Suspense (1946)

Suspense (1946) is an ice-skating mystery film noir, combing the popular tropes of the self-propulsion and gliding of an dancer across an ice surface using metal-bladed ice skates — and the mystery and murder aspects of noir.

Barry Sullivan plays Joe Morgan, an unkempt drifter type who arrives in Los Angeles and winds up working at an ice theatre, the star of which is Roberta Elva, played by former Olympic skater Belita. The heavy crime and mystery melodrama which ensues is solid film noir, insofar as it is redolent of nothing less than a nightmare.

The ensuing adventure takes a classic noir form. Joe does begin his career selling peanuts but he has ambitions to take over the entire enterprise, and this of course involves taking over the leading lady too, the ice-skating heroine. 

Albert Dekker is the boss — for now — in Suspense (1946)

Drifter Barry Sullivan has his eye on the boss in Suspense (1946)

Joe is super aggressive about this and begins his rise by coming up with an idea to liven up the show — having ice-dancer Roberta jump through a hoop composed of massive sharp swords. The sharp swords routine is strange to say the least, but it does serve to jazz things up. One of the odder ice tricks you might see, but certainly does what noir does best — introduces danger to the everyday.

Hoods in a diner in Suspense (1946)

The dream-like shadings of Suspense are its major attraction, heightened by its brief switch to a rural and snowy environment in the middle section of the action. The ice rink is huge and spooky, but it is not the only entertaining set. There is a cavernous modernist apartment and even the lodge interiors have their own visual distinction to enjoy.

Bonita Granville flanked by mooks in Suspense (1946)

For classic film noir to thrive in the mind, there does need to be a shadowy, dreamlike aspect. From out that shadowed aspect drives a set of the most purely driven wicked emotions, ambitions and greed.

Within the men there are lusts for power and lusts for elaborately dressed women — and one must commend the many interesting costumes worn by ice dancer Belita, as she slides to and fore across the enormous ice set.

Ice dancer Belita in Suspense (1946)

Such visual exotica is typical of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and yet it is still somewhat unique to see it combined with film noir, as it is here. There are musical numbers aplenty across the style, but it's usual to set these in night clubs, bars, dockside dives or private functions. The full on musical number on ice is antithetical almost to the classic film noir experience, which makes it all the more fun to see it here.

The skating numbers do come with a rather sour deal, as their scope and scale is so significant that they go so far as to interrupt the film every twenty minutes or so, almost hijacking the habitual tropes of shadowy figures in hats up to no good in various domestic locales.

Noir logic prevails after a fashion, also. The boss of the ice rink played by Albert Dekker notices that there is a dangerous chemistry between his wife and the drifter-turned-peanut-seller aggressively ambitious Joe Morgan —  and yet he still offers him a job in management. 

Then the flirtatious couple end up in a snowy lodge filled with rifles, being spied on by the jealous husband.

Combined with the excessive musical numbers, none of the key plot points achieve their possible fullest sense or fulfilment, although the actual ongoing occurrences throughout are steady noir, visually as well as morally.

The central and most noirish aspect of the story would have to be the rise-and-fall-of-the-hustler storyline, which is given not just the ice-dancing treatment, and focal to this performance — and acted out by Barry Sullivan in other films such as The Gangster (1947) — find also the well-formed trope of the crook too smart for his own good.

Something must get lost in the ice dance however, and it appears to be the blackmail subplot — this does not diminish the ice dance numbers, which are well done and by all accounts, super expensive for this kind of film, which appears to have been Monogram Pictures most expensive movie to date, costing over a million dollars.

Barry Sullivan scheming at the hunting lodge — in Suspense (1946)

Spooky noir atmosphere does blossom after Frank disappears, and Roberta feels his presence around the place. For anyone who has seen even a handful of movies from the 1930s to the 2030s, there will be no plot surprises here — but one of the coolest aspects to noir is not what is done and what happens — but how it is framed.

The missing and the disappeared are usually near in film noir. The past is not a closed book and it is not unusual for characters to intrude in many different ways, suggested by shadows, knocks on the windows and walls, and an almost supernaturally suggestive fear.

This is how the classic film noir character lives — between the shadows. In the darkness around each immoral deed, are the wronged and they are more powerful than the law, and more powerful than social values and religious morality. When the television began to eat into cinema's hat, film noir was the first to suffer for this very reason — there was in the brightness of the tiny box, less room for the dreamlike nuance of the big screen, which could be shown in film noir at its very best — as a universal darkness, in which move the actors, folded up by fate.

To each film noir perhaps there is a novelty. Ice-skating noir may be one such very thing. Filmed at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, Suspense (1946) brings to the screen everything you'd hope for from the style, while adding its own Hollywood sideshow.

Although writers in general tend to take the view that the ice numbers detract from the classic noir action, this is not the case. First of all Belita is such a good ice-dancer that the numbers are sensational, and each one has a different theme — absolutely in that Golden Age style. 

There's a Latin number, and a Boogie number — and the superstar performances by Belita are so good that they inform her character's development off the ice — and the general obsessiveness the men feel about her.

We do never really find out why Barry Sullivan's unpleasant bum of a character left New York to begin with, and although it may not be material, it seems to be enough to create a blackmail subplot. The mood aims in a less sophisticated manner at the exotic peaks reached by the film Gilda (1946), which also has the drifter character taking over the operation of an older man, as well as muscling in on that older man's romance with the lead performer in his operation.

In that sense all of classic noir is here in Suspense (1946), including many touches from the shadows, and the additional magnetism of the ice dancing Belita. None of it would work outside of the 1940s.

Suspense (1946) at Wikipedia

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