Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Suspicion is another RKO loan-out film for Alfred Hitchcock, made during his first couple of
years in America. If it wasn't personally produced by Hitchcock one would think RKO was forcing
him to deliver more of the same after his best-picture winner
Rebecca of the previous year -
this is another 'ladies film' with Joan Fontaine playing an insecure bride worrying about the true
nature of her husband.
It's touted as Cary Grant's big dramatic breakthrough picture, as he was previously cast almost
exclusively in comedies. For my money, his dramatic chops were exercised to
much better effect in the same year's Penny Serenade; Suspicion has its moments but
is a lumpy mess of romance novel clichés and thriller plotting with an unsatisfactory payoff.
Potential spinster Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) is pigeonholed and ignored by her
well-to-do parents (Cedric Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty) and considered out of the running by the
local available females, all of whom are smitten by playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). But Lina
is the one who strikes his fancy, and Johnnie sweeps her off her feet and to the wedding altar, even
though his behavior seems erratic. Soon after the marriage, Lina is hit by a flood of doubt, as
Johnnie is revealed to be a liar and petty thief who may interested only in Lina's potential
inheritance. Lina suspects Johnnie may have murdered their best friend Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce)
and may be planning to poison her. What's a dignified country girl to do?
Besides rounding up every loose English actor in Hollywood (even big names like Roger Livesey
(I Know Where I'm Going! appear in
tiny roles), Suspicion seems to be a 'safe' project intended to consolidate Alfred Hitchcock's
bankability in Hollywood. The stuffy screenplay is full of landed-gentry nonsense, with the locals going on fox-hunts, taking long walks
to church and curling up in huge libraries to read murder mysteries.
Joan Fontaine plays the insecure woman with almost embarrassing humility, overhearing her parents and
the locals dismiss her as a wallflower. The first act is a predictable Cinderella story in which
she blooms from wearing tweed suits and librarian's glasses to being the belle of the ball.
Cary Grant's so-called dramatic work as Johnnie requires him to continue his charming playboy
act while the script casts doubts on his honesty and motivations. Most everything is seen from Lina's
POV, yet the contrived script forces her to behave like a prize dumb bunny, assuming the best
about Johnnie despite evidence that would try anyone's patience.
The story spends a lot of time hiding behind conventional female fulfillment fantasies. Lina
gets a fancy house and a maid who doesn't even seduce Johnnie. When the locals gossip about
Johnnie's dishonest ways, Lina weathers their veiled insults in good form - but she never calls
Johnnie to account for himself.
Feminists found plenty of ammunition in a story about a wife who doesn't know the first thing about
her catch-of-a-lifetime husband. Johnnie has no money and doesn't intend to earn any. He pushes the
two of them deep into debt, lies about his gambling, lies about being fired from his job for
embezzlement and even lies about the source of the lavish gifts he rains down on Lina to silence
her objections. Johnnie is either a raving sociopath or a badly written character. He's probably
the latter, for Suspicion repeatedly reinforces the notion that the wife is responsible
for all problems in a marriage, even if her husband keeps his entire life outside the house secret
from her and deceives her every step of the way. A good wife endures and understands. Or maybe
Johnnie is just very good in bed?
Suspicion is a mystery thriller and the latter two-thirds of the movie dig a grave of bad
plotting. Everything points to Johnnie being a lying killer, including his attitude toward his
wife and the director's insistent sinister touches, the most famous being the glowing glass of
moo-juice he carries to her room, presumably to poison her. Maybe it's full of 'luminous poison' from
D.O.A.? The problem is that Hitchcock has painted himself into an amateur's corner, plot-wise.
(spoilers from here to the end)
If Cary/Johnnie is innocent, then the whole movie is an inconsequential cheat. It is Lina who must
be deranged, fantasizing all of her husband's sinister motives. He has problems, but is also
basically good hearted, while Lina is a grade- A ninny.
If Cary/Johnnie is guilty, then the story is a belabored exercise in the obvious. The likely killer
out to be the real killer, surprise surprise. This twist ending from the book is clearly what
appealed to Hitchcock. Lina allows her husband to murder her, after which he unknowingly posts a
'he dunnit' letter she has written to implicate him from beyond the grave. That's the kind of stinger
ending that Hitchcock would favor time and again in his 50s television show; there are a stack
of episodes about wives who think their husbands have murderous plans, only to find out they were
Hitchcock perhaps thought his ending would prevail, but if so didn't understand Hollywood's
code. Lina can't allow herself to be poisoned, because that would be suicide, a no-no unless done
for absurdly altruistic reasons. Johnnie can't be seen getting away with murder, as that would leave
the guilty unpunished. At this time crooks had to be seen to be punished; even Billy Wilder
had to shoot a gas chamber scene for Double Indemnity, even though
it turned out he didn't have to use it. And far worse was the fear that Cary Grant's screen image
would be tarnished. Glamourous psycho killers hadn't been invented yet, and major stars just didn't
play such roles. What would the fans think?
Hitchcock tries to have it both ways. Lina doesn't let on to Johnnie that she knows/thinks he's put
poison in her milk. But she doesn't drink the milk either. Instead, there's a feeble "Mr. Toad's Wild
Ride" scene that ends with both of them explaining away everything we've been watching. Since to function
the entire film has had to keep the married couple not talking for 90 minutes, this is a
really miserable story windup. It even ends with some jolly 'hey, I'm going to jail' nonsense that's
supposed to make Cary seem like an okay guy after all.
Naturally, Suspicion's commercial aspects and star power saved the day. Most audiences didn't go
to the movies to think, so the ending worked well enough
for them. Deliver the right fantasy, and they will come. I have to think that many of the great 'auteur'
directors had the luxury of limping, failing and flopping a lot more than do modern film directors,
who either consistently hit home runs or get sent to direct infomercials.
Of course, the acting is fine. Sherlock Holmes fans enjoy Nigel Bruce's contribution as Cary's dotty
pal. They have one interesting scene with a sadistic touch: Lina is at the brink of tears over her
husband's perfidy, and now he's shown up with a bunch of
gifts intended to deflect any inquiry into his shady money deals. Bruce and Cary
see Lina about to break down and cruelly mock her, making faces and treating her like she's the
silly goose. There's something unique and honest about that moment that stands out in a script
composed mostly of stock situations.
Warners' DVD of Suspicion looks very good and seems to have been mastered from nicely maintained
RKO elements. An inordinate
number of matte shots recreate the English countryside without going any farther than Pacific Palisades.
The polished B&W effects are a credit to RKO's superior optical department (was Linwood Dunn in charge yet?).
The sound is clear. There's an okay trailer and a better-than-you'd-think docu that hits all the
standard bases about the making of the film. But it doesn't have the answer as to whether or not Hitch
seriously thought he could have the ending his way, with the whistling-at-the-mailbox scene. The cover art
is an original poster layout where Joan Fontaine looks like anyone - Alexis Smith? Frances Farmer? - anyone
but Joan Fontaine. (see above)
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: trailer, docu
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 18, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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