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This is a truly original story. Granted, it was done in 1938, but I haven't
seen anything quite like it since. That's unusual for Hollywood.
Warren Williams is an obsessed District Attorney who is incapable of any human feeling toward the people he prosecutes. And then a case comes along. A refined, educated, teacher kills his wife in a moment of mad jealousy. Warren has no mercy for him. Coaxes him into a confession with the ultimate goal of executing him.
The gimmick in this story is that, during the trial, he realizes that he is living a parallel life. He has neglected his own wife and come to believe that she is having an affair. After following her to a friends house, he finds himself with a pistol in his hand - a perfect parallel to the case he is trying. It changes his life.
Warren Williams has a tendency to overact, but to hear him bellow in the courtroom, and cackle with glee when he pulls one over on his adversaries, is not to be missed. There is one caution. Is it possible to be too sophisticated? All the other actors are unremarkable, with the exception of Lillian Yarbo who plays the maid. Her lines and expressions are priceless.
If, like me, you long for the days when Hollywood took the time to actually write a coherent script. A time when dialogue really meant something. A time when you second guessed the story and paid attention to the actors - instead of the special effects, take time out for this one. If you can find it.
Walter Huston famously said that he wasn't paid to sell good lines, but to
across bad ones. He often did. So did Warren William. For both of them,
across bad lines frequently involved overacting. It's a bit difficult to
being overcome by passion of any sort, and especially any aroused by
boring (though gracious) clothes-horse of a wife (Gail Patrick) in "Wives
Suspicion," the tame and uninspired 1939 remake by James Whale of his
visually striking "Kiss Before the Mirror" made only five years earlier,
presumably, too risqué to be rereleased after the Motion Picture
Code began to be enforced.
Frank Morgan switched roles from defense attorney in the first to defendant in this one, and, unfortunately, Gloria Stuart and Walter Pidgeon did not return. The story is mechanical and has coincidences that strain credulity, but Warren William gave it his all. The only interesting touch was the courtroom set with the judge raised to an exaggerated height.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Not a spectacular film, but it's always worthwhile to keep a close eye
on Whale's works.
Here we have district attorney Stowell, someone who is only satisfied when the criminals are duly punished. He has a special kind of an abacus with which he counts his successes: one skull for every murderer that he has sent to the electric chair. (Sharpy, his secretary, doesn't like it: I wish you get rid of that hideous contraption. It gives me the willies.").
Someday there is another case of murder. A workaholic has shot his neglected wife out of jealousy. Stowell must learn that his own situation is a parallel to the one of that man and finally he sees himself with a pistol in the hand ...
Funny are the scenes with Creola, the maid. It's priceless how Lillian Yarbo delivers her lines.
There's not much action in this film, but all the more dialogs.
I noticed one of the reviewers complained about Warren William's
tendency to over-act. Well, as a fan of the actor, I tend to agree--he
DID over-act--and I generally liked his bigger than life and
devil-may-care persona. That is why I decided to see "Wives Under
Suspicion"--I'd watch just about anything starring this now forgotten
star. Sadly, however, this was not one of his better films and it isn't
surprising--by 1938, William had moved from his very successful career
at Warner Brothers to Universal (a must less prestigious studio at that
time) and the budgets were clearly smaller and it showed.
The film begins with William as a gung-ho District Attorney. He lives to prosecute and convict people--and his marriage and personal life have suffered. All he really cares about is winning--and sending as many people as he can to death row. However, when the case of a man who murdered his wife in a fit of anger (Ralph Morgan) is given to him, eventually the parallels between this case and his own sad life became apparent.
I think the biggest problem with this film is that the cast was amazingly limp. Morgan and William were very competent actors, but here they were NOT at their best. In particular, Morgan has a scene where he is supposed to cry but it comes off very poorly--embarrassingly so. In addition, while the story idea is good, the direction and dialog is all either limp or overdone. Director Whale (who made quite a name for himself directing the first two Frankenstein films at Universal) had clearly seen better days and the film failed to impress. It really should have been a lot better given the neat story idea.
While this film doesn't seem to have impressed Michael much, I found it
somewhat better than SINNERS IN PARADISE (1938) though, obviously, not
quite in the same league as Whale's irreproachable horror output.
The film's plot, though essentially contrived, makes for a very interesting melodrama: actually, this was a remake of the same director's THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR (1933) and the only review I could find called it "tame and uninspired" when compared to the "more visually striking" Pre-Code original (that was apparently shot on leftover sets from Whale's own FRANKENSTEIN !) - all of which makes me want to watch the 1933 film even more...
Despite its 'B' picture status, however, the film is stylishly handled by a master craftsman (right from the opening credit sequence) with special care given to camera-work, lighting and décor - not to mention the recurring use of montages; in fact, the latter sequences - along with the hectic pace and the theme itself - recalled some of the social conscience films being made contemporaneously by Warner Bros.! Warren William and Ralph Morgan give solid performances and their scenes together - particularly the latter's confession and the subsequent trial - are certainly among the film's highlights. Unfortunately, however, as was the case with the blackface scene from Whale's own REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? (1935), the film's stereotyped depiction of William's black maid would, most probably, not go down well with today's audiences!
While I never really understood why certain directors needed to remake their own films, I'm certainly glad it happened in this case - particularly since the original doesn't seem to be readily available (a regrettable situation with regards to most of Whale's non-horror titles!), but also because his second stab at the story has certainly made for a pretty good film in its own right.
Warren William stars in this 1938 drama from Universal about a hard
driving law and order District Attorney who gets a chance to reflect on
his own attitudes and display the quality of mercy as the Bard put it.
It's not an easy thing for him to do by any means.
His chance comes when he prosecutes shy and retiring political science professor Ralph Morgan who in a fit of jealous rage shot his unfaithful wife. William gets a confession out of him and goes full blast to give him the electric chair even with high priced defense attorney Samuel S. Hinds working for Morgan.
What brings him to a reassessment of the case and his attitudes is an Othello like episode in his own life. There's no Iago in the film egging William on, but he develops an almost insane jealousy about his wife Gail Patrick and a young neighbor William Lundigan. And unlike Morgan it's all in his own mind.
Some good attention should be paid for Cecil Cunningham as William's girl Friday assistant in his office who lives up to her character name of 'Sharpy' with some very devastating lines. But stealing the film whenever he's on screen is Ralph Morgan. Such a pitiable creature he is you can't conceive of someone like him going to the chair.
The film takes some interesting attitudes, not popular at this time about the death penalty. Wives Under Suspicion is a fine drama and comes highly recommended.
Wives Under Suspicion (1938)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
A tough as nails D.A. (William Warren) is seeking the death penalty on a man charged with killing his wife after catching her cheating. The D.A. refuses to see any other side of the story under he begins to think his own wife is cheating. This is the first non-horror film from director James Whale that I've seen and while it isn't too bad I'm certainly thankful he stayed in the horror genre. Warren gives a good performance but the story is rather flat and way too overly dramatic to be too interesting. This was a remake of the 1933 film THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR, also directed by Whale.
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