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Suspect (1987) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

riley karl quinn’s court

Principal social themes: homelessness/poverty, disabilities, depressioin/suicide

Tri-Star. R rating. Featuring: Liam Neeson, Cher, Dennis Quaid, John Mahoney, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, E. Katherine Kerr, Fred Melameo, Lisabeth Bartless, Paul D’Amato, Aaron Schwartz. Written by Eric Roth. Cinematography by Billy Williams. Edited by Ray Lovejoy. Music by Michael Kamen. Produced by Daniel A. Sherkow. Directed by Peter Yates. Color. 121 minutes.


Peter Yates’s excellent legal thriller has an unusual backdrop as a homeless deaf and dumb veteran is arrested as a scapegoat in a political murder of a Justice Department secretary. The accused man’s background as a homeless man on the streets of Washington, D.C., facing a daily battle for survival, is effectively highlighted in the script.


The film opens a few days before Christmas as Supreme Court Justice Charles Lowell commits suicide after handing an envelope with a cassette tape to Elizabeth Quinn in his private chambers. Shortly afterward, Quinn, a Justice Department secretary, is found murdered in a parking lot along the Potomac River. A vagrant, Karl Anderson (Liam Neeson), who lives in a culvert, is discovered with Quinn’s purse; he is arrested for her murder. When he appears in court, the indigent man seems dazed and nonresponsive. The judge orders a psychiatric evaluation and appoints Kathleen Riley (Cher) from the Public Defender’s office to serve as his counsel. After trying to interview the disheveled man, Riley is struck by him when she tries to leave the cell. After he is restrained, the lawyer discovers that her client is deaf and dumb. Through writing, Karl tells her that he saw another derelict named Michael near Quinn’s body before he came upon it. The Public Defender’s office hires a detective in an attempt to find Michael. When the detective tries to question the homeless men hiding in an abandoned building, he is stabbed. This more or less terminates the search for Michael.

Justice Helms (John Mahoney), a candidate for the Supreme Court vacancy, asks to be assigned to try the Anderson case, believing it would be a relatively speedy trial. Riley requests a delay to allow more time to find Michael, but Helms turns down her motion. Eddie Sanger (Dennis Quaid), a congressional lobbyist for the dairy industry, is selected to serve on the jury. He believes that the system is railroading the defendant. For example, he notices that the wounds on Quinn’s body indicate her attacker was right-handed. During a court break, the juror telephones Riley to ask if Karl Anderson is left-handed. Later, Riley points out her client’s left-handedness in court. In the court parking lot, she confronts Eddie, warning him that contact between them is forbidden since it is considered to be jury tampering. On his own, however, Eddie investigates the crime scene, talking to various derelicts. When he encounters a bag lady who has found a clue, Eddie tries to buy it, but instead she asks him to trade his shoes for it. Later, Eddie mails his various finds to Riley. He then calls her to arrange a clandestine meeting, at which they encounter Michael, who stabs the juror. Riley takes him to her apartment to treat his wound, and they become emotionally involved.

Later, Eddie finds Michael’s hideout and discovers that he has been killed. The juror finds a key on the vagrant’s body and turns it over to Riley. They conclude the key had belonged to Quinn and track down the file case it unlocks in the dead woman’s office, The case is now empty, but it once contained old case files of Justice Lowell. When Judge Helms spots Eddie doing research in the same law library as Riley, he decides to sequester the jury. Riley finds a cassette in Quinn’s car that contains a confession from Justice Lowell that he had once accepted a bribe. He planned to commit suicide in atonement, but he had also informed the others involved in the case that Quinn had uncovered the evidence of their crime. The next day in court, Riley accuses Judge Helms as Quinn’s murderer, which he did in order to protect his career. A mistrial is declared, and Karl Anderson is set free.


Suspect provides an excellent study of the plight of the homeless neatly entwined into its story. In her opening statement, his lawyer calls Karl “an American nightmare.” She sketches his history as a veteran of the Vietnam War who had a breakdown because of his reservations about killing. He later became deaf from meningitis and lost his ability to speak due to traumatic stress. He divorced his wife since he could no longer support her and retreated to the streets, in which every day is a life-or-death struggle. By the time he was arrested, he had spent years in isolation and became more of an animal than a man. The issue of homelessness is dramatically portrayed in various ways. In another courtroom speech, Riley notes how people train themselves not to see the homeless, to completely disregard and ignore them. It is a poignant but accurate description. In this case, it becomes too easy to use one of the homeless as Quinn’s killer, even though no trace of the dead woman could be linked to Karl or his knife. Until the discovery of Justice Lowell’s tape, Suspect makes a potent illustration of the vicious cycle of homelessness. This focus changes during the last twenty minutes of the movie, as the emphasis switches to exposing the real murderer. Yet the scenes involving the homeless make such a powerful statement that it never seems to be window dressing but instead provides the heart of the film.

Karl’s disabilities add another layer of social relevance to the production. Since Karl was totally isolated on the streets, he never learned to communicate by sign language. The system totally failed him as he fell through the cracks and was driven into homelessness due to his disabilities. The question of suicide is also of great importance. Lowell chooses death before dishonor, yet his decision sets up the tragedy to follow after he gives his taped confession to Quinn. By telling Helms of his plans, he unwittingly set up her murder. Viewers might debate the eventual fate of Karl Anderson at the end of the story. He is just as impoverished and handicapped as he was at the start of the film. If Quinn’s murder never occurred, he would have likely frozen to death or been killed in a struggle with other derelicts. Ironically, his trial undoubtedly would ensure that he would receive treatment, shelter, and eventually rehabilitation since he is intelligent and has abilities. What he lacked was hope, which he had given up when he surrendered himself to a life on the streets. By the end of the film, he had regained this essential ingredient.

Svedberg, Theodor [next] [back] Susanna

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