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When Robert Altman presented a last minute reprieve from an execution in the movie-within-a-movie portion of the Player, it was both an easy target and somehow right on the money. This sort of nonsense seems to inspire far too many screenwriters, and a similar sequence is found in Simon Moore's Under Suspicion, starring Liam Neeson and Laura San Giacomo. (It should be noted that this is in no way a spoiler – even the most passive viewer will see this one coming a mile away.) This is really too bad, because Under Suspicion has a lot going for it – it boasts impressive period detail, has a solid lead in Neeson, and possesses a nasty little undercurrent that fits the proceedings well. Unfortunately, its reliance on the above sort of contrivance – and a "twist" ending – renders it disappointingly average at best.
Set in Brighton at the end of the fifties, Neeson plays Anthony (Tony) Aaron, a private investigator who has managed to work out a tawdry way to make a living. Since divorces were, at that point, extremely difficult to obtain for reasons other than adultery, Aaron has devised a novel strategy: an interested party (male) pays to be "caught" on camera whilst in flagrante delicto with his prostitute wife Hazel (Maggie O'Neill). (Typically, Tony was once a member of the police force. The film opens with a compelling sequence that explains why he was removed – it turns out his Achilles Heel is south of his belt; moreover, it seems to result in people dying.) So far, so good, until one of his clients, an Italian gentelman, is found brutally murdered along with his wife.
Tony's ex-partner Frank (Kenneth Cranham, who makes excellent use of a by-the-numbers role) knows of his divorce ruse, but continues to assist his friend even though the growing consensus is that Tony must have been involved in the murder. (His scowling, doubting Thomas new partner Waterston (Malcolm Storry), complete with axe to grind, is always lurking nearby.) Further complicating matters, the Italian was actually a world-renown artist named Carlo Stasio, whose wife Selina (Alphonsia Emmanuel) and mistress Angeline (San Giacomo) appear to be vying for his considerable estate. Naturally, Tony refuses to yield his investigative efforts to the police, and soon becomes romantically entangled with Angeline, complete with bad dialogue and the sort of soft-core shenanigans that includes blazing candelabras. Angeline appears, at first glance, as nothing more than a gold digger with a hard heart, the sort found in countless noirs before her (plus, she's the sole beneficiary due to a last-minute will change). Even though our Tony should be exercising a tad more caution, the aforementioned Achilles Heel supersedes his good judgment; unfortunately, this conceit - as well as many others - also requires the suspension of good judgment on the part of alert viewers throughout.
Under Suspicion struggles mightily to navigate double crosses, femme fatales, and a classically fatalistic protagonist, but unfortunately it tries too hard in its attempts to ratchet up the suspense and narrative twists (including the above-mentioned execution sequence). Added to the mix are shady barristers, potentially crooked cops, setups, and various other MacGuffins that eventually amount to... well, nothing more than a vaguely interesting diversion. Its sense of period detail is admirable, and the film certainly looks good, but once it goes into "legal mode" (apparently, as edited, the time from arrest to trial to execution appears to take about three days) it is grasping at straws, both literal and figurative. Too derivative for its own good – and lacking the zeal, verve, and sense of fun it could have employed to help it rise above its own self-imposed confines – Under Suspicion is ultimately nothing more than standard fare.
Liam Neeson – a reliable and charismatic actor under most circumstances – is generally effective in an underwritten role. He exudes a raffish charm that is well suited for his character, but he does not seem to possess the requisite sense of threat and survival that would have made Tony much more interesting (director / writer Moore appears to have been hedging his bets in this regard). San Giacomo is not well used in an even more underwritten role. Her period costumes and thick makeup render her inanimate, and she does not help her own cause with her monotonous delivery and complete lack of sex appeal (femme fatales, by their very nature, absolutely need to exude supreme sexual confidence over their dupes). This is even more disappointing when contrasted with the smoky, sticky performance she etched in Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape a few years earlier.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, Under Suspicion suffers from a transfer (apparently mastered in high definition) that shimmers, especially after the first twenty or so minutes. This is always an unfortunate occurrence, but it is even more pronounced here, since the period detail and cinematography are both very well rendered. Black levels are generally acceptable, and both color saturation and detail are good. Again, the shimmering is a constant distraction and utterly regrettable.
Audio: Presented in DD 2.0 stereo, Under Suspicion fares better in the soundtrack department. Dialogue remains easy to hear throughout; unfortunately, so too does the booming score by Christopher Gunning, which relentlessly attempts to deaden the viewer's senses as the narrative moves forward. (Perhaps this was a conscious attempt at bullying, so as to render the viewer numb to some very outrageous twists.) It is crisp, clear, loud, and obnoxious, and fails where someone like Bernard Herrmann almost always succeeded. Surround activity is modest.
Also included is a French DD 2.0 soundtrack, and English and French subtitles.
Extras: The only supplemental materials included in this release are trailers for Under Suspicion, Double Vision, Enough, and Identity.
Final Thoughts: First time writer / director Simon Moore displays a surprising lack of much-needed subtlety in Under Suspicion, which is regrettable – and confounding – given his previous screenplay for the British miniseries Traffik, which served as the basis for Soderbergh's later updating. His love for the noir genre is readily apparent, but the plot twists and underdeveloped characters scuttle the entire enterprise. Likeable actors such as Neeson certainly help, but identification with – or at very least greater insight into – put-upon chumps is crucial, as is the irresistible allure of the femme fatale. Unfortunately, plot devices (rather than characters) are not usually compelling, and Under Suspicion folds under its own attempts at being clever. It's like watered down bourbon – it gets the job done, but without that lovely sting.