US (1941) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
While on a train journey home timid and mousey Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) shares a compartment with charming but irresponsible playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) who appears to be fleeing from someone or something. The pair are reunited at a social event with Johnnie doing his all to sweep Lina off her feet, eventually succeeding. Against the wishes of her parents (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Dame May Whitty) Lina and Johnnie get married after which Lina learns her new husband has no job and was hoping to live off her father’s money. As Johnnie’s reckless lifestyle and habitual lying puts a strain on their marriage Lina slowly becomes paranoid at the thought that Johnnie may be trying to kill her.
Despite being the only Hitchcock film to receive an Oscar for an acting role Suspicion is a film that rarely gets mentioned when discussing his extensive catalogue of works. There is probably good reason for this as it really only comes alive in the final fifteen minutes or so. Has this been made maybe a decade later the suspense factor would have been turned up to 11 and the film would have been more of a Hitchcock film and less a conventional 1940’s melodrama which it essentially is.
Marking the first of four appearances for Hitchcock for perennial smoothy Cary Grant, this adaptation of the 1932 novel Before The Fact by Francis Iles also sees Joan Fontaine returning for her second film for the Hitch, after Rebecca the previous year. As shy bookworm Lina she may hide her looks behind a pair of glasses and a big hat but for lothario Johnnie he can see past this and is smitten. While nothing is hinted at in the early stages Johnnie’s reputation for being a male gold digger begins to seep through in subtle stages until his wooing of Lina pays off as the prospect of marrying into money becomes ever closer to becoming a reality.
However Lina may be a wallflower but she is no idiot and after Johnnie reveals his true idleness to her, she sends him off to work for his cousin Captain Melbeck (Leo G. Carroll) only to be fired for embezzlement shortly after. Lina is having serious doubts but is assured by Johnnie’s kind hearted but bumbling friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce) that he is a decent rogue.
However Johnnie can’t hide his disappointment when after her father dies, Lina only inherits a portrait of him. Johnnie’s next idea is to get into real estate using Beaky’s money which Lina tries to dissuade but Beaky is all for it. On a trip to Paris Beaky is killed in a freak accident and it is a while before Johnnie returns, leaving Lina to believe that she is next.
It’s a decent sounding plot if one that has since been done to death. Admittedly with the reputation he had for suspenseful thrillers one would have banked on Hitchcock delivering an absolute nerve racking experience; instead it seems he have yet to find his feet in the genre at which he would soon excel, with this being quite a pedestrian vehicle compared to his later and greater successes.
A lot of this is down to RKO not allowing Hitchcock full reign to work his magic and insisting he follows the safe, code-acquiescing remits of Hollywood despite wowing everyone the year previous with Rebecca! This also meant the ending was changed from the one in the novel to the one we got here which threatens to – and in the eyes of many achieves – undermine the prior 90 minutes of plot build up. This was due to the producers not having bankable nice guy star Cary Grant portrayed in a negative light fearing it would harm his box office appeal. Even the great Hitch wasn’t yet in a position to argue against this mandate.
The main conceit of the story is not so much Johnnie’s actions corrupting Lina’s mind but her own imagination doing that for her based on largely circumstantial evidence which, with some irony, sees her grow stronger as a character from the meek young lady we meet at the start. This is probably what the Academy and other critics saw in Joan Fontaine’s performance to reward her with the Best Actress Oscar.
To be honest I wasn’t completely blown away by her performance here but I did certainly recognise the nuances and subtle changes in the character as she finds herself on a see-saw of emotions from fear to relief to fear again. To that end she certainly held up her end of the acting bargain sufficiently enough.
Cary Grant was of course Cary Grant with a slightly darker edge that was somewhat diluted for reason already explained, yet had he been allowed to go full throttle this could have been his greatest moment on film. Nigel Bruce was pretty much Dr. Watson without Basil Rathbone to belittle him intellectually and while feeling a little incongruous, his appearances were brief.
Aesthetically many Hitchcock trademarks were in place – the use of light and shadows, tricky camera shots and the odd disarming visual clue to either suggest or completely derail us from where the story is heading. The final car sequence is arguably the most suspenseful scenes in the whole film and indeed the only piece of action, which would later be replicated and bettered in North By Northwest.
Perhaps my own expectations where high due to the story and the other Hitchcock films I have seen recently but while Suspicion remains a solid outing it suffers, at least in this writer’s opinion, from too much restraint and bowing to conventions along with a weak ending. Not bad but not great.