Under Suspicion

(Simon Moore, UK, 1991)


Those mystery-thrillers known as whodunits constitute a rather peculiar genre. They offer something of a game for the canny viewer – a game in which the skill of the storyteller is in leading us astray, deflecting us from the real clues as to the identity of a murderer. At stake, finally, is more – at least potentially – than the simple, ultimate question of who, indeed, did it. It doesn’t just have to be a guessing-game; the entire unfolding of the story can raise complex ethical questions concerning who (in life or on screen) we are willing to trust, and why.


Under Suspicion, the debut cinema effort from writer-director Simon Moore (after much TV script work), is a thriller of this sort. (He went on to write the very different The Quick and the Dead [1995] for Sam Raimi in USA.) In particular, it turns on what Jacques Rivette once called the “play with the protagonist, the so-called central character” – the hero with whom we normally sympathise. Private detective Tony Aaron (hulky and soulful Liam Neeson) is a typically ambiguous leading man: part sleazy operator, part victim caught up in a labyrinthine maze of treachery and deception.


It is the kind of movie in which no one is what they at first appear to be, and where the actions and motives of all are neither clearcut nor morally pure. The femme fatale of the piece is pouty Laura San Giacomo (from sex, lies, and videotape, 1989) as Angeline, mistress of a rich and famous artist, Carlo Stasio (Michael Almaz), who is mysteriously murdered alongside Aaron’s wife. The possible frame-ups – and likely frame-up artists – multiply with each new turn of the plot. But Under Suspicion, for all its strenuous effort in establishing an atmosphere, littering red herrings and building complex character relationships, ends up a mechanical and largely forgettable affair.


The great trap of the mystery-thriller genre – and even Hitchcock could sometimes not avoid falling into it – is that these convoluted mechanics of the plot can easily overwhelm the interest of the character relationships, as well as the tantalising, intelligent themes of trust, morality and power that are raised along the way. While the blame for a crime or murder remains floating above virtually every character in the plot, the double game of art and entertainment can sustain itself. Once the answer to the mystery comes in the final scene, however, the rest of the film is forgotten, discarded.  All the ambiguities and implications can vanish into thin air.


Under Suspicion does not entirely escape this forbidding trap. But, as a generic exercise that owes more to Fritz Lang (particularly his Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, 1956) than Hitchcock, Moore’s film does have its own icy, hard-edged sheen.

© Adrian Martin December 1992 / August 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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