Hackman has guilt written all over him (spoiler notice)
I once spent a holiday in Barcelona trying to remember Gene Hackman’s name. I could picture his face clearly, having seen it often in movies, but the words eluded me. After days of wrenching my mind, I finally recalled. The rush of endorphins ensured his name is forever etched in my brain.
Fortunately, he’s a good actor. You wouldn’t want to permanently have a bad one’s name ready. In Under Suspicion Hackman plays rich attorney Henry Hearst in Puerto Rico, married to a significantly younger wife and unfortunately suspected of raping and murdering two young girls. Straight arrow officer Victor Benezet (Morgan Freeman) invites him to the police station to clear up some questions, but this is a pretext for an ever more serious line of questioning. From the very first moment, it seems a clear-cut case. Henry is lying through his teeth, his stories don’t add up and he has ‘pedophile’ plastered all over him.
There is obviously an eleventh hour twist involved, but the choice to have little doubt arise about his guilt for the longest time changes what could’ve been a typical whodunit into a character study. We already know Henry is guilty, so the main question becomes why. Unraveling his broken marriage and illicit dealings with young hookers turns into the hook. This makes Under Suspicion more of an urban drama film than a procedural crime story.
The film features many Rashomon-style subjective flashbacks explaining what happened. A neat trick is the physical intrusion of Victor as he questions the witnesses. This blending of memory and interrogation serves to induce a sense of urgency and importance. It sustains the structure of the film well, which otherwise consists mostly of dialogue at the station.
When all his lies are whittled away, Henry is left with only a few aggressive apologies about his love for teenage girls. He asserts that all men desire young girls with skin “smooth, the way skin should be.” Though macho culture would echo this childish notion, it serves only to show Henry’s arrested development. Most people’s taste grows up along with their age.
This film wouldn’t have been half as interesting if it hadn’t been for Hackman playing the central character (and Freeman as counterweight). He brings an uptown seediness to the part. You know Henry’s guilty, you want him to be guilty, yet you sympathize with him. You feel his desperation about the cold marriage, his sexual frustration at being denied at the bedroom door. The film ends quite suddenly with a twist that was frankly unnecessary. It would’ve suited this investigation to end with what we already knew at the start: Henry did it. That would have been more shocking, actually, than the deus ex twistina currently featured. Henry doesn’t need to be innocent, he just needs to be understood as the net closes around him.
Of course, Gene Hackman can do little wrong for me. When I see his name I’m in sun-swept Spain again: that’s the kind of PR an actor can’t buy.