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Suspicion (1941)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

SUSPICION (1941)

Starring: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Heather Angel, Auriol Lee

Written By: Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, Alma Reville, Francis Iles (novel)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

The Short Version

Alfred Hitchcock directs a tale about a dangerous romance.  Or is it?

Cary Grant is a brilliant charismatic cad.

Joan Fontaine very much deserves the Oscar she got for her performance here.

The studio’s interference with the film is legendary, but Hitchcock parries like the master he is.

Though by no mean flawless, Suspicion is a fascinating thriller with plenty to offer for classic cinema fans.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

BLEU.

Many people are suspicious of it, even as they enjoy it.


Pairs Well With...

BRANDY.

“I can do with a drink.”

But remember: binging on it can be murder…

“It’s all true.  Every word he isn’t saying.”


Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion is a wonderful example how art in front of the camera and craft behind it can take what should otherwise have been a mediocre “B” picture (which it was originally slated to be prior to Hitch’s involvement) subject to fading with the passage of time and instead turn it into a worthwhile film that holds up even seven decades and change on.  It’s also a fine example of a great director making a tasty omelet after studio interference kept trying to break the carefully arranged eggs.

Suspicion is told from the point of view of Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine, Rebecca), a quiet woman from a wealthy family whose own parents assume that she has no romantic prospects and is destined for spinsterhood.  Then she meets Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant, North by Northwest), an occasionally charming playboy who sweeps her off her feet despite also being occasionally creepy and boorish.  Soon they are married, and they live happily ever… oh, wait.

Playboy though he may be, it turns out that Johnnie doesn’t actually have any money of his own, or even a job.  Instead, his income is derived from a combination of the generosity of his friends, con games, and horse races (which he is apparently terrible at picking the winners of).  He’s also got something of a sinister streak that makes Lina start to wonder just how far he might go for the sake of laying his hands on more cash, like, say, murdering his wife for the insurance payout.

Marriage isn’t quite so wonderful when every moment is darkened by a cloud of suspicion…

Looking at it from the viewpoint of the second decade of the 21st Century, it’s hard not to picture Suspicion as an episode of an ‘Investigation Discovery’ true crime show waiting to happen.  (I’ll open the bidding with “Who the Bleep Did I Marry?”)  A naïve woman with self-esteem issues ends up marrying a manipulative, psychologically abusive man of questionable character who may or may not be a homicidal gold digger.  In the real world of today, assuming that we’re civilized people, we do not root for this man.  Instead, we stage an intervention with the codependent woman and beg her to leave the jerk and maybe get some therapy to go along with the restraining order.  But that’s the real world.

Suspicion is Old Hollywood, and that makes all the difference.  Specifically, it’s Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, and Alfred Hitchcock.

Start with Cary Grant in the role of Johnnie.  Without question, the character is a cad, but the point of the whole exercise is to figure out just what kind of cad: a well-meaning, emotionally immature, and financially foolish cad, or a sinister, deviously calculating, and ultimately murderous cad.  Put either an unknown actor or a famous villain in the role, and it all falls apart: the audience sees Johnnie for scum and that’s all she wrote.  But much to the chagrin of the studio, Suspicion plays the casting card brilliantly with Grant: a well-known and incredibly well-liked actor with extraordinary screen charisma and a “good guy” reputation.  Audiences are inclined to excuse his character’s outrageous and often boorish behavior because of the automatic goodwill commanded by Grant, which in turn allows the director to make the character even more menacing, finally reaching a point where the audience is forced to run out of excuses at roughly the same time that the character’s apparently trapped wife is… and Grant goes along with it to fantastic effect.

(This bothered studio honcho David O. Selznick to no end.  He even went so far as to demand that any footage showing Grant to look sinister be removed from the film… which would have cut the runtime almost in half and totally destroyed the entire point of the picture.  Hitchcock, anticipating this, shot his scenes in such a way as to make such an excision impossible.)

Meanwhile, Joan Fontaine takes the road opposite the one taken by Grant, and steps into very familiar territory for her role as Lina.  (She’d played a similarly naïve woman entering into a dangerous marriage for Hitchcock the year before in Rebecca.  She missed getting an Oscar that time; for this role, she won.)  It’s a part she plays flawlessly with a brand of charisma that makes the audience inclined to be sympathetic – even a modern audience that might otherwise be inclined to be screaming at the screen for her character to just leave the bum and get a restraining order.  Lina’s emotionally dependent, but she’s not dumb, and Fontaine won’t allow the audience to decide otherwise even when the character seems resigned to accepting the worst.  It’s a delicate balancing act, and the results speak for themselves; Fontaine is a perfect complement to Grant, and she got the hardware for her mantelpiece because she earned it.

This brings us back to the man who started off by keeping Suspicion from being made as a forgettable “B” picture and finished by refusing to the let studio turn it back into one through interference: Alfred Hitchcock.  He went through several titles for this adaptation of the Francis Iles novel “Before the Fact” prior to settling on Suspicion, and it’s a deft choice, because that’s exactly the atmosphere he maintains when it counts.  Bear in mind that “when it counts” doesn’t necessarily include the start of the picture, which begins a bit slowly (though necessarily so to allow audiences to meet the characters properly), but once the film reaches the second half, it’s the full-on Hitchcock that fans of the master director have come to expect.  It’s through his efforts that Cary Grant’s performance is allowed to charm and menace simultaneously despite the studio’s objections, and his technique that gives Joan Fontaine an atmosphere of uncertainty to work her magic in.  It’s Hitchcock who makes the scrabble game something other than cheesy; it’s Hitchcock who put a light in the glass of milk with contents that are never made entirely clear.  It’s also Hitchcock who has a perfect bead on the screenplay’s pulse, stretching the uncertainty just to the point where it comes close to being too much and brining things to an end before they cross the line.

Ah, yes… that ending.  (I won’t spoil it, but one could make easy inferences from the paragraph below; skip ahead to the one beyond if you like.)

For many people, Suspicion is a wonderful thrill ride until the picture’s final five minutes.  Even Hitchcock himself would later express dissatisfaction with the ending they portray.  The novel ended one way.  Studio honcho David O. Selznick wanted it to end another.  To my mind, though, Hitchcock trumps them both by not answering all of the questions, even if some characters believe otherwise.  (If only Paul Verhoeven had shown such restraint…)

No, it’s not flawless, but for delivering on the promise of its title to the very end (even if the master himself has his doubts), Suspicion is plenty good enough.

Bottom line, with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in front of the camera and Alfred Hitchcock behind it, classic cinema fans really can’t go wrong indulging in a hundred minutes of Suspicion.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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