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Isn’t Johnnie simply too fantastic for words?

Suspicion
(1941)

(SPOILERS) Suspicion found Alfred Hitchcock basking in the warm glow of Rebecca’s Best Picture Oscar victory the previous year (for which he received his first of five Best Director nominations, famously winning none of them). Not only that, another of his films, Foreign Correspondent, had jostled with Rebecca for attention. Suspicion was duly nominated itself, something that seems less unlikely now we’ve returned to as many as ten award nominees annually (numbers wouldn’t be reduced to five until 1945). And still more plausible, in and of itself, than his later and final Best Picture nod, Spellbound. Suspicion has a number of claims to eminent status, not least the casting of Cary Grant, if not quite against type, then playing on his charm as a duplicitous quality, but it ultimately falls at the hurdle of studio-mandated compromise.

The film was based on Francis Iles’ novel Before the Fact, in which the protagonist comes to realise her husband is a murderer but loves him so much that she allows him to kill her. Which would likely be a stretch for any adaptation. Hitchcock told how his preferred ending – it went unshot – partially echoed this, involving that dubiously glowing glass of milk Grant’s Johnnie Aysgarth takes to shrewish wife Lina (Joan Fontaine); “Joan Fontaine has just finished a letter to her mother: ‘Dear Mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer. Though I’d rather die, I think society should be protected from him.’ Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to Mother for me, dear?’ She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops the letter in”.

Which is perfect, and provides the necessary payoff to justify what is, at times, a rather languorously one-note preceding ninety minutes. Instead, we climax on a car ride in which Lina imagines Johnnie is about to push her out (as she imagines he intended to push buddy Nigel Bruce’s Beaky over a cliff, or initiated his death-by-over-imbibing in France), but he’s actually saving her, as evidenced by his ensuing breathless stream of exposition/ confession of how all those plot points she was askance over were actually entirely explicable (most notably that he was so eager to find out about poison because he intended to do away with himself – as if Cary Grant would ever consider suicide). Truffaut, in his definitive Hitch interview tome, suggested that, in comparison to the book’s excesses of plotting “the screenplay’s just as good. It is not a compromise”. But the ending of Suspicion really is. It’s equivalent to the most unlikely exposition suggested and seized on by a guilty Cleese or Atkinson in a comedy (“Er yes, that’s exactly what happened!”)

One mightargue the filmed ending lends a stroke of realism with regard to unhappy marriages, in that – despite everything, and whatever Johnnie’s confession may suggest to the contrary that he is attempting to mend his ways – Lina is destined to remain with a bad seed who will continue to fritter away her cash, lie to her and generally fray her nerves, to the point of illness; he just won’t attempt to murder her along with all that. But such a reading doesn’t really satisfy. The picture feels incomplete as told, because it retrospectively becomes about a silly woman’s projections rather than the entirely reasonable grounds she has to get shot of a manipulative and scheming partner.

Unlike later notables in the “is he/isn’t he is she/isn’t she” genre (Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct), there’s nothing else plot-wise to distract from Lina’s heightened paranoias, which means Suspicion consists of her thinking Johnnie is planning something dodgy, being relieved of this sense, but then pulled back again, and stir and repeat, with a consistency that doesn’t become tiresome but does lose its potency in the face of Grant’s overt and consistently unprincipled and caddish behaviour.

Nevertheless, there are many pleasures here. Hitchcock takes full opportunity of any opportunity for a visual flourish. One of the best comes early on in Johnnie and Lina’s relationship as, atop a cliff, he appears to struggle with her (“Now, what did you think I was trying to do? Kill you? Kiss you?”), but is actually just trying “to fix your hair”. Later, there’s the aforementioned imagining of Beaky plunging to his death.

Johnnie: What sort of line is this, selling third-class tickets at first-class prices?

The characterisation of Johnnie’s domineering aspect precedes some of the queasy obsessiveness of Jimmy Stewart’s control freak in Vertigo, but here it’s less about insecurity and obsession than assuming sexual sway and authority (right down to the diminishing term of affection for Lina, Monkey Face); there is never any doubt where the balance of power lies between them. It’s an interesting Grant performance; all the familiar gestures and tics are present and correct, but the warmth is hollow. We can’t identify with Johnnie, as we only ever see him through Lina’s eyes. Grant can’t really have fun with the part either, though, since he has to be remote and not fully seize on the possibilities (“Anyway, you wouldn’t actually want to live off your wife’s allowance, would you?” she asks at one point, and there’s a beat before he replies). 

Bruce is in dutiful duffer mode as Beaky (he’d debuted as Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes two years earlier, and also appeared in Rebecca). Leo G Carroll had appeared in Rebecca too and would show up in several more of the director’s films, including North By Northwest. Fontaine went home with the Oscar she failed to secure for Rebecca (it was awarded to Ginger Rogers), but this is significantly the inferior role and smacks, like so many Academy decisions, of their trying to make right a previous omission. Also notable is Auriol Lee – who died in a car crash soon after filming – as a murder writer friend, rather conveniently on hand to drop in misdirection and exposition on poisons; and at her dinner party is Phyllis Swinghurst, sporting a dinner suit, a lesbian identifier the US censors purportedly weren’t very happy about.

I don’t think Suspicion was ever a serious contender for claiming the Best Picture Oscar statuette, not with Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and actual winner How Green Was My Valley as company, but it does show the director’s critical stock at an all-time high, having just decamped to Hollywood and not yet fully inhabiting a particular genre that would tend to go unrewarded/recognised. Apparently, Grant wasn’t terribly happy about all the attention the director gave Fontaine at his expense, but that didn’t prevent them from going on to team up three more times, two of which would result in classics. And in one of those, Notorious, they would successfully capitalise on the potential dark undercurrents of the actor’s charm-personified persona that are somewhat scuppered here.


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