It's London in 1902 and Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton) returns home from the office to find his son John (Dean Harens) packing his bags because he cannot stand the harping of his mother for one moment longer. Mrs Marshall (Rosalind Ivan) is a horrendous shrew who Philip has grown to despise over the years they have been married, and it seems the only good thing that came out of their union was John, who at least pays proper respect to his father and vice versa. Now he has moved out, Philip and his wife are barely tolerating each other - something has to give...
Robert Siodmak was something of a film noir expert from the heyday of such movies, so it might have been unusual to see him tackle material which did not really fit that template from his most admired era of moviemaking. Yes, there were thriller elements here, and some opportunities for excellent suspense sequences, but largely this was a melodrama concerned with how kindheartedness and decency could be twisted around by the wrong people, so that when faced with a man who is pure of heart like Philip it was that nobility of purpose that led him to operate like some kind of self-appointed reformer.
Here that reforming took the methods of murder to rid the world of terrible people, and Philip is played with such tenderness and understatement by Laughton - he was rarely better here and proved he needn't go way over the top to be effective - that it's hard not to warm to him. If he had decided to bump off someone otherwise innocent who had slighted him in some mundane fashion then it would be hard to endorse his actions, but Siodmak does something interesting here by making us side with, and see the sympathetic aspects of, a man who is essentually a killer. How does he wind up committing these crimes? Because he sees no way out of his situation other than to act as he does.
The impetus for this is not the fact that his son has left home and is now preparing to emigrate to Canada to get away from his mother, but that Philip has met another woman. He may be middle aged and nobody's idea of a great catch, but the understanding he shows Mary Gray (Ella Raines) who he helps to find a job when he has to turn her down at his own offices then finds her crying in the street that evening wins her over. They begin to meet up for nights out, which Mrs Marshall is unaware of or so Philip believes, and soon they are in love with his thoughts turning to divorce. However, when his other half reveals that she knows all about the meetings, which remain chaste incidentally, she makes it clear she will never let him go.
Faced with a life of misery, Philip does something drastic and we are supposed to see that there is one less horrible person in the world, which places us in an intriguing moral position as we are encouraged to view murder as a humane act, not for the victims but for those left behind who will feel so much the better for them not being around any more. The film doesn't appear to have a problem with this, never mind that Philip was so well-liked otherwise that whatever his wife would have said would not have ruined him, and the Scotland Yard detective (Stanley Ridges) assigned to investigate what Philip is passing off as an accident is seen as one of the villians of the piece, not explicitly, but because he will as much spoil the anti-hero's chances at happiness as the wife would - or Henry Daniell's wifebeating next door neighbour who turns blackmailer for that matter. Morally, The Suspect is a lot murkier than it looks, and skillfully presented into the bargain. Music by Frank Skinner.