Alfred Hitchcock assembles all the right elements for this respected mystery thriller. Joan Fontaine is concerned that her new hubby Cary Grant plans to murder her. But Hitch wasn’t able to use the twist ending that attracted him to the story in the first place!
Warner Archive Collection
1941 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 99 min. / Street Date , 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant, Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, Auriol Lee, Leo G. Carroll
Cinematography Harry Stradling
Art Direction Van Nest Polglase
Film Editor William Hamilton
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, Alma Reville from the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley)
Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Some movies don’t get better as time goes on. Alfred Hitchcock got himself painted into a corner on this one, perhaps not realizing that in America, directors had to clear their storylines through a phalanx of censors content advisors. Suspicion is another RKO loan-out film for Hitchcock, made during his first couple of years in America. If it wasn’t personally produced by Hitchcock one would think RKO was forcing him to deliver more of the same after his best-picture winner Rebecca of the previous year. It’s a smart career move for Hitchcock, consolidating his Hollywood beachhead with a safe, high profile picture. When Joan Fontaine got the Best Actress Oscar denied her for Rebecca, Hitch further established his brand as a front rank director.
This is another ‘ladies film’ with Joan Fontaine playing an insecure bride worrying about her new husband. It’s touted as a breakthrough dramatic picture for Cary Grant, as he was previously cast almost exclusively in comedies. For my money, his dramatic chops are exercised to much better effect in the same year’s Penny Serenade. Suspicion has its moments but is a lumpy mess of romance novel clichés and thriller plotting with one of the least satisfactory payoffs of any domestic-set murder thriller.
Open a women’s magazine from the early ’40s, and you’ll find storylines similar to this one. In the cozy English countryside, potential spinster Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) is pigeonholed and ignored by her well-to-do parents (Cedric Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty) and considered out of the running by the local available females, all of whom are smitten by playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). But Lina is the pigeon that strikes Johnnie’s fancy. He sweeps her off her feet and to the wedding altar before she can even form an opinion about his behavior. Is it as erratic as it seems? Will he calm down? Soon after the marriage Lina is hit by a flood of doubt, as Johnnie is revealed to be a petty thief and a liar. He may only be interested in Lina’s potential inheritance. Lina suspects Johnnie may have murdered their best friend Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce) and may also be planning to poison her. But she still loves him deeply. What’s a dignified country girl to do?
Besides rounding up every loose English actor in Hollywood (even big names like Roger Livesey (I Know Where I’m Going!) appear in tiny roles), Suspicion’s stuffy screenplay is full of landed-gentry nonsense, with the locals going on fox hunts, taking long walks to church and curling up in huge libraries to read murder mysteries. Tea and cookies! The heroine Lina worries about her lack of success with men, but she also says disparaging things about her friends. This isn’t Pride and Prejudice and Wanderley, but a provincial backwater.
Joan Fontaine plays the insecure Lina with almost embarrassing humility. She overhears her parents and the locals dismiss her as a wallflower, and seems to shrivel. The first act is a predictable Cinderella story in which she blooms from wearing tweed suits and librarian’s glasses to being the belle of the ball. As this is indeed what sometimes happens when men as attractive as Cary Grant come calling, no complaints.
Cary Grant’s dramatic work as Johnnie requires him to continue his charming playboy act even as the film casts dark shadows across his honesty and motivations. Most everything is seen from Lina’s POV. The script forces her to behave like a prize dumb bunny, assuming the best about Johnnie despite evidence that would try anyone’s patience. Cary is charming one moment, and the next moment Hitchcock’s visual shorthand — angles, lighting, furtive looks — tell us that Johnnie might be Jack the Ripper. As Hitchcock’s style is to reveal the truth beneath appearances, there’s no real feeling of ambiguity — we’ve got the ‘good’ Johnnie’ and the wife murdering Johnnie, and they don’t mix. The same goes for Lina. Her feminine competitors don’t have to make snide remarks about her virginity — Hitchcock slips in a quick insert of Lina snapping her purse shut, in response to a forward remark from Johnny. There’s no ambiguity in that — Hitch’s semaphore signal says she’s a little repressed. Give Lina a big yellow purse with a huge wrinkled fold, and she might be super-frigid, like the later Marnie.
As in Rebecca this show is a serious female fulfillment fantasy. Lina gets her fancy house, and a maid that doesn’t even try to seduce Johnnie. When the locals gossip about Johnnie’s dishonest ways, Lina weathers their veiled insults in good form. But she’s also the good wife of the era, the fantasy creature that allows what looks like hard evidence of dishonesty pass without throwing a fit. Lina she never calls Johnnie to account for himself.
Feminists should find plenty of political ammunition in a story about a wife who marries an image. Lina doesn’t know the first thing about her catch-of-a-lifetime husband. Johnnie has no money and doesn’t intend to earn any. He pushes the two of them deep into debt, lies about his gambling, and lies about being fired from his job for embezzlement. He even lies about the source of the lavish gifts he rains down on Lina to silence her objections. Johnnie is either a raving sociopath or a badly written character. He’s probably the latter, for Suspicion repeatedly reinforces the notion that the wife is responsible for all problems in a marriage, even if her husband keeps his entire life outside the house secret from her and deceives her every step of the way. A good wife endures and understands. Is Lina perhaps not too bright? Or is it that Johnnie is just very good in bed?
The latter two-thirds of Suspicion dig a grave of bad mystery thriller plotting. Everything points to Johnnie being a lying killer, including his attitude toward Lina and the director’s insistent sinister touches, the most famous being the glowing glass of moo-juice he carries to her room, presumably to poison her. Perhaps it’s full of ‘luminous poison’ from D.O.A.? The problem is that Hitchcock has painted himself into an amateur’s corner, plot-wise. The inability to use the book’s twist ending really pulls the rug out from under this show.
(spoilers from here to the end)
If Cary/Johnnie is innocent, then the whole movie is an inconsequential cheat. It is Lina who must be deranged, fantasizing all of her husband’s sinister motives. He has problems, but is basically good-hearted, and Lina is a grade- A ninny.
If Cary/Johnnie is guilty, then the story is a belabored exercise in the obvious. The likely killer turns out to be the real killer. This twist ending from the book is clearly what appealed to Hitchcock. (spoiler spoiler) Lina is the perfect amour fou character. She’s so in love and so loyal that she submits to his will and drinks his poisoned milk. Before she does, she gives him a letter she has written and asks him to mail it. He cheerfully does just that, not realizing that it’s a ‘Johnnie did it’ statement that will implicate him from beyond the grave That’s the kind of stinger ending that Hitchcock would favor time and again in his 1950s television show: a wife thinks her husband has murderous plans, only to find out she was mistaken.
Did Alfred Hitchcock get to shoot the book’s ending? If he thought he could, he didn’t yet understand Hollywood’s labyrinthine Production Code. Lina can’t allow herself to be poisoned, because the Code prohibited suicide. Johnnie can’t be seen getting away with murder, as that would leave the guilty unpunished. At this time crooks had to be seen to be punished. When Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler breached this taboo three years later in Double Indemnity, they had to shoot a gas chamber scene, which ended up not being used.
There may have been another reason the ‘diabolical’ ending wasn’t used. Cary Crant was an extreme worrywart when it came to the parts he chose. Throughout his career he enthusiastically signed up to play extreme and unusual characters, and then pulled out to do a more conventional role, one safer for his image. He was even to play the Phantom of the Opera, once, seriously. Cary probably liked Hitchcock and the general production, and maybe he was the kind of guy who says yes to five concurrent jobs and then turns four of them down. But glamourous psycho killers hadn’t been invented yet, and major stars just didn’t play such roles. What would the fans think?
Suspicion tries to have it both ways. Lina doesn’t let on to Johnnie that she knows/thinks he’s put poison in her milk. But she doesn’t drink the milk either. Instead, the show concludes in a feeble “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” scene that ends with both of them explaining away everything we’ve been watching. They basically do some of the talking they should have done in their first week of marriage. It’s a really miserable story windup. It even ends with some jolly, ‘Hey, I’m going to jail’ nonsense that’s supposed to make Cary seem like an okay guy after all.
Perhaps these issues aren’t that objectionable on a first viewing, and in 1941 average viewers didn’t see movies multiple times. But on my second go-round, the show could have been titled not Suspicion, but “Inconsistency”. Its commercial aspects and star power were more than enough to save the day, as audiences likely preferred Cary Grant as Johnnie to Laurence Olivier in Rebecca. Deliver the right fantasy, and they will come. Because it was a different era, many of the great ‘auteur’ directors had the luxury of limping, failing and flopping a lot more than do modern film directors. Directors today either score big at the box office, or have to find another line of work.
Of course, the acting is fine; Joan Fontaine suffers in a somewhat different way than she did as Mrs. de Winter. Sherlock Holmes fans enjoy Nigel Bruce’s contribution as Cary’s dotty pal. One interesting scene has a sadistic touch that might be a direct reflection of Hitchcock’s warped sense of humor. Lina is upset over her husband’s perfidy, just as he shows up with a bunch of gifts intended to deflect any inquiry into his shady money deals. Bruce and Cary see Lina about to break down in tears. Instead of changing their tune, they cruelly mock her, making faces and treating her like she’s a silly goose. There’s something unique and honest — and unpleasant — about that moment that stands out in a script composed mostly of stock situations.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Suspicion is a good choice to remaster in HD, as the original DVD was not a thing of beauty. This particular RKO picture must have been well preserved because it looks fantastic, richly textured and sharp enough to see things we never saw before. Given top-quality RKO production values Lina lives in a manse almost as impressive as Mrs. de Winter’s. Many of the outdoor settings are reproduced on vast interior sets. With this subtle stylization, an early shot of Johnnie tussling with Lina atop a sand hill is far more convincing than a later similar setup in Hitchcock’s The Birds. When you can’t decide whether your boyfriend is trying to steal a kiss, or kill you, does that serve as a substitute for sex? It seems to be the case for Lina.
The older DVD docu is still engaging, with good input from Peter Bogdanovich and others. But it doesn’t have the answer as to whether or not Hitch seriously thought he could have the ending his way, with the whistling-at-the-mailbox scene. I’d think that the bad news came late in the game, or he would have abandoned the film.I don’t envy Joan Harrison and Alma Reville having to rework the script. A trailer is included as well. To me, the image of Joan Fontaine from the original poster used for the disc cover, looks like anybody but Joan Fontaine. Alexis Smith? Frances Farmer?
Movie: Good –
Supplements: Featurette Before the Fact, Suspicious Hitchcock, trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 1, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson