“If you're going to kill someone, do it simply.”
There are some films I can remember watching for the first time and not liking them at all for one reason or another. I hate the feeling of seeing a film and being completely let down. That was the way I felt with Hitchcock’s 1941 film Suspicion. The first time I watched it I hated it I thought Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine were horrible which made it worse for me since I adore them both so much. I also did not believe that Suspicion was a very good Hitchcock film at all I was so used to his suspense film where everyone is either figuratively or literally on an edge. But today I finally decided to give Suspicion another chance and I found myself really liking the film this time around.
Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine) and Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant) meet on a train one day. He moves from his suite to hers claiming the man he shared the carriage with smoked too much. Johnnie looks Lina up and down and realizes she is not worth his time because she is very proper, is reading book on childhood psychology, and wears glasses. Lina begins to read a magazine where she sees Johnnie’s picture in it because he is a well known playboy.
The next day Johnnie is at a party in the country. He sees Lina riding a horse and cannot believe he has found her. He asks the women he is with who Lina is and they tell him that she is not worth his time. The following morning he has two of the women take him to Lina’s house where she lives with her parents. The women ask her to come to church and Lina says yes since Johnnie will be there. He takes her to a hillside where the wind carries away Lina’s hat and coat and looks as if Johnnie is hurting her. Johnnie teases Lina a bit, she looks annoyed but at the same time looks like she is liking the attention. He walks her home before she is late for lunch. A window is open near the door and Lina hears her parents talking about how she will most likely be a spinster for the rest of her life. Lina feels terrible she does not want that to happen to her but when she turns around Johnnie is there, kisses him, and runs inside.
Johnnie was supposed to come to pick Lina up later that afternoon but he called to say he could not make it. After that call Lina does not hear from him for weeks. She becomes upset with each passing day. She asks him in a message to be her companion to a ball that is being given. Johnnie does not reply until the day of ball when Lina had all but given up on him. They do not stay at the ball very long. Johnnie takes Lina away for a car ride where he tells her that she was the first woman he ever really loved and he was afraid which is why he stayed away for so long. They go back to Lina’s house where Johnnie proposes to her. The next day Lina runs away from home to marry Johnnie.
The day they return home from their honeymoon to their brand new furnished house Johnnie set up for her, Lina begins to notice that Johnnie is hiding things and is a terribly good liar. As the weeks and months pass Johnnie’s behavior becomes sinister at least to Lina. She begins to fear for her life and the life of Johnnie’s friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce). Johnnie has become interested in crime novels written by a local author. At dinner with the author Johnnie asks her all kinds of questions about murders and what poisons would be best. That night Lina collapses from strained nerves over what she thinks Johnnie wants to do to her.
Is Johnnie a trying to murder his wife for the insurance money or is everything all in Lina’s neurotic young mind?
I was curious to compare the film to the novel it originated from called Before the Fact by Frances Iles. I found it a few years ago and although it took me a while to read through the small book I did enjoy the story. I liked how it was told through the eyes of the victim who knew in fact that her husband was trying to kill her but she loves him so much that she is willing to be killed by him. Now for the film of course the story had to be changed. Cary Grant could not be the killer because he’s Cary Grant he was one of the biggest male stars he could not be a bad guy. The production code would not allow for Johnnie to get away even of Lina had written a letter to her mother saying that Johnnie killed her. Under the production code there was literally no getting away with murder (how many good stories this “rule” ruined). The book from the first page lets you know Johnnie murders Lina but the film had to be ambiguous. I guess in a way that ambiguity worked for Hitchcock since most of his films are like that every character and their stories has multiple layers and meanings.
Joan Fontaine is an actress I admire very much. I have seen several of her films. In fact it was because of her performance in Rebecca combined with Hitchcock’s direction that really pushed me further into classic films. The first time I had watched Suspicion I had only ever seen Fontaine in Rebecca where she should have won the Academy Award for her performance she was so amazing. I remember thinking after watching Suspicion the first time how bad Fontaine’s acting was how overdramatic she was. When I found out she won the Academy Award for this film I was floored and really upset. A while later I read that Fontaine beat out her sister Olivia de Havilland for the award for Best Actress and I had not even seen de Havilland’s film she was nominated for and I was mad Fontaine won! De Havilland was nominated for Hold Back the Dawn that if you ever see I am sure you will agree with me that Olivia’s performance blows Joan’s clear out of the water. I think it was a pity vote because she should have won the year before for Rebecca. Anyway… Fontaine is the perfect Hitchcock blonde who starts off innocent, shy, sexually repressed, naïve and looking for someone to love her before she becomes a spinster for life. On the extras for the DVD someone mentions that Lina was like a sequel to her Fontaine’s character in Rebecca. On my second viewing of Suspicion my opinion of Fontaine’s acting has changed, she is still a bit over dramatic but she did a very good job (good enough to win over her sister? Absolutely not). I have seen more of Hitchcock’s films and she was perfect in the role.
Cary Grant’s performance was also another reason why I was not thrilled with this film at first. I was so used to him as this bumbling guy or the good strong leading man helping out the leading lady that I did not like him being sinister. Well not so much that really it was interesting to see him play that type of role I honestly just did not like his acting I am still not crazy about him in this film it just seems like he is not giving his all in the character. But again he was perfect and would come to make three more films for Hitchcock. The theme of the film is that we are rarely what we seem to be and, it is difficult to explain properly, but Grant had that in him he was able to convey that part of his character very well.
As usual with any of Hitchcock’s works there are some excellent shots in this film. My favorite was when Johnnie and Lina are about to kiss. Hitchcock films Fontaine and Grant from the front and as they kiss his pans the camera to their backs to get the other side of their profiles. I just loved the way the camera pans in this scene as if we are being swept off our feet like Lina. Another good shot comes at the end where Lina and Johnnie are in the car. Lina’s door keeps opening and Johnnie reaches over to close it. Johnnie is driving dangerously fast by a cliff. When he reaches over to close the door Lina thinks he is going to push her out of the car over the cliff and she panics. That whole scene, every angle is, is genius. You feel the anxiety right along with Lina. Perhaps the greatest and most memorable scene from the film is when Johnnie brings Lina up a glass of milk and walks up the darkened staircase. The milk seems to be glowing to grab all of your attention. And it is! Hitchcock stuck a light bulb in the milk to grab your attention.
I remember picking up Suspicion on DVD like it was yesterday. I was not even looking for a Hitchcock film I just saw that Cary Grant was on the cover and as a bonus Joan Fontaine happened to be in the film as well ( I also bought Murder on the Orient Express that day). I can clearly remember seeing the cover and just swooping it and not even caring how much it was ($19.99 by the way) I just had to see it. As I previously mentioned when I first viewed the film I was disappointed with it. Now a few years later having seen several more of Hitchcock’s films and so many more Joan Fontaine films, I appreciated the performances, the characters, and the stories for much more. My opinion of Suspicion has been pleasantly changed. Although Suspicion is not one Hitchcock’s best and is not the first one to come to your mind when the Master’s name is mentioned it is still worth a viewing and even owning.