Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Tonight's Movie: Suspense (1946)

This week I've caught up with SUSPENSE (1946), a Monogram Pictures film noir which has been on my "watch" list for quite a while.

I've held off on watching it, as I have other noir titles, in hopes of seeing it for the first time on a big screen at a film noir festival, but since it's unlikely that will happen for some time yet, I went ahead and watched my Warner Archive DVD.

SUSPENSE, one of a couple examples of "ice skating noir," has a terrific cast: Figure skater-dancer Belita (THE HUNTED), Bonita Granville, and Barry Sullivan.

Sullivan plays Joe Morgan, a character who is frankly rather sleazy from the start.  We first meet him as an unkempt bum who's just arrived in Los Angeles.  He's hired on to sell peanuts at an ice show -- the Pan-Pacific Auditorium is seen under the opening credits and in stock shots -- and when he suggests a new routine for star Roberta Elva (Belita), Roberta's husband Frank Leonard (Albert Dekker) promotes Joe into a management job.

Frank later realizes that Joe is moving in on his wife and attempts to shoot Joe with a long-range rifle when they're all in the mountains.  Instead, the shot triggers an avalanche, and Frank is presumed dead.  Or is he?  Joe and Roberta both have a curious sensation that they're being watched...

Adding to the intrigue is the arrival of Joe's very jealous old girlfriend Ronnie (Granville) from New York, who decides to investigate why he left town for L.A. so suddenly.

SUSPENSE is a film with a number of interesting elements.  Although some reviewers opine that the skating numbers stop the plot, for me they're the chief selling point of the movie.  I loved Belita's Monogram musical LADY, LET'S DANCE! (1944) and find her a very exciting performer. 

Belita's first number in SUSPENSE, which I believe is called "East Side Boogie," is absolutely sensational.  She's magnetic, oozing style, and I frankly find her a more dynamic skater than Sonja Henie.  (At the time of this writing that routine can be watched here.)  I also particularly liked a Latin-inflected number near the end of the film.

Belita was a good though not great actress, but I think the skating scenes are important in part because the charisma and power she displays on the ice rink informs how we see her character off the ice.

I'm a big fan of Sullivan, who is usually able to make even heels compelling, but I found him less appealing in this than usual.  Joe is simply not a nice guy, and we don't get much of a sense of why he and Roberta have feelings for one another.  

The following year, incidentally, Sullivan and Belita would costar again in THE GANGSTER (1947) at the same studio, newly rechristened as Allied Artists.

I'm also a Granville fan, but her character and motivations are the murkiest of all.  One has a sense that some of the back story between Ronnie and Joe was left on the cutting room floor.  (Why did he leave New York, anyway?)  On the plus side, Bonita looks gorgeous and has a nice wardrobe, designed by Kalloch.

In the end what I found most appealing about SUSPENSE was Belita, along with the movie's overall sense of style, including Dali-esque skating backgrounds.  (One horrifying "skull" set I could have done without!)  There are some wonderfully stylish bits scattered throughout the film, like a character's name in lights dimming at movie's end.  The movie has terrific shadowy black and white filming by Karl Struss.

The film also has a great mood, at times reminiscent of GILDA (1946), with the jealous older husband and the employee making time with the beautiful wife.

Philip Yordan's script could have better explained the characters, while at the same time the editing of this 101-minute movie could have been tightened up, but despite my criticisms, my feelings about the film were positive.  It was an interesting and somewhat unique film, thanks especially to Belita, and I enjoyed it.  I really hope to see it one day in 35mm!

SUSPENSE was directed by Frank Tuttle.  Nick Castle choreographed the skating sequences.  The supporting cast includes Eugene Pallette, George E. Stone, George Chandler, and Billy Gray.  Kristine Miller is said by IMDb to be a model, but I didn't spot her on this viewing.

The Warner Archive DVD was in very good shape.  There were no extras on the disc.

SUSPENSE also turns up occasionally on  Turner Classic Movies, including a recent showing on Noir Alley.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Laura, I was quite amused to discover that the beautiful blonde skater with the exotic name was born Belita Jepson-Turner in Nether Wallop, Hampshire (love that name!). Her mother was daughter to a doctor who attended King Edward VII.
The film itself is not big-budget of course but quite enjoyable. Plus it helped get Sullivan's career off the ground.

11:28 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I have seen both Suspense and The Gangster on a big screen and both have stayed with me, especially a sequence in which Belita, while on skates goes through an iron knife strewn circle. Visually, if not dramatically memorable.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, that's a great detail about Belita's grandfather!

Barrylane, that circle with knives is definitely memorable!

Glad to know that each of you found this one enjoyable as well. I'm curious to see THE GANGSTER now as well. I have a stack of movies like that which I'd been hoping to see first on a big screen but I'm guessing the earliest we will have theatrical movies back in CA is fall. We'll see...

Best wishes,

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Bert Greene said...

"Suspense" isn't any kind of unheralded gem or anything, but I generally liked it. The film has flaws (as Laura mentioned), and even though Belita is a bit limited as an actress, I rather liked her and felt her character kept the film nicely moored. Although noir purists probably don't care for the musical and skating interludes, I felt they nicely buoyed the film, and kept the proceedings from descending too much into a kind of sullen drabness that this kind of storyline would be prone to. Which was a distinct danger here, with Sullivan's character being a rather unsympathetic stinker.

Also liked Belita in "The Hunted" even better. And, "Lady, Let's Dance" is actually one of Monogram's better musical efforts. I liked how it gave bandleader Henry Busse a rare spotlight. His band was never quite top-tier, but I always enjoyed its recordings. Not to mention Busse's earlier work on Paul Whiteman records in the early-mid-1920s. As for "The Gangster," which I only saw for the first time about a year ago... well, that one didn't work for me, I'm afraid. Seemed too self-consciously artsy for my tastes.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

One I would love to see. I agree Belita is a wonderful skater. I didn’t realise she had made two films with Barry Sullivan. I like The Hunted a lot.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Bert, thanks much for your thoughts on SUSPENSE. I think we see the movie pretty similarly based on what you wrote above.

THE HUNTED blew me away when I saw it for the first time at a Noir City Festival. Watching it in the was really special. I've since seen it a few more times and it remains one of my favorite "minor noirs." Similarly when I watched LADY, LET'S DANCE! I was surprised by how utterly entertaining it was. I wasn't expecting much and that movie was a delight.

Sorry to hear you didn't care for THE GANGSTER, since we saw the other films similarly I wonder if we'll agree on that one too...

Vienna, I hope you can see this one! Great to hear from another fan of THE HUNTED. Terrific film.

Best wishes,

7:58 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Laura, just caught up with Suspense. I agree that first number Belita does is great. The film seemed to have quite a big budget for Monogram.
It was interesting to see Eugene Pallette in a non-comic role - his last film too, and he gets the last line in the film.
I wished that Albert Dekker had a bigger role. Always like Barry Sullivan. Bonita seemed wasted and there was no real build up to what she did at the end. I don’t understand and why Hollywood didn’t keep Belita. She could obviously succeed in non skating roles. But what a skater!

11:10 AM  

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