Book Adaptations: Above Suspicion (1943)
Civilians become spies for the Allies in this thriller adapted from a best-selling novel to the silver screen.
Helen MacInnes's Above Suspicion is an exciting spy novel about an Oxford professor whose friend asks him to make contact with various allied underground members on his annual summer trip across Europe. Richard Myles and his wife Frances are civilians, so they have a better chance of success and pose less risk to the cause. Richard is reluctant to put his wife in jeopardy, but Frances is thrilled to contribute something in the fight against Nazism. The deeper they get, the more dangerous their task becomes, and the book's exciting climax is a page turner. Because the characters are average people, the reader can relate to them and imagine himself in their position.
Above Suspicion was MacInnes's first novel, which began a successful career writing espionage books. Her husband Gilbert Highet was a British Intelligence officer and she used his experiences to provide authentic atmosphere for her stories.
Keith Winter, Melville Baker and Patricia Coleman adapted the novel to the screen. The film follows the novel closely, with a few notable changes. In the novel, the couple has been married for some time and they know each other well enough to be able to silently communicate, which comes in handy in situations when a lot of talk would blow their cover. In the movie, they're newlyweds, using their honeymoon as an excuse to travel. In the novel, the trustworthiness of the Englishman they meet on vacation is left ambiguous for much longer, contributing to the tension. The concert scene is exclusive to the film. The funny run-in with Frances's aunts is also created for the movie for additional conflict and humor. Understandably, some of the film's characters are an amalgamation of several from the book, and some players are nixed entirely, like the Myles's maid and her nephew and the bed and breakfast owner whose daughter disappeared after her interaction with the Nazis.
The Mespelbrunn house is very similar to MacInnes's description, down to the grisly encounter with the dog on the rocks. The violence and danger toward the end of the novel is sanitized for the screen, which weakens the intensity of the conclusion. However, the excitement of these sequences gives fans a motive to seek out the book.
The casting of Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford is interesting and successful, although they're not the obvious choices. MacMurray is stiff in the way a British professor might be, but he isn't especially intellectual. Crawford is beautiful without being overtly glamorous, and she plays the role with enthusiasm. Basil Rathbone, who often played villains, and Conrad Veidt who often played Nazis, are wonderful choices for the ambiguous characters they play in the film because they keep the audience guessing as to their political positions simply because of who they are. It is worth noting this was Veidt's last film before he succumbed to a heart attack. Felix Bressart as the bookseller is also perfectly cast.
The book was published the year the United States entered WWII, but the movie came out in the thick of the war, so the potency of the danger this couple exposed themselves to would have been stronger because of the audience's understanding of the Nazis by that time. Oddly, some exhibitors were advised to downplay the Nazi element when advertising the film in fear of alienating audiences. Crawford wore a rose prominently on her hat in the film, and the use of the rose as a code is used throughout the story. In order to promote Above Suspicion, the Lowe's State Theater in Boston planted a woman with a red rose in her hair near the theater to distribute free tickets.
The New York Times reviewer called the film a, "Good chase film that doesn't take itself too seriously and doesn't pretend to be more than it is-- a melodrama without a message." Cameron of the N.Y. News said, "The action on the screen is a little confusing and lacks that tenseness that rightly belongs in a film story that abounds with dangerous adventure."
MacInnes went on to have a successful career as a writer and ultimately four of her novels were adapted to the screen. This one is worth seeking out in both forms.