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Suspicion (1941)

October 25th, 2007 · 2 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Johnnie (Cary Grant) meets Lina (Joan Fontaine) on an English train. A cad who can’t keep his mouth shut – or stay out of the papers as the area’s most eligible bachelor – Johnnie takes five and twopence halfpenny off the buttoned down Lina to keep from being thrown out of first class. He later sees her at a fox hunt. The bachelorettes whose company he keeps warn him that she’s not up his alley, but Johnnie is smitten.

Asking her out under the guise of attending church, Johnnie takes Lina on a walk, where he rolls out all his charm, including calling her “Monkeyface” in an effort to get a kiss. Lina’s father, the General (Cedric Hardwicke) does not approve, noting Johnnie was “turned out of some club for cheating at cards.” This only stokes Lina’s rebellious side and after reuniting with Johnnie at a society ball – which he crashes – the couple elopes.

The first sign of trouble surfaces when Johnnie admits to his better half that he’s been broke all his life. Lina meets his only friend in the world, the affable Beaky (Nigel Bruce), and learns that instead of working for a living, her husband spends his time at the track. Two antique chairs her father sends them as a wedding present disappear, but Johnnie’s story about selling them to a collector proves false when Lina comes across the chairs at an antique parlor.

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Johnnie placates his wife by getting a job, but when she visits his employer, he notifies Lina that he fired her husband six weeks ago for embezzling £2,000. She’s ready to walk out on him, but news of her father’s death changes her plans. Johnnie hatches a real estate scheme with Beaky that strikes her as odd. Too many mystery novels and too much suspicion about her husband convince Lina that he’s plotting Beaky’s murder, and soon, hers.

Production history 
In the summer of 1940, director Alfred Hitchcock signed a two-picture contract with RKO, offering him a $15,000 bonus if he finished both films in a year. Mr. and Mrs. Smith was the first half of his obligation to the studio. For his second, Hitchcock had settled on Before The Fact, a 1932 novel by Anthony Berkeley Cox (writing under the pseudonym “Francis Iles”) which RKO owned the film rights to.

Scripts commissioned by RKO had been unable to get past the Hays Office, which forbid dramatizations of suicide, or of a murderer who gets away with his crime, two points crucial to the novel. Hitchcock intended to slip past the censors by making a psychological thriller, leaving the guilt of the heroine’s husband a mystery until the end. Cary Grant – who had rejected Mr. and Mrs. Smith for fear of being typecast – was game to play a suspected wife killer.

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Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville and Joan Harrison completed a treatment in November 1940, which playwright Samson Raphaelson was hired to adapt into a screenplay. While the dramatist found the treatment “long winded” and wrote most of the movie himself, Raphaelson didn’t object when the director asked if he would mind sharing writing credit with Reville and Harrison.

Shooting commenced in February 1941, marking the first of four collaborations Hitchcock would share with Cary Grant, the biggest star the director had worked with up to that point. For the female lead, Hitchcock wanted Michèle Morgan, a European star who had fled occupied France. RKO was uncomfortable with Morgan’s accent and relative anonymity. They preferred Joan Fontaine, who Grant reportedly did not get along with during filming.

Hitchcock had intended to end Before The Fact with a dash of the macabre. After Lina discovers her husband intends to poison her, she writes her mother, admitting she’d rather not live without him. She drinks the poisoned milk, but not before asking Johnnie to mail the letter for her. The final shot would have been Johnnie whistling as he drops the incriminating letter in the post. But RKO was adamant that Cary Grant could not be a wife killer.

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Reville and Harrison wrote another ending, which was shot and scrapped after test audiences booed it. Hitchcock settled on an ending he and Harrison came up with, one more friendly than fiendish. Test audiences still didn’t care for the title, and RKO changed it to Suspicion, ignoring the director’s objections. In spite of all these compromises, the film became a critical and commercial hit, and has its fans to this day.

Whether you consider this a light thriller or a dark comedy, Suspicion is one of Hitchcock’s most overlooked films, a little gem of subtle wickedness. It lacks the director’s signature “shocking” style, but is loaded with Hitchcock’s wit from start to finish. This first hour offers terrific farce, then detours into a sharply penned black comedy about the fallacies of marriage. I found myself laughing out loud through most of this movie.

A couple with their share of flaws discovers that marriage has not changed who they are. Soon, murder fantasies enter the picture. That story rang true for me in terms of human nature, and is really funny. Grant displays his ability to time comedy, or turn threatening at the drop of a hat, while Fontaine – who won an Academy Award for Best Actress here – keeps up. The ending is anti-climactic, but I like the film better as a black comedy than I would have as a thriller.

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Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “The beauty of Suspicion is that it starts off light and charming, just as Johnnie does, and darkens so gradually you won’t even notice what point it shifted from light romance into a psychological thriller.”

“Despite the rather clumsy ending, Suspicion remains solid entertainment, often retold, but never really as good as this,” writes Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.

Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “The story tries to be suspenseful, but ultimately it just doesn’t really go anywhere. Perhaps because the two lead characters’ love each other for all the wrong reasons. Their relationship is based on lies, deceit, guilt and betrayal. Certainly topics often covered by Hitchcock, but usually as part of a greater plot. As used here, their actions just seem hackneyed and over-played.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Black comedy · Golden Age of Hollywood · Paranoia · Train · Woman in jeopardy

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 25, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    I haven’t seen Suspicion in a long, long time (I first watched it back in high school when I was just beginning to “discover” Hitchcock), but I recall quite enjoying it… primarily, I think, for its style. Interestingly, I don’t remember very much about it aside from Nigel Bruce’s wonderful character (the kind of fellow he played so well), that memorable tracking shot of the milk glass and the anti-climactic “twist” ending (which I’m still not 100% sure is necessarily inferior to the ending that was originally intended).

    As I think about it now, it occurs to me that, regardless of which ending one prefers, this may be one of those cases where the star status of the film’s leading man was more inhibitive to the director making the film he initially wanted to make rather than helpful.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 25, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    Damian: Suspicion is a rare case of a movie the studio wanted being better – I think – than the one the director intended. I like the way it ends, which was an idea Hitchcock came up with, not RKO. It’s more consistent with a black comedy than a thriller, and fits Cary Grant’s persona much better as well. It’s definitely worth another look.

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