On the one hand, if you are going to call your movie Suspense, try to make sure youíve got some. On the other, unless you can imagine someone walking up to the box office and asking for a pair of tickets to ďTurgid Potboiler,Ē Suspense ainít so bad.
There are about a dozen standard plots that account for at least half of the movies ever made. It might be fun to figure them all out at some point, but itís enough to say that Suspense implements one of the doozies: Down-on-his-luck guy breezes into town and finds a chump job. Through some stroke of genius (or luck) he quickly becomes the bossís right hand man. Guess what? The boss has a honey of a wife, and she and the new boy light a fire together. The boss feels the heat and all of a sudden he isnít so chummy with his right hand anymore--and the dame is stuck in the middle. Somethingís gotta give and someoneís gotta go--the hard way.
Sound familiar? This story has been played out in films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gilda, The Strip, and a million more stretching all the way back to Josef von Sternbergís iconic Underworld. The trick to using such an old saw effectively is to sharpen it up somehow: in this case, screenwriter Phillip Yordan put the production on ice--literally.
Maria Belita Jepson-Turner, known in film simply by the exotic moniker Belita, was only twelve when she skated for Britain in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, finishing well back of Norwegian gold medalist Sonja Henie. With a face and figure to die for, Belita skated after Henie to California to make it in the picture business. While Henie landed at Fox and began appearing in frothy romantic comedies with Tyrone Power, Belita wound up at Monogram. The studio, one of the better B factories, was home of the Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, The Shadow, Joe Palooka, and Cisco Kid franchises. Monogram had scored a huge hit in 1945 with Lawrence Tierney in Dillinger. (On a side note, the bosses at Monogram knew you just canít beat a well-made gangster picture: following Suspense, they would re-team Belita, sans skates, with Barry Sullivan in The Gangster.)
In an attempt to achieve big league status for the studio, the Dillinger profits were pumped into Suspense, the only truly big-budget picture to bear the Monogram trademark. Both Belita-Sullivan pairings did fair box office, though not enough to elevate either Monogramís status as a studio or Belitaís as a star. She made a picture a year in the forties, and appeared in a few more in the fifties, then retreated to life on the road as a professional figure skater.
Suspense isnít a very good picture, but it is nevertheless interesting. What makes it so is its absurdity. The banal roadhouse in The Postman Always Rings Twice becomes a neon nightspot with an ice show in Suspense. Incandescent sweater girls like Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth had that magical something that allowed them to command audiences while standing still. Not so with Belita--sheís forced to skate about in sequined outfits and soar through hoops ringed with razor-sharp swords. In an effort to cash in on her talents, the movie is punctuated every fifteen minutes or so with an ice skating number, leaving present-day viewers perplexed. Viewers of the film during its revival at Noir City could be seen turning to one another with a look that telegraphed a wordless question: "Were there really night clubs with ice shows in the forties?"
Phillip Yordanís screenplays in the mid-forties were derivative: he still had a way to go before penning The Big Combo--assuming, of course, that he actually did. Suspense does have a pulpy story, however, and Frank Tuttleís direction pushes things into noir territory in spite of the fact that the ice skating sequences play with more verve than the dark moments. Tuttle does what he can, but the screenplay borders on obnoxious, filled with contrivances that add at least 20 minutes of unnecessary prattle to the film. As a result, the darn thing doesnít generate a lick of...well, you know.
Still, the film has some saving graces. Bonita Granville is one of them. The star of the late-thirties Nancy Drew franchise did a fair impersonation of Dick Powell and reinvented herself as a tough broad in the 1940s. In Suspense she plays Barry Sullivanís jilted lover from Chicago, and makes a delectable woman scorned. (If only she could skate...)
Also of note is Eugene Pallette, appearing in his final film. Pallette was a fixture in classic movies, and one of those guys with an unfamiliar name but instantly recognizable face (and voice). Many will recognize him as Henry Fondaís father in The Lady Eve. Here he plays the sort of character who serves as a bridge between the two male leads. Heís older, and consequently non-threatening to either man, simultaneously a confidant to Albert Dekkerís man in charge and a mentor to Sullivanís boy on the make. Palletteís presence has the same effect that one gets with someone like William Bendix--the film just feels a lot more comfortable when he's in it.
While Iím putting a beating on this film, noir purists will still want to see it for Karl Strussís camera work. Suspense is really Strussís only film noir, which is a shame. This is the guy who won the first Academy Award for shooting Sunrise, and went on to photograph The Great Dictator and Limelight for Charlie Chaplin. Suspense has an overwhelmingly dark look, more shadow than light--yet it still seems bright and sharp because Strussís use of high contrast.
Suspense is a film that leaves you wanting: wanting a more original story and better dialogue; wanting more Bonita Granville; and wanting more Karl Struss. But it doesnít leave you wanting to know whatís gonna happen: youíll figure that out in the first ten minutes.