Hello! And another happy welcome to the increasingly-inaccurately named Weekly Hitch. This is a blog wherein I attempt to watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in order, at about a movie a week, and then I write about them sporadically because life is hard.
This week, Hitchcock takes a step back from the comedy of Mr. & Mrs. Smith and heads for the safer harbour of romantic melodrama, with the very Rebecca-like and Joan Fontaine-starring RKO marriage tale… Suspicion.
As with so many Hitchcock films, this one begins on a train – where the charming and handsome Johnnie Aysgarth (played by Carey Grant – marking the first of his 4 Hitchcock films) meets the dowdy and proper young Lina McLaidlaw (an Oscar-winning performance by Joan Fontaine). Johnnie seats himself in Lina’s first-class compartment – but it’s soon clear that he only has a third-class ticket, and when it comes time to pay the difference, the devilish young man actually borrows the money off Lina – and thus a romance is born.
It seems, as Lina soon finds out, that Johnnie is something of a playboy in England, and Lina – it just happens – is thought of as a spinster who will never marry. So, basically to spite her parents, and after a whirlwind courtship and fighting off several other girls who all love Johnnie, Lina decides to marry Johnnie – even against her father’s wishes!
Soon set up in their own home, Lina is surprised (I’m not sure why) to discover that Johnnie is kind of lazy and doesn’t really plan on getting a job. He thinks they can just live off the allowance Lina gets from her family – but eventually Lina convinces him to take work with an old friend of his, evan as another friend – Beaky (played by the wonderful Nigel Bruce) suggests that it’s no use trying to change Johnnie.
And, of course, Beaky is right. Johnny is soon back at the race track and spending and losing money so fast, that he winds up having to sell two antique chairs that Lina’s dad sent them as a wedding present. Lina is, naturally, angry about this – but for some reason (I guess because feminism wasn’t really a thing then) she puts up with it and just gets sad.
But then Lina finds out that Johnnie was fired from his job weeks ago for embezzling money… money that he used to buy her lavish gifts! (including a dog – which is actually Hitch’s dog in a furry cameo) Furious, and upset that Johnnie is a thief and a liar – which, I mean, she must have known he was – anyway, Lina writes a letter to Johnnie saying she’s leaving him but she tears it up before she can send it.
Johnnie, for his part, has set upon a real estate scheme to buy up some land and build houses – and he’s decided that Beaky should invest in it – as partners. For some reason Beaky, who is super naive, doesn’t cotton on to the fact that Johnnie is untrustworthy – and they go along with it, but at the last moment Johnnie decides he can’t take his friend’s money and calls it off. But then, while on a trip to Paris, Beaky is killed (he was given brandy – which, we learn earlier, is deadly to him). Lina immediately suspects Johnnie, who was away at that same time – and comes to suspect that she not only married a slacker… but a killer too!
After Beaky’s death – and, with the help of a local mystery novel author, who Johnnie has been talking to – Lina starts to think that Johnnie will be killeing her next! He asks about an untraceable poison and there’s evidence that he’s been inquiring into her life insurance! So, after realizing she’s married to a murderer Lina asks Johnnie to bring her some milk – and Johnnie carries it up the stairs – the milk seemingly glowing with evil intent. But she’s too afraid to drink it.
Lina decides that she wants to go stay with her mother, and Johnnie drives her – Lina, thinking he’s going to kill her, is terrified as they go around a sharp turn near some ocean-side cliffs… but soon it all resolves that Johnnie was going to kill himself, that he’d planned to end his life and all his schemes were to try and make sure Lina would be okay – and that he’s decided to face the music, even if it means jail for embezzlement.
Lina forgives him, and they decide to face the future together.
A curiously drawn out story with strong performances, Suspicion feels oddly flat for a Hitchcock film – but the charm of Cary Grant and the strength of Joan Fontaine just about make up for what I think is a fairly lacklustre plot.
Suspicion is a film very much about perception and how they can shift out viewpoint of the world and people. Cary Grant is first introduced on a train in the dark, a seemingly dapper gentleman – who is in fact a scoundrel. (Hitch loved introducing people on the train – as in The Lady Vanishes, North By Northwest, and Strangers on a Train) But Joan Fontaine’s perception of Johnnie Aysgarth is soon altered again when she sees a picture of him in the society pages, and later out with several pretty young women.
Joan sees Cary Grant as a wild horse… and as we see in a very telling scene, Joan likes to tame wild horses. It’s that perception, the way Joan Fontaine sees her man that shadows the entire picture – and if it weren’t for Fontaine’s solid and sturdy performance, the picture would collapse like a house of cards.
For Cary Grant, the movie is all about class-struggle – another favourite topic of Hitch’s. Grant’s character first tries to rise from a 3rd class train ticket to a first – and then from local ladies to a first-class wife – but all the while he knows in his heart that he’s still that low-rent son.
So, clearly, it’s not the characters that hold Suspicion back for me – but the plot itself. The script, while clever – and well laid out (no small task for such a circuitous tale) – simply doesn’t have enough to do. The movie is confined to the realm of a drawing room mystery, with occasional ventures into the world – but no actual goal for our heroine aside from simply taming her wild horse.
And that goal – Joan Fontaine’s need to change her man – isn’t a goal I could support, simply because Cary Grant’s character is just unworthy of the woman who loves him. Maybe I’m too simple, or too dull – but all Joan Fontaine did was cry, yell, be disappointed, and then forgive Grant in various orders. She never truly asserted, or even explained why she loved him so.
Had Hitchcock gone with his original ending, in which Grant actually IS a murderer and Fontaine knowingly takes the poisoned milk after sending Grant off to mail a letter which names him as her killer (the ending can still be felt in the films curious and often preoccupation with the mailing of letters – including Hitch’s cameo posting one himself), if that original and ironic ending had been used, then perhaps the path to it would have felt more worthwhile – but as is, Suspicion just feels like an okay story told by masterful artists.
Which brings me to the technical aspects – once again, Hitch remains at top directing form, the camera work and lighting are lovely, the music is gorgeous, the supporting players are fantastic – especially Nigel Bruce’s part – but again, all this is wonderful icing on a too-tough cookie.
Based on Anthony Berkely Cox’s (aka Francis Iles) novel Before the Fact, Suspicion began its Hitchcock life as one of several projects offered to Hitch in an effort to meet his “two pictures in the same year” bonus requirement for his deal between Selznick and RKO.
The novel tells the story of a woman who is so in love with her husband that she overlooks his affairs and embezzlement and lying – but upon discovering that she is pregnant and that her husband is planning to kill her, she decides to drink the poisoned milk he offers her and die so that his child cannot be born.
Hitchcock probably loved the twisted psychology and the weird dynamics and especially the disturbing look at marriage. In fact, as a companion piece with Mr. & Mrs. Smith the two projects almost go wonderfully hand in hand. Hitch at once jumped at the chance to make Before the Fact, though his preferred title was, I think, Johnnie – which RKO rightly hated.
Hitchcock convinced RKO to hire Samson Raphaelson, frequent collaborator of Ernst Lubitsch, to write the script – along with additional material by Hitch’s assistant Joan Harrison and wife Alma Reville. By most accounts the writing and preproduction of the script came about easily. Hitch claims that RKO forced his hand in changing the ending of the novel to make Cary Grant innocent of murder – but early treatments and memos suggest that Hitch was just as happy to let Johnnie off the hook as anyone. Just one more example of Hitchcock rewriting his history to suit his personal mythology.
When the time came for the actual production of Suspicion, it seems that things went a little bit South for Hitch. Even with two wonderful stars in Grant and Fontaine, Hitchcock quickly became bored with the shooting (possibly because the production was all in studio and contained none of his trademark large set pieces or excitement).
Filming on Suspicion took nearly 6 whole months (twice as long Rebecca) and most of that time the production was shooting without a definite ending for the movie. Hitchcock took ill at one point, delaying shooting and Fontaine was also indisposed for a time – add to that Hitch’s general malaise about the whole thing and the slow pace of the production and by the time the film was set to debut in November of 1941 everyone – including Hitch – was expecting a failure.
But, to Hitch’s surprise, the public loved the movie. Joan Fontaine was an Oscar for her performance (the only actor to win under Hitchcock’s direction). Critics were divided on the picture, with some calling it better than Rebecca and others saying that it was a tepid film that lacked the usual Hitchcock flare. As is often the case, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Where oh where does Suspicion fit in the history and legacy of the master? Probably somewhere in the middle – it’s an important film more for what it leads to than what it is.
First off, there’s Cary Grant. In Grant, Hitch found the first leading man that he really felt could fit into anything. Like Robert Donat, Grant was to Hitchcock an ideal actor, capable of charm and humour and dark suspense. He was a man of romance and action – and Hitchcock would use him for all those things over the four films they made together (Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, and North By Northwest). Along with James Stewart, Cary Grant was probably the most perfect Hitchcock man – which is a tough find for a director who put far more stock in his leading ladies.
Next we have the theme and archetype of Hitchcock’s ‘suspicion pictures’. Beginning with The Lodger and carrying on through Sabotage, and Rebecca, Hitchcock always had a love of films which preyed upon an ordinary protagonist’s fear that someone close to them might be evil. The same theme continues on in future films such as Shadow of a Doubt. It is a touchstone for Hitch – as much as the ‘wrong man pictures’ or the ‘perfect murder gone wrong pictures’.
Suspicion is a brick in the wall that Hitch built for himself – a wall which provided him with security, but occasionally also penned him in to certain genres and types of movies.
Other Hitchcockian elements popping up in Suspicion include brandy and its associations with death (here in its most literal form as the drink actually kills Beaky), there’s the power of the staircase, class struggles, the lure of the train, and characters discussing how to commit murder.
And, while I personally didn’t love Suspicion, I still think that it’s a pretty vital and informative film in the world of Hitchcock – and without it we never would have had so many of his greatest pictures yet to come.
Next time we look at Hitchcock’s wartime B-movie thriller, and classic ‘wrong man’ picture – it’s 1942’s Saboteur! See you then.