Suspicion (1941)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Suspicion might be Alfred Hitchcock’s creepiest film, or his funniest.  Or both.  It’s kind of a boiler plate Hitchcock story, playing with ideas of killers hiding in plain sight, and someone investigating that murder, but there was apparently a disagreement between Hitchcock and the studio over what to do with leading man Cary Grant’s character, leading to a strange push and pull regarding his sanity.  This is a “did he?” or “didn’t he?” story, and as you’re watching you’re thinking, “of course he did,” until you’re told he didn’t.  Ya dig?

Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth, a seemingly affluent young bachelor for whom Lina (Joan Fontaine) falls deeply in love.  It’s one of those movie romances that happens remarkably quickly, with the two characters professing love for one another on the first date and agreeing to get married shortly after.  The ease with which the two characters together hints at the trouble to follow.

Lina believed Johnnie to be a wealthy man, someone with whom she could settle down and live in comfort despite her father’s dislike for the man.  It’s only after they get married that she realizes he’s broke, only appearing wealthy because of a “fake it till you make it” philosophy.  Though he never directly hid the truth from her, Johnnie very much lied to Lina, but this isn’t enough for her to turn and run.

Johnnie is either a sociopath or the most determined, optimistic man in the world, but either way he’s deeply disturbing.  All Johnnie has to offer Lina is his love, something she’s very willing to accept and which probably suggests something about her character or just about the role of women in film at this time (and even still today in many rom-coms).

When Lina’s father gives them two chairs with sentimental and financial value, Johnnie is quick to cash them in and go gambling at the race track.  When Lina discovers this betrayal, informed by Johnnie’s strange friend Beaky, she seems ready to leave, but again she doesn’t.  Johnnie wins big at the track and buys her back the chairs, and suddenly all is forgotten.

By this point we know that Johnnie is desperate for money.  Soon he gets Beaky involved in risky financial ventures, and Lina can see clearly that he is robbing his simple-minded friend blind.  When Beaky dies one day, Lina believes her husband did it and that he will soon kill her to get to her family’s money.

See, this is very clearly the problem, that Lina believes her husband could do such a thing.  I mean, we believe it too.  Johnnie is a monster, both because he’s manipulative and just eerie, but also because this is a Hitchcock movie, of course he did it.  And yet, for some reason Lina remains by his side, her love for him apparently meant to be valid.

By the end of the movie she tries to run away only to end up in a car with Johnnie which he drives right up to the edge of a cliff.  Lina starts screaming, her door pops open, and Johnnie reaches over, likely to push her off the edge.  But then he closes the door, pulls the car over and can’t believe she would ever consider such a thing.  Johnnie feels awful and insists he loves her.

So, Johnnie was definitely about to kill her, and he definitely killed Beaky, but Johnnie is Cary Grant, and the movie studio did not want Cary Grant to be a murderer.  So he wasn’t.

Alfred Hitchcock originally wanted Johnnie to be guilty, but the studio insisted that the public wouldn’t accept Cary Grant as a murderer. Hitchcock’s original ending had Johnnie killing Lina by poisoning her milk, but then convicting himself by mailing a letter that Lina had written. Joan Fontaine said, Cary Grant “‘did kill me in the original cut, but at a preview, the audience simply refused to accept him as the murderer.'”

I’ve heard of studios changing aspects of a story to better fit an actor’s image before, but this is insane.  Johnnie is one of the creepiest, most slimy characters I’ve seen in a Hitchcock film, which is saying something, and we’re asked to believe that everything he said was honest this entire time.  He’s so clearly deranged, and Lina’s love for him is absurd.  It might make more sense if you consider their characters flawed, particularly since they each has mislead expectations about the other, but the movie asks you to fall in love with these characters.

We’re supposed to cheer for them and to be excited that they remain together in the end, but, but… this is just ridiculous.  That also makes it that much more funny, but it’s hard to take this seriously.

Hitchcock plays with a lot of ideas that would show up in his later films, and there are a few great touches that only someone like he could pull off at this time.  In one scene, for example, Johnnie brings Lina a glass of milk which she suspects to be poisoned.  As Johnnie carries the glass up the stairs, Hitchcock put a light inside the glass to illuminate the milk so that it glows, drawing your attention to it.

He’s a good director, alright?

But this movie is quite silly, and if this were made a decade later, when Hitchcock had complete control (as far as I know), the ending would have been different, confirming Lina’s and our suspicions that Johnnie was a killer.

Brian De Palma made a career out of Hitchcock-inspired stories, including one called Obsession.  Like that film, Suspicion is centered around one person’s deep-seated anxiety, showing how it can corrupt you and ruin your life.  Because Johnnie turns out to be a stand up dude, the implication is that Lina is in the wrong, that her suspicion is misdirected.  It’s something Robert Altman played around with in 1972’s Images, but that was a story that acknowledged the protagonist’s fractured state of mind from the very beginning, showing her hallucinations and inability to trust her own eyes.

In Suspicion there is nothing strange about Lina other than her willingness to jump into marriage so quickly.  Everything concerning about her character is presented as ordinary, and her paranoia about her husband is made to seem silly even though it’s the only aspect of her character we can identify with.

Up Next: The Ides of March (2011), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

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