May 172014

Suspicion is an important element of the movie-watching experience. We engage with the plot by developing reasoned pre-conclusions about how events will unfold. We make assumptions before the truth is revealed. But for Lina Aysgarth (Joan Fontaine), a wealthy ingenue gripped by a growing fear that her playboy husband Johnnie (Cary Grant) is planning to murder her for her life insurance policy, suspicion is synonymous more with the terror of presumed inevitability than with the anticipation of knowing. Suspicion, however, cautions us to be ever mindful of all eventualities when solving a case. Though it is far from being Hitchcock’s most complex or important work, the film shows him as a master manipulator of audience expectations. It ultimately proves a typically successful Hitchcockian experiment with the thriller formula by warning us not to jump to conclusions before the facts are in. The film is as much about our own suspicions as it is about Lina’s. Like Lina, we often fall into the trap of relying on intuition rather than evidence.

It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s genius that he helmed such a solid picture despite having to comply with the pandering decisions made by the powers that be at RKO Pictures, who didn’t want to taint the dashing Grant’s reputation by presenting him as a remorseless psychopath—as his character is portrayed in the novel on which the film is based, Before the Fact by Francis Iles. Perhaps, though, it’s better that Hitchcock lost this fight, especially given the film’s success in warning against prejudicial judgment by getting us to consider both sides of a story. The fact that Johnnie often appears less sinister than we might have suspected adds to the film’s suspense.

As the narrative evolves, Hitch tosses in several clues that Johnny is more of a blunt-toothed profligate than a calculating weasel. We see his heartfelt grief over the unexpected death of his old college chum Gordon (“Beaky”) Thwaite (Nigel Bruce), his generous gift giving (true, it’s easier to be that way when it’s not your money), his apparently sincere sense of rejection when he believes Lina no longer loves him or wants to share his bed. But the master of suspense also revels in confusing us by providing a plethora of circumstantial evidence to the contrary, beginning with a marvelously choreographed scene on a wind-swept hilltop where the soon-to-be-married lovers are grappling with one another. The tense moment finally resolves with an embrace and kiss, but with little to go on yet, our sleuthing instincts lead us to believe this is more a foreshadowing of ill intent than a rescue from a fall off a cliff. After all, there’s little point in a gold-digging deadbeat killing before he gets what he wants. The red flags of foreboding are raised even higher when we hear the rhetorical question he asks her in his callously breezy tone: “What did you think I was trying to do? Kill you?”

And later on, Johnnie confronts his wife on the stairs, threatening her not to interfere with his suspicious real estate scheme with Beaky. The camera slowly rises to convey Lina’s escalating fear. It foreshadows another staircase case scene in which the pattern of a web is silhouetted against an eerie light on the wall as Johnnie brings a glass of milk up to his wife’s room. A sense of creeping poison has never been so deliciously served up; it’s Hitchcock’s cinematography at its most brilliantly suggestive. Could this be anything other than an indication that the spider has finally decided to strike?

As in so many other of his films, Hitchcock’s wry irony is also very much at work here. In Suspicion, humor prompts us to reflect on our suspicion of Johnnie’s guilt. A dame’s encroaching fear of being bumped off by her hubby seems more the material for a film noir, yet this flick is chock full of lighthearted repartee and droll stock character types consisting of likeable fools and ponderous stuffed shirts. As Johnnie’s fatheaded friend Beaky, Nigel Bruce reminds us of why he is best remembered as Sherlock Holmes’s bumbling accomplice Watson. Cedric Hardwicke, portraying Lina’s gruff ex-military-man father, pompously puffs on a pipe and can’t be bothered with questions as he glowers at the newspaper he’s reading. And as the business partner whose trust Johnnie has betrayed, George Melbeck (Leo G. Carroll, who would become a character-actor staple of Hitchcock’s films) speaks in a tone as comically platitudinous as that of the “professor” in North by Northwest. As for Johnny himself, he barely attempts to disguise his acquisitive intentions or hesitance to work for a living, casually blurting out references to the good fortune he has gained in marrying Lina. Such barefaced frankness doesn’t exactly seem the hallmark trait of a murderer.

The nonchalance and urbane wittiness of Grant is brilliantly contrasted with the sterile blandness of Fontaine, fresh from her appearance in the best-picture-winning Rebecca. Lina’s almost impossible idealism is mocked throughout by Hitchcock, both explicitly by Johnnie and Beaky, as they make funny faces at her and take her to task for her worrying nature, and subtly through Franz Waxman’s laughably saccharine musical score (you know, the 1940s kind that’s awash in sweeping string melodies). And the mockery rings true: she’s  just another silly spinster who met a charming chap on the train and tried to escape her ennui by thinking herself in love. Perhaps this is why she’s so relatable: we can see Lina’s hypocrisy in ourselves as she vacillates between the bipolar extremes of idolatry and devaluation in her opinion of the character of the man she married. The film’s score underscores this idea: when she trusts him, we hear the lilting strains of a Strauss waltz; when she doesn’t, the music becomes a dark, rippling gloom that sounds derivative of Rachmaninoff.

This double personality of Johnny’s is at the heart of the objection that some, including Hitchcock himself, have voiced regarding the film. And they have a point. Simply put, it just doesn’t seem true to life. Most of the playboys I’ve known have, even upon closer examination, turned out to be just that: ruthless manipulators who exploit the female need to be loved. Nevertheless, Suspicion reminds us of the importance of keeping an open mind, in life as well as the movies. Truth may not be stranger than fiction, but it’s usually better-hidden.

Joe’s Grade: B+

  One Response to “A Nagging Suspicion (1941) That Foul Play Is Afoot”

  1. Joe,

    Totally off topic, but I’ve been enjoying the CD’s you gave me before I moved. I’m particularly fond of the Beethoven Sonata in D Major off Joe’s Potpourri for 2012. Also the Chopin, Bach, and Rachmaninoff selections…….its amazing how certain composers wet my whistle time and again whilst others simply don’t register. Of course your liner notes are immensely enjoyable-erudite, passionate and featuring many goon-worthy zingers such as “It calls to mind the coquettish laughter of a fleeting woodland nymph”

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