Four minutes into Suspense [Frank Tuttle, 1946]. A tough guy has just charged upstairs through a crowd of chorus-girls and busted into an office he’s never seen before, ignoring the guard.
Thuggish lackey: Don’t you believe in knocking?
Tough guy: [pause] Leonard?
Boss: [wearing bow tie, starched collar, casual blazer, pencil moustache, smoking meerschaum pipe, holding black cat] Speaking.
Tough guy: I’m Joe Morgan. Max from the shootin’ gallery across the street said you could use me.
Boss: We can always use a good man.
Tough guy: What do I do?
Boss: What can you do?
Tough guy: Anything.
Boss: Could be. [significant glances with lackey]
Tough guy: Meanin’ what?
Boss: You’re hired.
* * *
The job in question … turns out to be as a peanut vendor at an ice-dancing arena. This is a movie whose first shot is of a bleached-blonde woman, stone-faced, aiming a pistol while flanked by two tough guys in hats. It then cuts to a smaller man looking very nervous. It cuts back to the woman, who unloads the weapon into … a fairground shooting gallery.
You hope it’s going to be a whole 100 minutes of fakeouts, perpetually just about to become a noir of great grit and seediness. But it settles into a stock story of the ambitious interloper, somehow fascinating through being both distant and hotheaded, who tries to steal his boss’s wife, leading to the boss going mad with jealousy, leading to the boss trying to kill the interloper and then vanishing, leading to the interloper taking over the wife and the business empire [in this case an empire of ice-dancing arenas], leading to the new power couple going mad with guilt. The script is by Philip Yordan, who wrote several comparatively sordid movies around the same time [The Chase; Whistle Stop; Dillinger for which he was Oscar-nominated].
* * *
A film called Suspense, whose entire TCM program-guide listing consists of “Barry Sullivan stops at nothing on his rise to the top”. It sounded too generic to be real, so I had to check it out. The ice-dancing elements are not exactly downplayed — top-billed as the boss’s wife/star attraction is Belita “Belita” Jepson-Turner, ex-Olympic skater and presumptive heir to Sonja Henie’s fame. A brilliant, potentially deadly ice-dancing move plays a critical role in our antihero’s rise as well as his fall.
So why the anodyne synopsis? It must be the aura of Barry Sullivan. He’s quite a forceful presence, eclipsing Belita, Bonita Granville [his underwritten ex-flame who keeps pesterering him], and particularly Albert Dekker as the impresario. Many actors of the late ’40s brought charisma to the role of the not-so-masculine powerful man whose wife is destined for our antihero. Dekker doesn’t have the deliberate cool of Zachary Scott in Whiplash, or the insouciance of George Macready in Gilda, or the pathetic cheeriness of Cecil Kellaway in The Postman Always Rings Twice. The cat, the pipe, the moustache, all the props distract only momentarily from his blandness.
Not much distinguishes Sullivan from other tall humorless actors who look good in a fedora, but he’s clearly the star here. Just like in Cause for Alarm! he’s convincing as a man who starts out likeable [albeit jealous] and becomes a villain as soon as it’s narratively plausible. Scenes alternate between him being cruel and ruthless now that he’s the boss, and him being haunted by the ghost [or is it?] of the husband. Interestingly there’s little suggestion that the guilt has driven him mad — he’d be a moody bastard no matter what had happened, and now he’s a moody bastard bedeviled by shadows.