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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.
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 turns 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 mistaken.
Hitchcock perhaps thought his ending would prevail, but if so didn't understand Hollywood's labyrinthine production 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, Suspicion rates:
Supplements: trailer, docu
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 18, 2004