A look at two films from directors Robert Siodmak and Rene Clair.
Looking at the golden age of Hollywood, a great many brilliant filmmakers immediately come to mind. Revered directors such as Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Max Ophuls and Preston Sturgess, among others, all succeeded in making films which established both their artistic sensibilities and helped lay the groundwork for one of the most well-regarded periods of film history. Alongside these men, however, were plenty of top tier directors who are well-remembered by pockets of cinephiles, yet have never gotten the genuine due they deserved. Despite having turned out an assortment of works that helped define this specific age, their names and filmographies still sadly remain unheralded in comparison to their more notable counterparts. Earlier this year, a pair of such distinguished and accomplished filmmakers, Rene Clair and Robert Siodmak, each had a title make its blu-ray debut, showing the talent both possessed and how each one transferred it to the screen.
The great Charles Laughton plays Philip in The Suspect, a well-to-do but unhappily married man who can’t escape the clutches of his cruel wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan). Philip’s only salvation is an innocent friendship with the younger Mary (Ella Raines). When friendship turns into flirtation, Cora threatens to publicly ridicule Philip until his wife’s life suddenly comes to a tragic end. Cora’s passing leaves Philip free to wed Mary, but shortly after the ceremony, he begins to feel as if he is about to be exposed for the hand he had in his first wife’s untimely death.
It only takes a single scene featuring the decidedly evil Cora for the audience to immediately forgive Philip for anything he does throughout the rest of the film…and he does do a lot. This piece of film noir hasn’t risen in esteem the way other genre favorites have, which is a shame since it’s full of the kind of taut suspense that not only define film noir, but also helped make Siodmak one of its pioneers. The filmmaker had already played with conventions by having his hero be a heroine (virtually unheard of in the noir world at that time) in the brilliant Phantom Lady. For his follow-up, Siodmak gives us an antihero if there ever was one. Here’s a man who has killed his wife (although I defy anyone to find an audience member who misses her) who is racing against various forces to keep from being found out. Siodmak doesn’t waste a minute of the proceedings. The director uses Laughton to good effect and lays out the tale so brilliantly, we’re actively rooting for him to get away with it. Siodmak would further his noir name with such titles as The Spiral Staircase, The File on Thelma Jordan and the classic, The Killers. While The Suspect hasn’t enjoyed the same kind of lifespan as those other films, time has shown that it’s very much deserving of it.
It Happened Tomorrow
Reportedly the basis for the late 90s TV show Early Edition, Rene Clair’s It Happened Tomorrow stars Dick Powell as Larry, a newspaper man who seems to have it all when he repeatedly finds himself in possession of the next day’s newspaper in advance. This bit of magic and fortune allows him to be ahead of his competitors when it comes to being the first one to report the news. But unsurprisingly, there’s a price to be paid which threatens both his future and that of a beautiful phony clairvoyant named Sylvia (Linda Darnell).
The level of charm and exuberance to be had at watching It Happened Tomorrow is endless. The movie’s magical realism, romance and Powell’s winning energy all combine to make it the kind of escapist gem movie lovers flock to classic Hollywood for. Like any good comedy director, Clair treats the seemingly light material with earnestness and a belief that gives the movie true soul. Ultimately, It Happened Tomorrow sees its central character facing themes a film such as this would tackle, including choices made and the future they create. It’s a stellar offering from the French-born Clair, who had already begun making a name for himself as the helmer of brilliant, dizzying social comedies. Clair’s American debut, the Marlene Dietrich-starrer The Flame of New Orleans, may have flopped, but still showed enough promise to executives. His next effort, the enchanting I Married a Witch, was an instant hit, quickly becoming his signature film and a romantic comedy staple. Although the director scored his biggest hit outside of the high-concept comedy genre with an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (managing to inject some of his trademark humor throughout), his subsequent comedic efforts sadly never received the same kind of embrace that had greeted his earlier work.
Unsurprisingly, there are a number of other directors who haven’t gotten the same kind of dues as their contemporaries, including Michael Curtiz and Anatole Litvak. But the films continue to live on and the work continues to be recognized thanks to the various boutique film labels and the cinephiles who continue to keep the format going. In a way, these two films signify the beauty and importance of physical media perfectly. As different as both are, The Suspect and It Happened Tomorrow signify the value of giving proper dues not just to treasured classics, but to smaller titles and the artists who brought them to the screen.
The Suspect is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber and It Happened Tomorrow is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.