A morose thriller set during the 1950s in the gloomy British seaside town of Brighton, UNDER SUSPICION is so suffused with tawdry bitterness that it's unpleasant to watch, which is perhaps why it failed to find many fans among critics and moviegoers.
Tony Aaron (Liam Neeson) is a cop who can't keep his pants zipped, and the inevitable trouble ensues. While staking out a gangster's house with his partner, Aaron slips in for a bit of fun with the gangster's blowsy moll, Hazel (Maggie O'Neil). The gangster comes home unexpectedly and all hell
breaks loose; when the dust settles, Aaron is bounced off the force and barely avoids prosecution. He becomes a private detective and makes a scant living doing divorce work.
The punitive divorce laws of the period require proof of infidelity as grounds; Aaron's specialty is arranging compromising photographs, with Hazel, now his wife, as the other woman. It's a sleazy but predictable living, so imagine Aaron's surprise when he bursts into a hotel room, camera in hand,
only to find Hazel and his client, a wealthy American painter, slaughtered. The painter's body has been mutilated as well: his thumb, with which he had signed his paintings, is gone.
Aaron's old police pal Frank (Kenneth Cranham) is placed in charge of the investigation, which at first revolves around two women: the painter's cool widow, Selina (Alphonsia Emmanuel), and his alluring student-turned-mistress, Angeline (Laura San Giacomo). Each owns many of the dead man's
valuable artworks (more valuable than ever since his death) and Aaron suspects a plot to forge more, using the amputated thumb to make them appear indisputably real. The glamorous Angeline seems the more likely murder suspect, which is no doubt why Aaron takes up with her. To his surprise, he
finds himself falling in love.
Suspicion soon falls on Aaron himself; the victims were killed with his gun, which is recovered near the scene, and though he has no good motive, he also has a flawed alibi. The circumstantial evidence seems increasingly damning, particularly after a local man (a married homosexual tormented by a
blackmailer) commits suicide and leaves a note naming Aaron as the killer. Aaron is arrested and tried, found guilty and sentenced to die. Shortly before the execution, Frank makes a shocking discovery: the missing thumb, preserved in alcohol, hidden amidst Angeline's paints. Frank's new evidence
saves Aaron and condemns Angeline, who goes to jail protesting her innocence.
In a brief epilogue, viewers learn that Aaron and Selina were co-conspirators in the painter's murder. She masterminded the plan to forge her husband's paintings, and he both committed the murder and framed Angeline. The two escape justice in sunny Florida, far from the dreary beaches of Brighton.
Although not an altogether successful film, UNDER SUSPICION does convey a palpable sense of time and place. In its delineation of the sexual repression and hypocrisy of the late 50s, the depressing architecture of decaying seaside towns, the sense that buried secrets and unspoken truths are
poisoning the very soil and blighting everyone who walks on it, this 1992 release recalls such often underestimated films as Basil Dearden's SAPPHIRE and VICTIM.
Writer-director Simon Moore manages both to keep the complicated plot moving and to give his characters plenty of room in which to assert themselves. Disappointingly, the film's weakest performance comes from Laura San Giacomo; though certainly beautiful, she fails to convey the sense of mystery
Angeline requires. Rather than a femme fatale, San Giacomo seems too much like the girl next door in borrowed soignee clothes; her performance comes together in only one brief--though extemely good--scene, following Angeline's conviction for murder. Walking in the prison yard, dressed in shapeless
grey, she asks Aaron to tell her the truth, to whisper it in her ear. Though we don't hear what he says, the looks that wash over her face are painfully evocative.
The craggily handsome Neeson, on the other hand, is phenomenally good. He dares to allow Tony Aaron to be unlikable--vain, self-centered and crass--and creates a far more interesting character than the usual down-at-the-heels-but-good-at-heart rogue of a private eye American audiences have come to
expect. Aaron is a weak and unprincipled man, and his sordid job has magnified his faults, turning him into the worst possible version of himself.
On balance, UNDER SUSPICION is an underrated thriller, well worth the effort required to shake the depression it induces. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: R
- Review: A morose thriller set during the 1950s in the gloomy British seaside town of Brighton, UNDER SUSPICION is so suffused with tawdry bitterness that it's unpleasant to watch, which is perhaps why it failed to find many fans among critics and moviegoers. Tony… (more)