Above Suspicion (1943): Richard Thorpe’s WWII Spy Thriller, Starring Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray

Craftsman Richard Thorpe directed a script adapted from the 1941 novel Above Suspicion by Scots-American writer Helen MacInnes, loosely based on experiences of MacInnes and her husband, Gilbert Highet.

Joan Crawford’s 1943 star vehicle, Above Suspicion, a senseless WWII spy thriller, was such a critical and commercial failure that MGM’s head Louis B. Mayer decided to terminate her contract after 18 years of loyal service.

The plot follows two newlyweds who spy on the Nazis for the British Secret Service during their honeymoon in Europe.

It begins in the spring of 1939 in England, when Oxford University Professor Richard Myles (Fred MacMurray) and his new bride Frances (Joan Crawford) go for a honeymoon on the Continent.

As American tourists, they are “above suspicion,” and so they are commissioned by the British secret service to find a scientist who has developed a countermeasure against a new Nazi secret weapon, a magnetic sea mine.

They had no idea what’s his name, how he looks, and hi location.  The couple then embark on the adventurous search across Europe, seeking clues from various contacts.

In Paris, Frances wears a hat with a rose as signal for their first contact, who instructs them to go to a café in Montmartre. An unseen contact plants a tourist guidebook to southern Germany in Richard’s coat. The couple notice a series of ink dots on a map in the book, which, linked together, form the opening notes to the song “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose.” They deduce that this is their password.

Three pinpricks in the same map direct them to the book’s seller, Werner (Felix Bressart), in Salzburg, who instructs them.  At a museum, they meet Count Hassert Seidel (Conrad Veidt), nicknamed “guide,” suggests they check into a guesthouse run by Frau Kleist (Johanna Hofer).

She provides them with a book on Franz Liszt with annotations that reveal their next stop is the village of Pertisau in Tyrol, where they are to meet a doctor who collects chess pieces.

The couple go to a performance of Liszt, against the advise of Thornley (Bruce Lester), a houseguest and recent Oxford graduate. During Thornley’s passage, a Nazi colonel, Commandant of Dachau concentration camp, is killed. Officials insist on questioning members of the audience.

Richard and Frances are rescued by Gestapo Chief Count Sig von Aschenhausen (Basil Rathbone), a former Oxford schoolmate of Richard’s. Thornley had killed the Nazi colonel as revenge for the torture and murder of his Austrian fiancée. He also warns Richard that he and his fiancée had also once been “above suspicion.”

Frances and Richard visit the chess collector, Dr. Mespelbrunn (Reginald Owen), who does not appear, though Count von Aschenhausen does. They notice sheet music for “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” on the piano. But when Sig fails to respond to a code signal, the couple becomes suspicious. They hear thumping noises upstairs and discover that Sig is holding Mespelbrunn prisoner.

Mespelbrunn tells them that they are being hunted by the Gestapo, and the couple leaves the house. Count Seidel arrives to help them free Mespelbrunn, who is revealed as the missing scientist “Dr. Smith.”

The four head for Innsbruck, and Mespelbrunn gives Richard the plans for the countermeasure. The couple obtain counterfeit passports from elderly couple named Schultz. They are planning to catch the train to Milan at separate stations. But, when the Schultzes are arrested by the Gestapo, the police are looking for the Americans. Frances is detained and questioned by the Gestapo, but Thornley, in Innsbruck to catch the same train, finds Richard.

Richard, Thornley, and Seidel free Frances and kill her captors, including Sig, but Thornley is also killed.  Fooling the Nazi border guards, Seidel and the American newlyweds finally reach freedom in Italy.