Sunday, October 26, 2014

Above Suspicion (1943)

Above Suspicion is a 1943 MGM spy thriller with a hefty dose of romance. The protagonists are not professional spies. Richard Myles (Fred MacMurray) is a slightly bookish American professor at Oxford. His new wife Frances (Joan Crawford) is also American. The fact that they are Americans and are so obviously harmless is precisely the reason they are recruited by British intelligence to carry out a delicate mission in southern Germany in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the war.

They are told it will be a relatively simple mission and not especially dangerous. In fact it proves to be remarkably difficult and extremely dangerous.

The fact that they are amateurs was supposed to be an advantage. As harmless tourists they would be above suspicion. Unfortunately they soon realise that espionage is not really a game for amateurs and to be honest they really have very little idea what they’re doing.

Amateurs they may be, but they are resourceful and rather determined. Of course the reason they are so determined is that they don’t really how dangerous the game of espionage is.

Much of the plot hinges on their amateurishness. They have to make contact with British agents in Germany but they have no idea how such things are done. They have no knowledge of the profession of espionage and of course they make mistakes. They are however brave and determined and their amateur status can sometimes give them an edge, leading the Gestapo to underrate them.

The movie was based on a novel by Helen MacInnes. MacInnes is not well known today but she had a long and successful career as a writer of spy fiction. Her husband worked for MI6 so she had the advantage of inside knowledge of the world of espionage. She was somewhat in the Eric Ambler tradition, preferring protagonists who were ordinary people caught up in espionage rather than professional spies. While Ambler’s heroes were often very reluctant spies MacInnes was more interested in people who were motivated by a sense of decency.

The screenplay has enough twists to keep things interesting. Richard Thorpe was a reliable journeyman director whose approach was straightforward but efficient.

Given the fact that they are playing amateur spies the casting of Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford works fairly well. They don’t look like spies and they don’t behave like spies, which is of course the whole point of the story. MacMurray has no difficulty playing a mild-mannered professor, and he also has no difficulty in convincing us that underneath his mild exterior he has unexpected reserves of stubbornness and courage. This is a fairly light role for Crawford, playing a very sympathetic and likeable character, and she approaches it with just the right sort of breezy charm and combines this with an underlying strength. Frances Myles is no ditzy airhead, she’s a woman of genuine substance and Crawford gets the balance just right.

The danger of casting Basil Rathbone in a supporting rĂ´le in a movie of this type is that he will proceed to steal the picture. Which he almost succeeds in doing here.

This is generally speaking a fairly lightweight spy thriller although it has a few grim moments to remind us that while espionage can seem like fun it can turn deadly. This is an A-picture with high production values although made in the style of its time, in other words shot on sound stages and the backlot. Despite this it conveys the atmosphere of a world on the brink of war quite effectively. Being an MGM picture it offers more glamour than contemporary spy thriller from other studios, but it’s a movie that aims at excitement in exotic locales rather than grimness.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a very satisfactory transfer, without any extras.

Above Suspicion is well-crafted and benefits from a fine cast. is well-crafted and benefits from a fine cast. It’s not in the same league as movies like Casablanca and Notorious but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and can be unhesitatingly recommended.

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