Suspect, released in October 1987, is often overlooked in a pile of Cher pictures with flashier parts, which is unfortunate because I believe Kathleen Riley is a very precise and unusual character in a smart Cher film, smart from its locations and themes to its deft supporting performances.
Cher signed to do Suspect in 1986 before she agreed to do the film Moonstruck. Consequently, Suspect was delayed six weeks for the filming of Moonstruck. Moonstruck's studio, MGM, made this agreement with Tri-Star and also agreed, as a result, that Moonstruck would not be released until two months after Suspect. That put Moonstruck's release date right into the Oscar timeframe of Christmas.
One day after the end of Witches of Eastwick filming, Cher started to work on Moonstruck. During the filming of Moonstruck, Cher only had five days off. Filming wrapped in early February. Later that same month, Cher began work in DC for rehearsals on Suspect. In the DVD Commentary, Director Peter Yates mentions how mindful he was to keep the film on track, saying that when a film has important actors (read: popular) such as Cher and Dennis Quaid, there are pressures to keep the film within budget and on schedule. 1987 was about to prove to be Cher's busiest year ever with the release of three films and her comeback Geffen album of the 80s.
The Stylish Director of Mysterious Light
British director Peter Yates' previous highlights as a director include The Dresser in 1983, Krull in 1983, Breaking Away in 1979, The Deep in 1977, and Bullitt with Steve McQueen in 1968.
Even in the opening credits, Yates' motif of 1940s suspense begins. He comments in the DVD commentary that titles were specially done to give a spooky effect and that the music helped to reinforce that spookiness.
Early on, Yates credits cinematographer Billy Williams, the great English photographer, for capturing his vision on film. According to Yates, the scenes for video and DVD were printed lighter than the original film, fearing that on televisions, the film would contain too much shadow for proper viewing. The end result is a DVD with scenes looking much lighter than Yates would have liked. The film version, he says, was much shadowier and spookier. In theaters during particularly shadowy scenes, only the important areas of a frame were lit, allowing for a more mysterious look with pools of light as in classic film noir. Janet Maslin of The New York Times liked these "spooky shots of the lawyer's deserted office at night" and commented that, "The direction is what used to be called 'stylish.'"
The Character of Washington, DC
The opening scene of the movie, with the Potomac River swimmers, was shot in Georgetown in very cold February river water. "They do that every year at Christmas," Yates said on the DVD commentary. Suspect takes you to the river a few times, portraying the Potomac as ice cold and ugly gray. Cher's character, Kathleen Riley, claims "half the city washes up there." The river is almost like a repository for the desolate and the desperate. The murder victim is found floating there. The homeless live in cardboard boxes along its shores.
Peter Yates went to great lengths to capture the look and feel of Washington, D.C. From the very first exterior shots, filmed to set up the city as almost its own character in the movie, you get the sense that DC is a very gray and cold place, almost barren of natural color in wintertime.
All through the movie, you feel the coldness of DC winters just from the wardrobe worn by Cher, the bulky sweaters and socks she wears in her apartment, which was a real DC apartment, according to Yates.
There's a scene in the movie where Dennis Quaid's character, Eddie Sanger, interviews a parking lot attendant, played flawlessly by Michael Beach. You really get a good sense of the coldness of the city, both the bleak look and heart of it and its low temperature. "They don't pay me enough to freeze my jones off and stay awake too," the attendant says to Eddie. Locations like this one, Yates feels, really epitomize Washington. He also remarks that, sadly, this parking lot in the film has since been replaced by yet another Washington building.
Yates also used real location shots to capture areas of homeless congregations, such as the homeless encampment that grew under the train station until the train station was finally completed. Yates also used real location shots outside the Justice Department, where the homeless used to assemble due to particularly warm street vents.
Yates' interior shots capture the stark formality of the business side of DC. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Washington, except for the courtroom scenes. There was a problem finding a courtroom in DC that wasn't in use. Yates commented that it was "amazing how busy [U.S.] courts are." The crew did have the opportunity to shoot in DC courtrooms after hours, but Yates found it cheaper and easier to build a mock courtroom in Toronto, Canada, modeled explicitly from Washington courtrooms.
The Courtroom and The Congress: Legitimate D.C.
The crew spent two days rehearsing the courtroom scenes and a total of three weeks shooting in Toronto to complete these particular scenes for Suspect. Yates attempted to capture the sedate quality of the rooms with authenticity. He also studied courtroom behavior, although he claims to have taken liberties with the courtroom in the sense that people are not usually allowed to move about as much. Yates maintains that, aside from this, the characters in the courtroom behaved appropriately. The judge's decisions were legitimate, Yates believed. Judges are often tough on public defenders and Judge Helms' rulings, seemingly unfairly outrageous to movie audiences, were "perfectly normal." Yates claims his biggest challenge in filming these scenes was keeping a sense of continuity and flow.
Yates also wanted to show congressional business accurately. With the cooperation of many government buildings (aside from the US Capital building, whose policy banning film crews was due to a recent bad incident on a film shot there), he was able to let the architecture imply seriousness and congressional themes, such as propriety, order and process. But Yates also makes sure to slip in the seedy and dirty underbelly in his congressional scenes. In one interaction between lobbyists discussing an impending Senate vote, one says to the other, "Support's drying up quicker than an old whore." This side-line detail shows another layer of contrast between the exterior of propriety and the underbelly of crassness.
Homelessness as Theme
If the interior shots portray industrious congressmen, lawyers, judges and lobbyists moving and interacting on important legislation, the exterior shots can be seen as an important contrast, with shots representing dreary coldness and bedraggled homelessness. Inside government buildings, employees are dressed in tailored, wrinkle-free suits while people in the exterior shots are always red-faced with cold and in shabby clothing.
Homelessness is an important theme for Yates in this movie and the homeless are always present. He speaks with pride about the fact that his movie is one of the few to portray homelessness and treat the subject seriously. And in the movie, the homeless are shown to be particularly vulnerable to the elements and to the city's violence. They are the film's main victims, much more so than the actual murder victim, who becomes almost an incidental accessory in the film, simply a catalyst to get the story going.
Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times remarks in his review that "one of the themes of the movie is that all of the characters are homeless—not just the bum, but also the lobbyist, the public defender, and everyone else we meet."
In a local review of the movie, Desson Howe of The Washington Post is very dismissive about the movie's homeless theme, "society, you see, has no room for the Carls of the world, for these 'American Nightmares,' these faceless, nameless, homeless, etcetera, etceteras." Guess what, Howe? It doesn't and apparently you don't either.
Another DC movie reviewer, Hal Hinson, also of The Post, is dismissive of the theme as well, criticizing the main homeless character's deaf/mute condition as being a result of illness picked up in Vietnam. "This must be some kind of record for fashionable afflictions," he says.
Chicago reviewer Ebert found the homeless theme interesting. Washington DC reviewers did not, possibly fatigued by the constant reminder of homelessness in their day-to-day. Like a native Bostonian, critiquing a movie's attempted accents, the natives of Washington are more likely to be defensive about a negative portrayal of their city.
Liam Neeson plays the quintessential homeless man, Carl Wayne Anderson. He had not only dropped out of society due to hard knocks, but he has lost two key ways to communicate with mainstream society, making him more alienated as a character and also more monstrous. Of Neeson's performance, Roger Ebert says, "There are lots of good supporting performances, including a tricky one by Liam Neeson as the deaf-mute who gradually reveals his true history."
Neeson was chosen for the role because of his size and presence, according to Yates, who also remarked that Neeson had never worked in America before this and was not yet a star. Suspect is one of fifty-two movies Neeson has made between 1979 and 2005. Highlights of his career include a part in the second Star Wars Trilogy starting in 1999, Rob Roy in 1995, Schindler's List and Ethan Frome in 1993, Darkman in 1990, Krull (also with Peter Yates) in 1983, and Excalibur in 1981.
Neeson apparently did a lot of research before doing the movie. Yates claims Neeson spent two nights sleeping with the homeless. He also researched his character's health conditions. Neeson wanted to know how a mute person would sound trying to speak under extreme duress. Yates agreed with the way Neeson choked out a sound during his emotional courtroom scene, acknowledging that for Neeson to answer with a full throated sound would have been a sentimental portrayal of muteness and not an accurate one.
The bulk of Neeson's performance was manifested in his body language, his stooped posture, his avoidance of eye contact, his sullen face. When he takes the stand and is sworn in, he doesn't even hold up his hand fully in contrast to the deputy whose hand is held up in a firm position of formality.
Defending the Homeless
It's possibly the theme of defending veterans and the homeless that attracted Cher to the role of district attorney Kathleen Riley in the first place. On her independently-produced album of 2000 Not Com.mercial, she wrote "Lady of San Francisco," a song about the homeless.For the most part, critics liked her performance in Suspect, although a few thought it was anti-Cher. Roger Ebert wrote, "Suspect is fun when Cher and Quaid interact; she does a convincing job of playing a lonely career woman." Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote "Suspect brings you Cher as you've never seen her before. It brings Cher as a smart, tough, no-nonsense Washington public defender who lives entirely for her work. She even wears glasses—and she turns out to be surprisingly credible in this role." Maslin called it a "crisply compelling performance."
Desson Howe disagreed, writing "Cher's advances toward Serious Actresshood, via Jimmy Dean, and Mask, are slowed by her paper-thin role as a liberal beauty who must represent the beast." Hal Hinson resisted wanting to see Cher play anything but Cher. "As Kathleen, Cher is trapped trying to play the one thing she's not—dull. For the most part, the characterization is an act of negation. It's Cher trying not to be Cher." Later in the review he says, "On occasion, she gives Kathleeen a chance to sass and talk back." His comments beg the question, are Sissy and Rusty the only roles Cher is fit to play? Talk about dull. Who wants to see that year after year. I, for one, think Cher has more range than simply playing Cher.
Peter Yates calls Cher's Kathleen Riley, "One of her three best performances." I agree, Peter, but obviously we're in the minority. What I admire about the performance is this chance to see Cher play a more sedate, contemplative character, something beyond flash and bravado, someone with subtlety and quietude.
Yates admired a facet of Cher's performances I hadn't yet seen. And amazingly, it's a very real facet of both her acting and singing style and I think it's a crucial key to understanding how she performs on a basic level, why some of us love Cher and why many others simply don't get it. Yates explained on the DVD commentary one of the elemental lynchpins of Cher's style: she performs with a lack of sentimentality. To some, it appears stoic and unconnected. This is probably an overlooked facet of her already solidified image as 'tough chick.' Tough chicks aren't sentimental. They're tough. And Cher had a stoic core long before her 80s rock-chick persona was perfected, back during the glamour days of the 70s, and even before that, in her shy, androgynous days of the 60s.
Yates highlights this aspect of her performance all through the DVD commentary of the film. In her first scene of the movie, he explains how she works to show her emotions primarily with her eyes. After she is robbed while driving her Chevette, she leaves her car and runs after but fails to catch her assailants. As she's walking back to her car, Yates comments "Cher's got such wonderfully expressive eyes. The whole way through this film you can tell exactly the emotions she's playing—her eyes are extraordinary." Later, Yates comments that you can see the change in Kathleen's feelings for Eddie, "the curve of their relationship," from the look in her eyes.
In the scene where Kathleen first interviews Carl, Yates claims that his ultimate goal was to limit sentimentality in order to provide a sense of reality. He says, "This comes through certainly in Cher's performance." In the last courtroom scene, when Kathleen hugs Carl, Yates says, "This is the closest we get to sentimentality from Cher."
Paper as a Prop
I love all the accoutrements of work this movie is filled with: files, papers, messy offices. People are working and thinking, strategies are forming, cases are being made. There's a real intellectual energy happening in this movie.
From the beginning, there are textures in every scene, from the wood grain of the desk in the suicidal judge's office, the sound of the leather giving in his office chair, the way the pen smoothly rolls on the paper as he finishes his life's last bit of work. Paper is a highlighted prop in almost every scene.
Boxes of paper fill the halls of almost every Washington building, and interns are busy taking finals at school. Cher throws papers around her desk; in fact, papers bury Cher's desk. She has paper taped to her walls, crumpled paper everywhere. Who knows how she can even find anything under her disheveled desk. She's too overworked to be organized. Even her car is the sloppy car of a busy woman with milk cartons littering the dashboard. She walks to her car with paper under her arms and she complains to Eddie Sanger, "You never draw the line." At home, she sorts through bags of labeled evidence late into the night. She carries boxes of paper into the courtroom. She pulls out notepads to take notes on and to communicate to Carl with. She and Eddie unlock and dig through filing cabinets for case files, which are all gone. But Elizabeth Quinn found something in them, and so Kathleen vows to read through all the case transcripts to find it. It's work but she does it, leafing through mammoth library books.
Other accessories of writing and paper also play a part in the movie. Kathleen puts down her pen very dramatically before she starts her opening remarks and she cross-examines with a pencil in her hand. The movie is filled with old word processors, with very noisy clicking keyboards.
Paper in this movie symbolizes all the official business of Washington. The little leaves of paper encompassing all the big laws, court cases, judgments, lobbies, everything that goes on finds its way to paper, which is used to communicate and miscommunicate. Once Kathleen finds out Carl is deaf and dumb, she visits him as he is tied down to a bed. She holds up a pen in her hand like it is a beacon. It's his only way to communicate with the world. This is a silent but potent scene.
Later, when Cher gets down to the nitty gritty of interviewing Carl properly in a room with a blackboard, we see how their writing is used as a primary communication tool between them. We also notice that Cher's cursive is sloppy as she quickly scrawls out her questions to Carl, trying to narrow down the particulars of his mystery. She says "piece of cake" and dramatically underlines "HELP ME" three times. At the end of the scene, in a movement of frustration, she slams together her files and folders and stuffs them into her briefcase. At this point, Carl relents, moves to the blackboard and writes down his first important answers.
Paper both helps and haunts Washington. They can only communicate on paper and yet on paper, Carl Wayne Anderson doesn't look very good. Cher's character has to look beyond the paper and trust her feelings about Carl. When Cher is trying to confess her inappropriate behavior to Carl, he writes "I am Innocent" on paper. Kathleen believes him and we believe him, not because it's finally on paper, but because we are communicating with Carl based on feeling. This underscores the tension in Washington between paper and gut feeling.
Working Man Despair
Characters in Suspect work through all the paperwork, research their cases late into the night and trudge through volumes of transcripts to follow slim leads. They put in the time. They do the work.
Suspect was written by Eric Roth, whose most famous script is 1994's Forest Gump. He also wrote the scripts for successful movies such as The Onion Field in 1979, The Horse Whisperer in 1998, The Insider (another good movie about work) in 1999 and Ali in 2001.
In his Suspect script, Roth effectively highlights a particular kind of working man's despair. Characters all have an overworked look, including Kathleen Riley, who is due for a vacation but is passed up for one. The movie shows the long hours of a public defender and the loneliness of the life they lead due to those hours.
Peter Yates comments on how Roth really wanted to show how public defenders believe in their cases, how they attempt to do the best they can with little to no support from the courts, and how frustrated they become dealing with the system and against prosecutors who have more money and resources. There is a scene in the movie where Kathleen gives a short speech about how she has no life, the speech where she says of her clients "What's crazy is I like them." Yates tells how Roth spent a great deal of time rewriting this speech because Cher felt the audience needed to understand her loneliness, which, Yates claims, may help to understand why she accepts Eddie Sanger's attempts to help her.
At this point, I wonder whether Yates is responding to criticism about Kathleen's eventual willingness to break the law and allow the jury tampering during the case, one problematic flaw of the movie. Why did this smart attorney deal with a member of the jury when, by doing so, she risks being disbarred. Is loneliness and overwork enough of a reason?
In any case, her speech attempts to lament on the toils of the working man. This movie is filled with workers, from congressmen, lawyers and lobbyists to painters working in the courthouse. Janet Maslin complains that the "screenplay [is] slangier and more smart-alecky than it needs to be" but I loved that it was filled with the working words of Washington, D.C. Big words were around every corner: inconclusive, germane, forensic pathology, infallible, redirect, compliance. There were many juicy lines such as found in this exchange between Judge Helms and Kathleen:
"Your cross has been weak and your behavior in this courtroom has been unprofessional."
"I desperately need a continuance!"
"It would be imprudent of me to grant you a continuance because your case is weak."
My favorite bit of working dialogue, however, happens toward the end of the film when Kathleen's boss Morty explains how to fix a case.
Suspect also addresses the seedy issues of being a working girl in Washington. Philip Bosco plays the suavely piggish red herring Paul Gray in the movie. Ironically, he also plays girl-friendly Mr. Trask in Working Girl. In Suspect, it's implied his character sleeps with women who are trying to get ahead in Washington, and he explains to Eddie Sanger the virtues of being discreet. When Eddie questions one of Paul Gray's new protages, she remarks sarcastically "well, the job doesn't require much typing." She's trying to get ahead and sex seems a mandatory part of it. She doesn't look happy about it but she's in for the game. As a contrast, Eddie uses sex to guarantee a vote from a female Senator, who is successful in her own right, but so busy she's become lonely. Sanger comments on the color of her eyes to initiate a sex-for-vote deal. She tells him, "No one has mentioned my eyes in a long time." She willingly accepts Eddie's flirtations due to her own version of desperation and need.
In these situations, working women are caught between two opposing conflicts: they must put out to get ahead, but once they make it, they are either not worthy partners anymore or too busy to pursue sexual lives. The senator needs and wants some sexual action and the protegé begrudgingly gives it up in order to climb the ladder. The protegé wants the credibility of the Senator, the Senator needs the sexual contact. But in both cases, the person in power (Paul Gray and the female Senator) are using sex in exchange for favors. And in both cases, as a result, the powerless (Eddie Sanger and the protegé) feel compromised.
Lobbyist With a Heart
Eddie Sanger is the quintessential working man played by Dennis Quaid, who Cher took to calling 'Swine.' Quaid has made 55 films in the last thirty years. His most notable performances include: Breaking Away in 1979, Great Balls of Fire in 1989 and Far From Heaven in 2002. According to Yates, this was Quaid's first character requiring a suit. Yates worked with Quaid in 1979 on Breaking Away and was very impressed. Yates "knew he'd be a major star."
One DVD review commented that "Quaid's charm occasionally seems to be on auto-pilot." The character of Eddie Sanger is described as dangerously charming, so charming he "gets away with murder," Yates says. He claims Cher and Quaid had a good relationship and that their two performances were "really beautiful." Roger Ebert agrees, "I liked their scenes together, and I admired their performances." Critic Desson Howe disagreed, mentioning the "lifeless Cher-Quaid romance." Apparently, among the cut scenes was one sex scene Cher wanted removed herself. Of all her pictures, the chemistry between Quaid and Cher is probably the weakest, although it's not awful.
During the scene where Eddie trades his shoes for a presidential pin, Yates comments on Quaid's natural comedic delivery in an exchange with Prudence Barry, who played the bag lady at the river. Yates appreciated Quaid's tendency to play vulnerable heroes and how well he shows a characters' humanity rising above his cockiness.
A Movie of Understated Performances
Roger Ebert noted that Suspect was directed by Peter Yates "with particular attention to the texture of the lives of his characters...there are lots of good supporting performances." Janet Maslin agrees, saying Suspect does have "some very good supporting acting." Yates says he generally prefers working with theatrical actors, who want to be actors instead of celebrities with all the accoutrements of fame, such as "limousines, money and praise without doing any work."
Yates also mentions a key component of his actors' fine performances being their ability to maintain good eye contact with each other, "looking into each other's eyes, getting inside the other actors so they've got something to react against."
Performances of note include Fred Melamed who played Morty Rosenthal, Cher's boss. Yates notes, "You really believe him...he shows the feeling of having a calling."
Joe Mantegna played Charlie Stella, the prosecuting attorney working to convict Carl. Mantegna was a David Mamet actor who Yates felt lucky to get for the movie. "The contrast between Mantegna and Cher was perfect." Mategna has made 84 movies since 1977, including Xanadu in 1980, Things Change in 1988, Bugsy in 1991, and Searching for Bobby Fisher. Mantegna also plays a recurring role on The Simpsons as the voice of Springfield's mob boss, Fat Tony.
E. Katherine Kerr played the role of Senator Grace Comisky. Formerly a theatrical actress, in this movie she "emphasizes the loneliness of people who work extremely hard," says Yates. Roger Ebert caught this thread saying "Loneliness is underlined in one of the movie's most quietly effective scenes, where Quaid sleeps with a congresswoman, and it's a toss-up whether he's doing it out of ambition, politics, or need. We wonder which of these workaholics is the lonelier, Eddie or Grace?
The role of the bureaucratic authoritarian and villain, Judge Matthew Helms, was played very adeptly by John Mahoney, an award-winning Steppenwolf Theater veteran who a year later would perform with Cher again in Moonstruck and then move on to the hit TV show Frasier. Yates asked Mahoney to shave the top of his head to make him look less likable. "I got Albert Finney to shave his head for The Dresser," says Yates noting that for the character Judge Helms, "it made him more believable as a judge."
Scenes of Note
In a jailhouse chalkboard scene, Cher tries to elicit clues out of Carl in the small confines of an interrogation room. Both characters are frustrated by their new relationship of lawyer and client and the demands of communicating in writing. Yates believes it took actors "of their quality to portray this feeling and to know how they feel and where their feelings are coming from." He points out how this scene shows where Kathleen is beginning to believe Carl and become caught up in his plight. Yates also mentions the final shot of the board, which confirms to the audience the new clues Kathleen has uncovered.
In the scene where Kathleen and Charlie Stella are choosing their jury, we see the courtroom replica, with the added touch of windows for light. Yates maintains that the modern look of the courtroom says something about Washington and he notes the fencing match of dialogue between Kathleen and Eddie, commenting that "the smugness of Quaid is marvelous—he really gets away with it."
During the opening remarks, Yates notes that Charlie Stalla's remarks were made in one shot. The first cut was made at the words "American Nightmare." Yates wanted Mantegna to be able to create his own rhythm. Cher's remarks were cut, "which suited the way she was playing."
One of my favorite scenes is with Michael Beach, the parking lot attendant. Yates calls Beach "an excellent young actor." His performance was funny and captured the sense of frenzied coldness. Apparently they took a window out of the toll booth to shoot the scene.
The best scene of the movie occurs in a Washington library as Eddie and Kathleen trudge through Paul Gray's court cases, looking for the incriminating case Elizabeth Quinn found. Yates found a right-wing branch library for the shoot. The crew descended upon the library and filmed for a day but were sternly denied a second day of shooting due to the intrusion. So the scene had to be finished in one night. Yates says the library could only be in Washington with its feeling of grandeur and opulence. The library also had a warm feel (as exemplified by Cher in her red sweater), in contrast to the homeless outdoors.
The scene is filled with research talk between books, lamps on tables, Kathleen in eye-glasses, piles of books, quiet readers. Sitting at a library table, Kathleen notices Judge Helms at another table and the tension of the scene solidifies. Helms takes off his glasses and shoots a disapproving look to Kathleen. She sees it and they nod to each other. The tension rises as Sanger starts to walk toward Kathleen's table. If they are seen talking to each other, Kathleen will be disbarred. Cher writes "Helms" with an arrow on a note pad and frantically taps her pencil on the pad. Here is an instance when Cher-tapping (see Cher Zine Vol. 1, page 62) is integral to the plot. Quaid catches the message and walks past her to another table down the row where he pretends to study. Later, he leaves the library with deliberate movement. Cher reads on. Janet Maslin comments, "An extended silent sequence at the library...is the very model of skillful suspense editing. Ray Lovejoy does a letter-perfect job of inter-cutting all three parties and the various covert, duplicitous and suspicious glances that they exchange."Another suspenseful scene is the chase scene between an unknown assailant and Kathleen near the end of the film. In the beginning of the scene, we see signs of the painters as Kathleen walks into the courtroom late one night. She hears someone following her and she leaves through the backdoor, near Judge Helm's nameplate on the wall near the door. Yates set up the long corridor shots, he says, like ones in Bullitt and set the final leg of the chase in the holding area of the courthouse because he "loved all the shapes...the feeling of the bars, the control station" all meant to create a creepy feeling. Yates comments on Cher's effective body language and notes that at the end of the scene, the killer has been marked by the painter's knife Cher picked up while running through the halls. After one viewing, a friend of mine commented that the shadow of the killer looked awfully a lot like John Mahoney's newly shaved bald head. The most troubling aspect of the scene for me is the fact that Eddie Sanger is suddenly, unbelievably, there to save her, that she requires saving by Eddie in the first place.
In the final scene, we see Kathleen's office in the daylight. She is in a relationship now with Eddie and her life and office are brighter. There are even plants in there now. In the final moments, we see a typical Cher moment when she laughs and says something inaudible. I sat with my friends and replayed her final remark over and over but we couldn't determine what she was saying: was it "let's go" or "what scum"? We couldn't tell.
Problems with Plot and Motivation
Janet Maslin complains about the "obvious and sloppy plotting" in Suspect. She says, "For reasons that are never sufficiently clear, Sanger takes a keen interest in helping Ms. Riley exonerate the homeless man" and remarks disappointedly on "an ending that's nominally a surprise." Hal Hinson agrees: "Yates makes an odd point: that perhaps, under certain circumstances, it's all right to dispense with professional ethics and indulge in a little jury tampering." Even one anonymous DVD reviewer noted that "the behavior of Quaid's unscrupulous Sanger remains unexamined." Hal Hinson wonders, "so what if Kathleen bends a few statues, risks prosecution and disbarment...she cares.'" He has a point. Yates believes that the loneliness of the characters would provide the adequate motivation for the illegal route they take in solving this crime. After Eddie sleeps with the Senator and she gives him her vote, the senators pour out of the chamber. Another lobbyist comments, "Nice job Eddie." You wonder if he means for the vote or for bedding Senator Comisky. Smack in the middle of this irony, you see a look of regret or guilt on Eddie's face. But all his guilt and loneliness still doesn't explain the depth of his actions. The motivation just comes up short.
Critics also found the pacing of the movie to be slow at times. Yates said that having a deaf and dumb character was a challenge to the pacing. Yates hoped that the audience would be so fascinated by Carl's handwritten answers that they would accept the style of storytelling. He felt the challenges helped build tension.
But Hal Hinson comments that "as a thriller, it's becalmed." It "doesn't provide even the most basic pleasure that we've come to expect from thrillers." It doesn't get our pulse racing. For most of it, we're stuck in what must be the ugliest courtroom in the history of movies, and after a while, it becomes a drag on your spirits. It's like being trapped in a feature-length episode of Superior Court. Desson Howe slams the movie for having "all the excitement of a motion to set aside a motion." Suspect is a little dryer than some flashier Hollywood courtroom dramas, but this is probably due to Yates' interest in capturing the reality of Washington, the dialogue, the action, the more dry aspects of conversation and working life there, all of which I would rather have than some stepped-up Grisham send-up of a Washington movie.
However, Hal Hinson brings up a credible point, saying it's "a major miscalculation in making their heroine so dependent on Eddie for direction." Yeah. Why can't Kathleen figure out anything by herself? Why is a congressional lobbyist a better mystery-solver than a seasoned public defender?
As for the whodunit, Roger Ebert complains that "you can't produce the guilty man out of left field, with no clues and no preparation. I begin to develop a real cause of resentment because the murderer is a complete dark horse."
But Yates feels there was subtle preparation, that the script "peeled off layers, so by end, everything has been explained." Yates wanted to try to get the audience to anticipate a killer and then prove them wrong. "You'll find the ending very satisfying," he said. But this movie contains so many small but crucial details, they don't add up until you see the movie two or three times.
And I never did understand the underlying symbolism implied in naming Carl's homeless key witness Michael and then adorning him with crosses. I couldn't help but feel this should be meaningful some way. Was he some archangel figure? He was way above and beyond generic homelessness. Did he signify judgment in some way? It's a big unexplained stick in the movie.
There are problematic aspects of this movie. Why does Eddie get involved in the case? Why does Kathleen risk her career to let him? Why does Kathleen constantly need Eddie's help? Would she have figured anything out without him? He both threatens her and saves her too much. And the fact that the Judge committed the crime is unsatisfying. Too much like the butler did it.
On the other hand, the movie has a very strong cast and leaves you with some very memorable scenes. The "bad suspense" of the movie, the slow pacing, didn't bother me. Work, like in the movie of Fargo, is often slow and unsuspenseful and I liked the Spartan direction and the detailed clues and props, the believable reality of the movie, along with the atmosphere of an old suspense movie. I appreciated the movie's sympathy for the little guy, the relentless focus on the homeless. And as a beleaguered working woman, I found the scenes, the jargon and the props of work to be truthful, and the depiction of a working man's despair forceful. I even found the working girl mini-story interesting. Cher's unsentimental performance was actually an unusual choice in her body of work, an understated performance that is overlooked and underrated.
This quiet little gem is probably my favorite Cher movie. For once, Cher plays against type (a hesitant worker bee vs. ballsy chick) and it's full of heady stuff like library books, file boxes full of legal briefs and lots of interesting tid-bits on Washington, D.C. politics, judges, senators and lobbyists, plus the always satisfying courtroom monologues. Because it was understated, more meticulous than your larger-than-life personas Cher is known to play, this wasn't one of her most popular pictures. Besides The Family Channel, which seems to be running the movie every time I surf through my cable, I seem to be alone in my great love for this movie. ◙
(Cher Scholar, 2004)
Research Notes: If You Believe by Mark Bego; Cher by J. Randy Taraborrelli; Suspect DVD Director's Commentary, Janet Maslin review in The New York Times, October 23, 1987; Roger Ebert's Review in The Chicago Sun-Times, October 23, 1987; Desson Howe's Review in The Washington Post, October 23, 1987; Hal Hinson's Review in The Washington Post, October 23, 1987; DVD Review on www.digitallyobsessed.com.
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