The Natural Human Environment
erhaps catastrophe is the natural human environment. We find ourselves attacked by unforeseen forces come to harm us, even though we are innocent of any wrongdoing.” With these ominous words, Henry Hearst (Gene Hackman) ends a speech he’s been making for a room full of people in tuxedos and gowns. He’s a well-known man-about-town, doing his bit to solicit relief funds for victims of Hurricane Lucy, which has just blown through Puerto Rico… but there’s something else afoot. For all his philanthropic grandeur, Henry is “under suspicion.” And at this particular moment, he’s under he watchful eye of his old acquaintance and sometime friend, Police Captain Victor Benezet (Morgan Freeman). The camera angles are low, the sound of forks tinging glasses fades out, and—while Victor’s eyes hold fast on their target—Henry pulls back, until he’s out of focus and artfully spooky. Catastrophe, yes. We can feel it coming. Even though we are innocent of any wrongdoing.
Under Suspicion is peppered with such overwrought moments. But such occasional melodrama hardly explains why the film’s theatrical release schedule was so abruptly halted last year, after it had opened in only a few theaters, or why it has suddenly been relegated—as of this past Tuesday (January 2)—to what is essentially a straight-to-video status. Such a fate is usually reserved films made by unknowns, that never found distribution deals, or that feature girls in panties being chased by men in ski masks (though to be fair, this last also shows up in box office winners). Clearly, Under Suspicion does not fit any of these categories, as it stars and was executive-produced by heavy-hitters Freeman and Hackman, directed by Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space, The Ghost and the Darkness), and was indeed picked up by Lions Gate for distribution. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened, why the film is now at Blockbuster rather than the multiplex or even the art house theater, though we can surmise it has to do with money.
First, we might examine the plot for signs of terribleness. But the basic storyline actually looks fine, even if it is a bit artificial in a “hothouse” way, concerning rich U.S. citizens in an island setting—granted, it’s Puerto Rico, technically still the U.S., but it’s set up here to look all exotic and anxiety-making. The film takes place during a carnival, which means that though it’s intently focused on an extended conversation between Henry and Victor, it includes repeated insert shots of celebratory street musicians in poofy-sleeved shorts and people dancing in bright colors. Henry is a super-rich scuzball with a young-but-disenchanted trophy wife, Chantel (Monica Bellucci, also currently appearing in Tornatore’s Malena). He’s bitter, and we’ll find out why; he calls her “a beautiful woman who moves through life unchallenged,” which suggests that she’ll run into some challenges before the film is over. The film opens in their posh home, where a long hallway—filmed so that it looks really, really long—separates husband and wife, as he observes and then approaches her. She’s so lovely, so untouchable, as she checks herself in the mirror in her fine black gown. They’re about to embark on a big night out, but when he tries to nuzzle her neck, she puts him off. Uh-oh.
Not much else happens before the plot begins to thicken, afer a fashion. On his way to the soiree, Henry is picked up by his old friend Victor, who takes him down to the cop station for “a few questions.” As those of us who watch cop movies know, this means a lot of questions, but Henry is arrogant enough at first to imagine that he’ll be cut loose in minutes. Well, these minutes drag on. And on. Henry starts to chafe. He says mean things to Victor’s young cohort, Felix Owens (Thomas Jane, last seen battling sharks with LL Cool J in Deep Blue Sea), calling him “Opie,” until the kid threatens to throw punches. It would seem that the tension is rising.
At this point, it may be useful to say a little about that thickening plot, which unfolds in the form of the conversation between Victor and Henry, with occasional interjections from Felix. (This structure comes straight from Under Suspicion‘s source, Claude Miller’s Garde A’ Vue, which Hackman saw back in 1981, and has been wanting to remake ever since. Freeman’s company, Revelations Entertainment, financed the film.) Recently, as it happens, Henry found a dead girl in the park, while he was jogging. He alerted the police, but now they’re thinking that he may have been the murderer—of this girl and one who turned up dead previously. The cops inform Henry that they believe the girl’s body has been posed, as if for a picture. Hey! Henry’s hobby is photography! And so now the cops come at him with their suspicions, putting together all kinds of clues to form a story that—judging from the film’s visual evidence, anyway—is true. Sort of. Then again, maybe not. Accused of raping and killing this sweet young girl in her soccer uniform, Henry is understandably upset. So is Victor. He presses further—the cops have learned that Hanery hasn’t slept with Chantel in two years, that he goes to the other side of the tracks to buy time with bleached-blond, very young-looking prostitutes. (Or, as Victor puts it, “I’m talking about street-hookers, needle-users, crack-heads! Not high class call girls, curb-crawlers, for God’s sake!”) As Victor relates these apparent facts, Henry blanches for a moment, and then the film cuts to a shot of him, his face sweaty, engaged in mid-from-the-rear thrust with this prostitute. Victor’s comment: “Why here, like this? In the dirt?” My comment: Icky.
Still, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. Interestingly, Victor appears in these flashbacks—or are they imaginary scenes?—lurking in corners or emerging from shadows, prompting Henry to answer questions while he’s scuttling about on the street, in back rooms, or amid the trees where the dead body has been found. All this intrusiveness breaks up Henry’s narrative—or is it Victor’s?—and does encourage you to think some about how the story is being told, by whom, and for whose benefit. There’s not much in this film that’s subtle, but it does actually have something thoughtful to say about the ways that we perceive and assume truth, or the ways we might be convinced of some untruth because of our own anxieties. What you see can be—and usually is—deceiving.
Under Suspicion stresses this point in numerous ways, with two-way mirror shots, videotaped interview scenes, and the repeated exchange of menacing glances. While Henry is visibly coming undone—literally, Felix pulls off his toupe during one brief, rather physical altercation—Victor will have a lesson to learn as well, because, well, he thinks he knows what’s going on. It’s not hard to guess that his presumptive manner will be a problem, especially when you hear what he has to say. Victor prides himself on being an excellent reader of appearances, and always right; as he tells Henry, he gives away that he’s lying by the way he directs his eyes, “turned down and to the left,” or again, “That old carotid artery’s pumping like gangbusters!” (It may seem that Victor’s a tad excitable, but he has his reasons, as revealed by Henry’s provocations—the straight-up cop has had two failed marriages, and feels more than a little badly about this.) Suspicions and accusations fly back and forth during Henry and Victor’s verbal sparring, and the movie suggests that guilt—for both of them—has more to do with appearances and self-doubts than with actual events or culpability for same. Through all this, Hackman and Freeman give assured and compelling performances, though the revelatory finale is predictably catastrophic. But if the film’s plot-puzzles end up being a little less than mysterious, I still haven’t come up with a completely satisfying reason for the film’s strange trajectory to video.