Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movie: Suspense (1946)

Film noir? I’m in. Film noir with ice skating? I am a sucker for novelty. Film noir with ice skating set primarily at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, also a key location in Xanadu (1980), a movie for which I have some small degree of affection? Hell, baby, I’m yours.

Suspense was intended as a showcase for Belita, the English ice skater who was Monogram Pictures’ answer to Sonja Henie. The bargain-basement studio spared no expense, the King Brothers ponying up the princely sum – for them – of one million dollars. Barry Sullivan plays Joe Morgan (no, not that one, thank God), an itinerant operator with a shady past. He rolls into Los Angeles and lands a job slinging peanuts at an ice palace (the Pan-Pacific!) owned by Albert Dekker and headlined by Dekker’s wife (guess who). Sullivan smarms his way into the head office in short order, and falls for the featured attraction’s attractive features.

The action is regularly interrupted by elaborate ice skating sequences that function like musical numbers. (One, set to hot Caribbean rhythms, is called ... “Ice Cuba.”) They’re so long that after a while even the movie forgets its own thread; what starts out as a Postman Always Rings Twice knockoff takes a left turn into near-Gothic territory.

The title quality is in short supply, but Suspense makes for fascinating viewing thanks to Belita. Her ice skating routines – credited to choreographer Nick Castle but largely conceived by Belita herself – are mesmerizing, taking place on some impressive sets. And her training as an athlete gives her an intensity and a physical presence unlike any actress of the period. No matter the scene, she moves like she’s on the ice – in complete control at all times. Bonita Granville, the original Nancy Drew, also registers strongly as a chippy still carrying a torch for Sullivan.

My pal Eddie Muller wrote the definitive article on Belita’s cinematic career, focusing on the three noir films that she made. I’m two-for-three on those titles. The Hunted is the most obscure of the trio, but somehow I’ve managed to see it twice – in different countries.