It has been said of “Above Suspicion” (1943) that it would have made a great Alfred Hitchcock film. The plotline does bear many similarities to some of Hitchcock’s most beloved films, but it’s hard to know if The Master of Suspense could have created anything better out of this film. It brings up an interesting question about whether a director can create something special from little or nothing, or does there have to be something worthwhile from the start?
In 1939, newlywed couple, Richard and Frances Myles (Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford), leave Oxford for their honeymoon. Richard is recruited through a former friend to work for the British Secret Service in an attempt to locate an unknown man in connection with the invention of underwater magnetic mines. Since they will be visiting Germany while on their honeymoon anyway, they are considered to be above the suspicion of the Nazis. Frances is strangely aroused by the danger and excitement in which they are now involved, and both are thrilled to be doing their part for the war effort.
They travel first to Paris and then on to Southern Germany, where they find themselves questioning whom they can trust. They meet an older German man (Conrad Veidt) who claims to be a tour guide, a former Oxford acquaintance of Richard’s (Basil Rathbone), and a young, nervous Englishman (Bruce Lester), all who seem questionable at one time or another. With no one to really trust except each other, the Myles’s have a honeymoon that they will remember for years.
Both Crawford and MacMurray are marvelous in this film. It seems as if they really enjoyed and wanted to make this movie, making each of their scenes together enjoyable to watch and enjoy. They excel with their roles, their chemistry together is superb, and merely their presence elevates the entire production. And it’s a good thing they are here because without these two Hollywood stars at the reins, “Above Suspicion” would quickly and quietly fall by the wayside. Although the story seems to be written to be something that would remind movie fans of a great suspense story, there are also so many holes here it can be seen through a mile away. As a result, the excitement isn’t exciting, the surprises are anything but, and don’t even get me started on the convenient coincidences that repeatedly happen. (At some point we “just happen” to meet all three of the supporting, mysterious characters at least twice- it’s as if there are only a handful of people in all of Germany!) If that wasn’t enough, the climactic ending seems like it has been thrown together the day of shooting, without ever putting any real thought into the reality of the situation or its believability. “Above Suspicion” has a 90 minutes running time, and it seems as if the filmmakers were told not to go over that number, no matter what shortcuts need to be taken. With another 20 or 30 minutes mixed in, this film could have become much better.
I do like the idea of Hitchcock getting his hands on this film and transforming it into something that is really worth watching, but the truth is that there was probably a good chance he would have seen the inevitable problems with the story and script, and would have decided to pass anyway. I suppose that is why we call him The Master of Suspense, and not The Sometimes Suspense Man.
As a closing note, “Above Suspicion” was the final film for legendary German actor Conrad Veidt, who died tragically of a heart attack one month before this film’s release. Although mostly remembered today for his role as Major Strasser in “Casablanca”, he is an actor who should often be admired and studied by true film fans. His body of work is extensive, and his roles are always entertaining to watch, even when (as he so often did) he is playing a villain. This last performance of his is one of my favorites, not because it is his best or most popular, but because he gets to play someone a little different this time around. A someone who seems to be good-natured and upstanding, much like his own admirable self.