Suspicion (1941, Alfred Hitchcock)
No conversation about Suspicion goes far without a spiel about the oft-analyzed controversy at the center of it, so let’s just get it out of the way. It’s mortifying how much of a letdown this film’s ending turns out to be. Whether it is, as frequently charged by its director, studio-imposed or a misguided attempt at either ambiguity or the persuasive power of circumstantial evidence, it’s a gigantic copout disrupting what should clearly have been a suspenseful film about being murderously pursued by the other person in the bed, not a silly shaggy dog joke. Luckily that bit of idiocy only occupies the last thirty-odd seconds of screen time; until then, this is — contrary to my memory of it — the most polished of Alfred Hitchcock’s first few American films.
After the monstrous success of his two 1940 pictures, Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock took a brief detour into screwball comedy with Mr. & Mrs. Smith starring his close friend Carole Lombard. At the time, he didn’t have the kind of reputation that would make people bewildered when he made a film that wasn’t a thriller, a state of affairs that of course was soon to change. Suspicion, with its elaborate production design, European setting and cast of erudite (mostly British) actors, is much more traditional in the sense that it at times seems almost designed to evoke Rebecca right down to its casting of Joan Fontaine in the lead. It certainly has the feel of a movie-star fairy tale, with Fontaine’s bookish Lina seduced by draggy fake playboy Johnnie aboard a train; modern audiences will immediately pick up on his manipulation and general dickishness, which was meant as a coy undercurrent at the time. Hitchcock delighted in casting the heartthrob Cary Grant in the role of a philandering jerk whose fortune is nonexistent, whose relationship with creditors is a big mess and whose primary motivation in marrying Lina seems to have been to establish a rapport with her wealthy father.
As ever, when revisiting Hitchcock’s work simultaneously with a bunch of other directors’ movies, you immediately know what made him the best of them all. The out-of-nowhere dolly around the lovers kissing. The downcast, menacing angles that give even placid domestic settings a sense of foreboding torment. Of course the lit-up glass of milk and that slow, excruciating walk upstairs. The should-be-awkward-but-isn’t zoom into Fontaine as she reads a letter. The shadows, everywhere shadows. The jokes: a police officer’s blank incomprehension over an abstract painting, pointed out then tossed off. And the strange but telling details that most filmmakers would leave out: how Fontaine always must find her glasses before she can read the latest evidence of one of her husband’s transgressions. In the broader scheme, this is lesser Hitchcock, but his subtle visual pyrotechnics are no less breathtaking than in any of his masterworks.
The script is mostly the work of Joan Harrison and Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s longtime assistant and wife respectively, who’d done a treatment of Rebecca that was rejected out of hand by David O. Selznick because its tone was too aloof and comedic — much like Hitchcock’s British films, on which he routinely collaborated more openly with Reville, had been. Though Hitchcock was still under contract to Selznick in 1941, he was loaned out to RKO to make Suspicion and without Selznick’s oversight, he ran amok making the kind of movie Rebecca probably would have been sans the producer’s interference.
Perhaps not surprisingly in a screenplay cowritten by two women, Suspicion despite its age (and the now-troubling aggression of the courtship depicted therein) can claim to be a pretty timeless portrait of living with and around a pathological liar, a dangerously reckless small-time crook who may be brewing a plan to become a big-time one. Grant’s Johnny is shifty, unempathetic, selfish, and most of all, purely manipulative — he sweeps Fontaine up from a sheltered zone she needs desperately to escape and he knows it. Like her character in Rebecca, she’s sunken in to a frightening unknown — but one that seems so much less storybook, so much more a distressing fact of many womens’ lives. The movie is often frivolous and sloppy, with some scenes that are fascinating and wonderful (a discussion with a mystery writer who happens to be a lesbian; and of course the weird painting) but don’t connect to much else in the story. Lina’s tension as she gradually realizes her husband is a liar becomes, of course, ours. The situation escalates to a brilliantly excruciating fever pitch — and then, nothing. Turns out she had it all wrong. Guy’s not a killer. Okay? O… kay.
Hitchcock would always name his dissatisfaction at the finale of Suspicion — imposed, he claimed, by RKO because they wouldn’t allow Grant to play a murderer — as a key reason he became his own producer as soon as he left Selznick’s clutches in 1947. But in respect to its casting, at least, this film is almost a utopian Hitchcock ideal, forecasting the way he would use actors when he had greater control. Grant is absolutely tremendous, completely believable and scary as a wry scumbag who’s nevertheless sexually alluring; we know from his comedies just how expressive his eyes can be, and his shiftiness and cold calculation in this film can make you squirm in your seat on nearly a Norman Bates level.
It’s frequently posited that Fontaine — the only actor ever to receive an Oscar for a performance in a Hitchcock film, alarmingly enough — won Best Actress as a makeup for losing for Rebecca in 1940, and that may be at least partially true, but all the same she is spectacular in this film. You can sense a set of patriarchal politics taking over given how powerless she comes to appear (even in the alternate ending suggested by Hitchcock in the Truffaut book, wherein she resigns to the poisoning of her husband but has him post a letter the next day with all the gory details) but this gives the 99-minute film a degree of powerful shorthand in describing how an abusive relationship works. Along with Love Me or Leave Me, it’s one of the best case studies of such in classic Hollywood cinema. Meanwhile, only Hitchcock could find such effective and unforgettable use for May Whitty, Nigel Bruce and even Leo Carroll in relatively minor parts. It’s a film effectively populated with Hitchcock faces in the background, the foreground occupied by two of his actorly soulmates. (The story goes that Hitchcock wanted Joan Fontaine in nearly all of his films for the next ten years but Selznick wouldn’t let her go, so they never worked together again. When Leonard Leff told her this in the ’80s, she was audibly upset.)
It had been ten years since I last saw Suspicion, and this was only my third time, so it was remarkably fresh for me. I caught a few things that a renewed familiarity with other major Hitchcock films probably made extra-clear to me. One is that he was oddly fixated on waves crashing over rocks — and here, in a marked move away from the common (and probably truthful) perception that he was a romantic, it signifies death. Another is that there’s a direct anticipation of Vertigo here: I was aghast when Fontaine wrote a letter announcing her intention to leave Grant then tore it up. It never occurred to me more how frequently Hitchcock and his screenwriters used the device of having mystery writers or enthusiasts as people surrounding the central characters. And finally, Fontaine fainting at a table then waking up surrounded — nested, perhaps — within her own home is in story and visual terms a near-direct rhyme with Notorious.
In years past, particularly as his American career was getting underway, Suspicion was considered one of Hitchcock’s classic works — the anxiety over its stupid ending has nixed that to a degree. Some choose to interpret the film as a document of marital paranoia, though this doesn’t wash since Johnnie is clearly a problem regardless of whether he’s a murderer; the movie is like an advice column on film, and the strength of its details cry out for a darker, more modern interpretation — the only time you’ll see me say that about a Hitchcock movie. But I hope this film does have a renewed life someday; if you can look past that one glaring problem, it’s an absorbing and riveting experience, and crucial to one’s understanding of the great man’s first formative years in Hollywood.