The Suspect (1944)

In London in 1902, An unhappily married Charles Laughton falls for a delightfully prim Ella Raines.

The result ― is MURDER.

At least that is the conclusion of the police force, in The Suspect (1944), a faintly suspect film noir in its own right, and a movie which relies heavily on the talents of the two leads, Charles Laughton and Ella Raines.

It is in fact difficult to see what might be left to enjoy, were these two high quality talents were to be removed form The Suspect, and replaced with lesser mortals.

Charles Laughton was always a star, and enlivened any production he appeared in, even if it were as pedestrian as this one. And Ella Raines has her own star quality ― not just her grace and beauty, but communicative skills which shine across the decades, giving her a uniquely compelling quality ― unique because it is not based on either sex appeal, or some lurking maternal quality.

And that is unique, and perhaps something to be celebrated.

Everybody who watches The Suspect and comments upon it, asks why on earth a lovely character like Ella Raines would fall for a grotesque like Charles Laughton. There is that!

But it is exactly these qualities which make such a match possible. Of course it is very noir indeed for a man to fall for a half dressed vamp, who is leaning suggestively over a bar ― but not all relationships are based on such impulses, not even it appears in film noir.

Most people will be here not for reasons of film noir however, but to see Charles Laughton. Laughton made such an art of acting that it is hard to imagine cinema without him, one of the greats of the great golden age.

Unlike the grim dramas of Fritz Lang, and we are thinking of those which feature Edward G. Robinson, such as Scarlet Street and The Woman In the Window) Charles Laughtons' character is a genteel middle aged and middle class Englishman of the early 20th Century, something much more reliable and not psychologically bound to a fatal flaw.

In fact, the strength and solidity in Charles Laughton's character is real, and so with this film noir we are perhaps more concerned with the dismantling of the past rather than its being trampled by new technological, moral and psychological imperatives.

The comparison between Ella Raines, who is staid, innocent and quite fun to be with, and Joan Bennett as the fatal attraction in The Woman In the Window is striking. 

The traditional and perhaps more vaudeville aspect of this film then belongs to the nagging wife figure, a worse stereotype it is likely, and yet handled with gusto by an icy Rosiland Ivans in The Suspect

His was a strange SECRET! Hers was a strange LOVE!

One of the more famous British murder cases that The Suspect leans on was the 1910 murder of Cora "Belle Elmore" Crippen, wife of the American born "Dr." Hawley Harvey "Peter" Crippen. The couple had been married from the early 1890s, and moved from the United States to England, settling in London. Crippen did have a degree from a small medical college in the Midwest, but he was on shaky ground as a physician under British standards.

Crippen was in fact a seller of patent medicines, and was yet a good businessman, and made a comfortable living. Cora had pretensions towards being an opera singer, and trained her voice. She did have some performances at various music halls, but her career was not good. Cora also treated the long suffering, mild Hawley Crippen in a rather poor manner, making him clean up her lover's shoes when they slept over at their home. Crippen hired a secretary, Ethel Le Neve, and they fell in love. 

Now enter film noir territory! In January 1910 Belle disappeared. Her friends became concerned, and Crippen told them she had left him. Later he told them that she had died in LA and was not in Britain at all.

But when Le Neve was seen wearing her jewellery others became suspicious. Contacting Scotland Yard about their suspicions, the Yard sent Inspector Walter Dew to see what was going on. At first Crippen seemed plausible, but then he and Le Neve fled. 

The remains of Belle were found in the basement and it turned out she he had been poisoned. Crippen and Le Neve (disguised as his son) fled by ocean liner to Canada, followed by Dew, who arrested them off Quebec. 

They were then taken back to England, where both were tried. The Doctor insisted on protecting Le Neve throughout his trial, and consequently he was found guilty and she was acquitted. The Doctor was hanged in November 1910.


Shadows and Fog in Olde London

Rosalind Ivan - see her also: Arms and the Woman (1916); It Started With Eve (1941); The Suspect (1944); Scarlet Street (1945); Pursuit to Algiers (1945); The Corn is Green (1945); Alias Mr. Twilight (1946); Johnny Belinda (1948); The Robe (1953); Elephant Walk (1954)

Mary: What is it Philip that you don't ever like to meet anyone?

Philip: Well, a chap my age has the right to a few peculiarities.

Despite leaning more towards drama than it does film noir, The Suspect is directed by Robert Siodmak, who made many of your favourite film noir titles. These include:

Phantom Lady (1944)

Christmas Holiday (1944)

The Suspect (1944)

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

The Killers (1946)

The Dark Mirror (1946)

Time Out of Mind (1947)

Cry of the City (1948)

Criss Cross (1948)

The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)

Deported (1950)


Delving into the past, elements of the Crippen Case were still very much alive and relevant in the 1940s. There isn’t any background as to why the mild and delightful Charles Laughton’s wife is such a hideous woman who doesn’t want to see anybody being happy. She is played by Rosalind Ivan ― and she drives her son away from home and then finds out that her husband is meeting a young woman, and not even having an affair with her ― it is all entirely platonic.

“I walked through the forest and picked a crooked tree" she says of him.

There is a particularly delightful twist in The Suspect however ― because as viewers we find ourselves rooting for the murderer! This isn't something that would automatically spring to mind in consideration of someone like Dr Crippen ― and for this we need to buy into the spades of marital abuse he receives from his wife

There is a firm suggestion that Laughton would like to make take this relationship deeper, but his sense of decency prevents him from cheating on his wife. The wife finds out and announces that she will do what she can destroy this decent woman. Now, Laughton has finally been pushed too far ― and he kills her. Although it happens entirely off screen, Laughton is so good, and so suggestive as he chooses the murder weapon, we don’t need to see any more. It is one of the best 'less is more' scenes of 1944!

So, at first it seems like Laughton has got away with the murder, until his evil neighbour gets on board and figures out the truth. It means that when Laughton subsequently poisons the neighbour, once again we cheer for him to get away with murder.

Even more amusingly, the morality and decency of the ending is superb, and unusual. Both murders seem justified in the eyes of the audience, and yet it is all about decency. Only Charles Laughton could have held this as well as he did. Only Charles Laughton could be so very DECENT about killing these awful people.

The result is at the same time rather conservative and melodramatic, while also subverting things rather amusingly as we root for the murderer against the bullying wife, and the blackmailing swine of a neighbour.

Robert Siodmak on Classic Film Noir

Robert Siodmak on Wikipedia

Ella Raines on Classic Film Noir

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