SUSPICION (1941): “If you’re going to kill somebody, do it simply.”

SUSPICION (1941) – RKO Radio Pictures – ★★★

B&W – 99 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Joan Fontaine (Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth), Cary Grant (Johnnie Aysgarth), Nigel Bruce (‘Beaky’ Thwaite), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (General McLaidlaw), Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Martha McLaidlaw), Leo G. Carroll (Captain Melbeck).

Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles

Cinematography by Harry Stradling, Sr.

Edited by William Hamilton

Music by Franz Waxman

A promising premise:  In 1941, while under contract to David O. Selznick, Hitchcock made back-to-back films on loan-out to RKO.  The first was the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which Hitchcock claimed he made only as a favor to star Carol Lombard.  The follow-up film was a project he had his eye on for some time,  based on the work of an author (Anthony Berkeley Cox) he really admired.  That film would become Suspicion.  It was actually another A.B. Cox novel that first caught Hitchcock’s eye, a book called Malice Aforethought. Hitchcock wanted to make a film version, but never acquired the rights.  So he settled on Cox’s follow-up novel, Before the Fact. 

The subject of the film is a young woman named Lina, played with impressive restraint by Joan Fontaine.  She is in many ways a continuation of the character that Fontaine had played a year earlier in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.   Lina is one of Hitchcock’s sexually repressed women,  a character type that would surface in several Hitchcock films (Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, Tippi Hedren in Marnie).  She has a couple of chance encounters with a man named Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) who is the exact opposite of her:  an extrovert of the highest order, charming and rakish.  She finds herself drawn to him.   When she overhears her parents commenting on her spinsterish condition, she practically throws herself at Johnnie.  She runs off to the justice of the peace, and they are married.

Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine, flanked by two stalwart British character actors, Dame May Whitty and Sir Cedric Hardwicke.

It does not take long for Lina to realize that her new husband has a few character flaws.  She learns that he is broke.  Then she learns that he had a gambling problem.  She also discovers that he is a thief, an embezzler, and a compulsive liar.  Despite all of this, she remains loyal to him.  The film follows a pattern of Lina being hurt by Johnnie’s behavior, then being won over by his “naughty schoolboy” attitude.    But will Lina also stand by Johnnie if he is a murderer?

Shortly after Lina and Johnnie are married we are introduced to Johnnie’s old school chum “Beaky” Thwaite, played to perfection by Nigel Bruce.  Nigel is a rather simple but likable chap.  At one point, Johnnie proposes a business scheme in which Beaky will put up all of the money.  Lina suspects that Johnnie plans to take the money for personal use.  Shortly thereafter, Beaky ends up dead, under suspicious circumstances.  Lina begins to suspect that Johnnie may have been guilty.  She then begins to suspect that he plans to murder her as well, for life insurance money.    She believes this right up to the last scene, when events take a surprising turn.

Performance:   Let’s begin with the good.  Joan Fontaine won an Academy Award for her performance in this movie, the only Oscar in an acting category ever bestowed in a Hitchcock film.  Many people have said it was a “make up” Oscar for not winning the previous year, for Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  It is not a typical Oscar-winning role for the time, being understated, rather than melodramatic.   Fontaine’s performance is entirely appropriate for the character, and deserving of the award.  British film royalty Dame May Whitty and Sir Cedric Hardwicke are splendid as Lina’s parents.   Nigel Bruce (best known for playing Doctor Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes) is wonderful as Beaky Thwaite.  He is completely endearing, to both Lina and the viewer, which is important so we will feel his loss all the more.  Surprisingly, the problem with this movie is Cary Grant.  It is not that he acts poorly.  It is rather that it is impossible to like his character as written.  It is hard to feel fondness for this lying, stealing cad, no matter how much he tries to charm everyone.  I fault the screenplay more so than I do Cary Grant.

Would you like a glass of milk?  In the most well-known scene in this movie, Johnnie Aysgarth brings a glass of milk to his wife, Lina.  The audience is not sure at this point if that glass contains poison.  Hitchcock wanted to be sure that every viewer’s eyes were on that glass.  So he used a simple, but ingenious method to shoot it.  In this sequence he employs two of his signature motifs:  the overhead shot, and the staircase.  He begins with a shot from above, as a square of light floods the tiled floor from the kitchen.  Suddenly, that light goes out, and Cary Grant walks out, with a glass of milk on a tray.  Then the camera pans with him as he walks up the stairs in shadow, with tray in hand.   Hitchcock explained how he made sure that glass stood out:  “I put a light right inside the glass because I wanted it to be luminous.  Cary Grant’s walking up the stairs and everyone’s attention had to be focused on that glass.”

It is interesting that Hitchcock criticized his cinematographer for this film being “too glossy”, when scenes like this show a perfect marriage of light and shadow.

Academy Awards:  Suspicion was nominated for three Academy Awards.  Joan Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.   The movie also received a Best Picture nomination, and Franz Waxman’s musical score was nominated as well.

Source material:  The movie is based on the 1932 novel Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley Cox, written under the pseudonym Francis Iles.  The book is an entertaining, if frustrating read.  It is a first-person narrative told from the point of view of Lina McLaidlaw.  The book begins much as the movie does.  Lina is a spinsterish 28-year old,  who is swept off her feet by the charming and impetuous Johnnie Aysgarth.   Lina marries Johnnie, and then he begins to show his true colors.  Only the Johnnie Aysgarth of the book is a much more vile character.   He does share a few traits with Cary Grant’s character in the film;  both are liars, thieves and embezzlers.  But the Aysgarth of the novel is also an adulterer, who has a child with the family maid.   This much darker Johnnie Aysgarth also is responsible for the deaths of both General McLaidlaw, and Beaky Thwaite.  And at the end of the novel, he murders Lina as well.  So we have a novel that is narrated by the murder victim herself.  It is frustrating to see this woman who continues to stick with this reprehensible man, as she learns more and more about his behavior, eventually allowing herself to be poisoned by him, because she can’t live without him.  Hence the title of the book, because Lina is an accessory before the fact to her own murder.

The ending that could have been:  Initially, Alfred Hitchcock wanted an ending to his film that was truer to the original novel.  He explained why he had to change the ending in an interview he gave to the New York Herald Tribune shortly after the film’s release:  “I knew as soon as I read Before the Fact that there’d have to be a different ending…It is axiomatic in Hollywood that unhappy endings breed commercial failures…In Suspicion we had a story that led naturally to an unhappy finale…Cary Grant is familiar as a light comedian, and Joan Fontaine is remembered mainly as the heroine of the happily ending Rebecca.  It is doubtful that those two would be accepted as figures in a tragedy.   But supposing we had forgotten all that and made the husband a murderer – then we’d have had the Hays office to deal with.  The code demands that a murderer face punishment by law…Toward the end of the film Grant brings Miss Fontaine a glass of milk which she believes to be poisoned.  It seemed logical to me that she should drink it and put him to the test…We shot that finish.  She drained the glass and waited for death.  Nothing happened, except an unavoidable and dull exposition of her spouses’s innocence.  Trail audiences booed it, and I don’t blame them.”

Hitchcock’s preferred ending, which was written but never filmed, had Grant truly poisoning Fontaine.  She pens a letter to her mother, writing of her suspicions that Johnnie may kill her.  She seals the envelope and puts a stamp, just as Cary Grant brings in the milk.  She drinks it, and slumps over, dead.  The last scene of the film would have shown Grant, whistling, posting the letter in mail box, inadvertently sealing his own fate in the process.  This ending would have been far more satisfactory than the one chosen for the film.  This movie’s greatest flaw lies in the building up of Grant’s character as a possible murderer, then showing us that he is not.   But are we to forget all of his other significant character flaws?  And who killed Beaky?  This is left unexplained, as if insignificant.  This movie parallels Hitchcock’s earlier silent film The Lodger, in which we spend most of the film asking “Is he, or isn’t he a killer?”   In both cases the films are based on novels in which the man in question really is a killer.  And in both cases, Hitchcock had to compromise on his preferred choice of ending, because one simply could not have a matinee star be a killer in those days.  Of the two, this movie suffers more because of this choice

Themes and motifs:  I have already discussed how this movie shares much in common with the earlier film The Lodger.  Hitchcock’s favorite concept, that of guilt, real or assumed, is on full display here as well.  Lina feels the guilt for Johnnie’s actions that he apparently does not.   I have also mentioned the trademark Hitchcock overhead shot, and the staircase, both employed in this movie’s most effective scene.  There are a couple of other nice Hitchcock touches.  One involves a dinner scene in which a pathologist is discussing a corpse while cutting into his game hen.  Hitchcock loved to mix macabre details with into dining scenes (Rear Window, Frenzy). There is also a comic scene which involves a policeman staring in puzzlement at an abstract painting.  Hitchcock loved to place works of art in his films, and he also loved to portray policemen as ineffective simpleton’s, so this is in effect a two-for-scene, as this provincial county policeman struggles in vain to “get” an abstract painting.

There is also a painfully misogynist scene, in which Cary Grant and Nigel Bruce attempt to cheer up Joan Fontaine by making faces and tickling her chin.  So Cary Grant has pawned her family heirlooms for gambling money, and she is supposed to accept this because a couple of men are treating her like a baby?

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 46:56 mark in the film.  He is seen posting a letter in the village mailbox.

Recurring players:  Cary Grant would later appear in Notorious, To Catch A Thief, and North by Northwest.  Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce and Billy Bevan (ticket taker on train) were in Rebecca just one year earlier.  Sir Cedric Hardwicke would later appear in Rope.  Dame May Whitty had appeared in The Lady Vanishes.  Isabel Jeans had appeared in two Hitchcock silent films, Downhill and Easy Virtue.  Heather Angel, who played the maid Ethel, would later appear in Lifeboat.  Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll was also in Rebecca, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.   Leonard Carey (McLaidlaw’s butler) also had small roles in Rebecca, The Paradine Case and Strangers on a Train.   Alec Craig (desk clerk) also played a desk clerk in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Edward Fielding (antique shop proprietor) also had small roles in Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, and Spellbound.  Gavin Gordon would later appear in Notorious.  Lumsden Hare (Inspector Hodgson) was also in Rebecca and The Paradine Case.  Gertrude Hoffman and Hilda Plowright had also appeared in Foreign Correspondent.  Aubrey Mather (executor of will) was also in Sabotage and Jamaica Inn.  Ben Webster had earlier appeared in Downhill.

What Hitch said:   When Truffaut asked Hitchcock if he was satisfied with Suspicion, he replied:  “Up to a point.  The elegant sitting rooms, the grand staircases, the lavish bedrooms, and so forth, those were the elements that displeased me.  We came up against the same problem we had with Rebecca, an English setting laid in America.  For a story of that kind, I wanted authentic location shots.  Another weakness is that the photography was too glossy.”

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers released this film on blu-ray in 2016, as part of their Warner Archives collection.  The print of the movie is very solid, highlighting cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.’s excellent play of light and shadow.  Also included are a 20-minute featurette which includes interview snippets with the usual cast of characters:  Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Schickel,  Robert Osborne and Bill Krohn.  John Waxman (son of composer Franz Waxman) also provides some comments about his father’s work with Hitchcock.  The blu-ray also includes the original theatrical trailer.

 

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Published by

wemisse

Avid movie lover, reader, and writer.

3 thoughts on “SUSPICION (1941): “If you’re going to kill somebody, do it simply.””

  1. Very interesting review of this film! I always rather liked it, until that ending. It’s seems all the more deflating because I do like the rest of the film. It’s interesting that he thought it was too glossy. I thought the contrast between the somewhat charming English country village (kind of like an Agatha Christie novel) contrasted nicely with the suspicion, fear and dark doings going on. I wonder how he would have made it less glossy?

    1. That’s a good question. I’m not sure why he thought it was too glossy. I have no problems with the look of the film at all. You’re right about the Agatha Christie feel of the village, including having it’s own woman mystery writer! A deliberate nod to Christie, perhaps? My only issue is with the ending. But a good film, nonetheless.

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