle escalations of strength. This performance won her the Oscar at 23, a year after she teamed with Hitch on his sole Oscar winning Best Picture, Rebecca.

After all the work the actors put in, not to mention the ever-tightening screws of guilt the script puts to Grant's character, Suspicion arrives at a most unsatisfactory conclusion. It almost feels that the dairy industry protested the use of a glass of milk as a murder weapon. As much as I like everything else about it--to the point that I recommend seeing it--I still can't forgive it for selling me that lousy feel-good ending.

The Bigamist is more honest about its lead character, Edmond O'Brien: His crime is right there in the title. Joan Fontaine's in this one too, playing one of the two women O'Brien marries. The other is played by Ida Lupino, who also directs. Lupino doesn't get enough credit for her trailblazing path as a director; her legacy may be just how unflinchingly she looked at controversial topics. While one would expect a moralistic sermon, The Bigamist instead is surprisingly sympathetic to O'Brien's plight. This may have doomed it to bad reviews and box office failure.

O'Brien's world starts unravelling when, in an attempt to revitalize his marriage to Fontaine, he agrees to adopt a child. The adoption agent is Santa Claus himself, Edmund Gwynn. Several in-jokes are made about Gwynn's most famous role; after all, Santa Claus has now become the Stork in some regard, delivering babies as presents to good little parents. However, Gwynn pokes around at the details more obsessively than most agents would, and that attention to detail terrifies O'Brien. The audience gets as big a jolt as O'Brien does when Gwynn shows up at his other family's house.

Contemporary audiences may flinch a bit over O'Brien's rationale for running into Lupino's arms--he's depressed that Fontaine's a very successful businesswoman with as little time for him as his travelling salesman job makes for her. But Lupino's matter-of-fact presentation of this and other details keep us from dwelling too long on them. There's some really risky material (for 1953, that is) here--adultery, unplanned pregnancy, women in the workforce, adoption--but The Bigamist refuses to drop the full weight on us until the film's last scene. Since screenwriter Collier Young has written three leads to whom we feel some emotional ties, the villain's comeuppance is more tragic than evil.

Watch how Lupino frames each character in the film's last shot. Note her placement of herself, Fontaine and O'Brien, and the direction by which they exit the frame. It's a visual storytelling moment of breathtaking heft and sadness, packing a wallop that left the audience stunned.

One also feels sorry for Charles Laughton's murderous husband character in Robert Siodmak's The Suspect. He's married to the wife from Hell, played with unmistakable force by Rosalind Ivan. Ivan was last seen in Noir City as the subservient maid in Ivy, so this is a complete 180-degree turn. After watching her verbally berate the much larger though far meeker Laughton, you may be reminded of Chris Rock's line from Bring the Pain: "I'm not saying he should have killed her, but I understand!"

Now that Laughton and Ivan's kid is off to college, Charlie's tobacconist decides to stop keeping up marital appearances. Ivan never really loved Laughton, and the feeling is mutual. Now that they're alone, there's no sense in pretending anymore. Laughton moves into his son's room, much to Ivan's chagrin, and starts seeing a woman he met when she came looking for a job at his office. The woman is played by Ella Raines, an actress whose talent and beauty is sadly all-but-forgotten today. Though the encounters between Raines and Laughton start out friendly, a romantic charge soon accompanies them. Laughton is happier than he has been in the decades old farce of a marriage in which he has been trapped.

Ivan won't give Laughton a divorce, so she meets an untimely yet suspicious demise, falling down a staircase to her death. Of course, it's no spoiler to say that Laughton killed her, especially when he has to kill someone else later to cover his tracks. Dare I say that both victims deserved it, so the audience's sympathies are solidly with Laughton. Laughton keeps us on his side by shuffling off his usual (though always enjoyable) hamminess, presenting his character as a believably lovestruck mook in way over his head.

Despite being tailed by a ruthless inspector who knows Laughton did it, but can't prove that he did, The Suspect looks as if it will end the way we want it to, with Laughton getting away with murder(s). The brutal twist that ends the film and dooms Laughton provides a valuable lesson: Sometimes the most dangerous thing you can have in Noir City is a conscience.

Next time: Sirk du Soleil and Powell, Loy, booze and Asta.

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