Keeping up the pace of his Hollywood output, Hitchcock directs his fourth film within two years (imagine that happening today, unless you’re Michael Winterbottom). ‘Suspicion’ starts off as a domestic flick of a dashing gent and his new shy and naïve wife and then twists itself into pretty much a humdinger of a thriller. It’s also really the first time he has worked with a really big name star and used this star’s professional perception to work against the plot. Yes, we’ve seen Charles Laughton, Carole Lombard, Peter Lorre, Ivor Novello and Laurence Olivier but…Cary Grant…
Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth , the impoverished social climber playing on his classic good looks and inate charm to win himself an innocent young wife – Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine, seeming to corner the market on meek and mild wives in Hitchcock movies*).
Post nuptials, Johnnie starts to show his true self – working his way steadily through gambling debts and reams of bills (reminiscent of Ivor Novello’s girlfriend in ‘Downhill’, portrayed by Isabel Jeans – she pops up here also in a small role as Mrs. Newsham), and then starts to send out sinister signals of being a potential murderer. His best chum Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce – you can’t murder cuddly old Nigel Bruce!) dies under suspicious circumstances and the police come a calling…
Grant is suave and elegant from the start, his usual dapper and smooth self – it’s easy to see how Lina would fall for his winning (or losing) ways. Right from the off he’s sponging off her, cadging a few pennies to boost his rail fare up to First Class. The camerawork in the movie is some of the best of Hitchcock to date – as fluid, sleek and seamless as Johnnie’s hair (I love Cary Grant’s hair by the by, very jealous of a man who seems to wander around being perfectly styled all day and night. I guess this is because he would have been perfectly styled all day and night).
Johnnie’s questioning ‘What did you think I was trying to do – kill you?’ as they grapple on the hill after skipping church is a foreboding moment. The score becomes discordant for the first time in the film (music courtesy of regular Hitch composer Franz Waxman). It’s an odd moment that throws you a little bit as it’s so out of whack with the film to this point, but it certainly drops the thought that all might not be as it seems. There’s some lovely innuendo in this scene, all horse references and snapped shut handbags as she cuts his passion off at the pass.
Her overhearing her parents saying she is not ‘the marrying kind’ throws her into Johnnie’s arms and the chase is on – she eagerly awaiting his call, he blowing her out in a fear-of-loss kind of way, guaranteed to raise her feminine shackles and get her to chase him back. This is sophisticated stuff and they both perform it well, Fontaine in particular trying to assert herself in the face of dubious parents and a flaky lover-to-be. Finally, after a well shot and performed montage of feminine listlessness and desperation, he sends a telegram and, of course, she leaps at the chance to see him – starved as she has been of his presence.
DON’T FORGET TO BRING YOUR UCIPITAL MAPILARY – JOHNNY – says his telegram to her regarding the upcoming ball**. Waxman’s music sweeps in and she swoons around her room in utter joy and excitement, selecting her most dynamic black and white party frock. It’s very over the top but an immediate relief to the dowdy scenes we have just experienced.
Johnnie sweeps into the ball uninvited, much to the consternation of Lina’s father, General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). He is immediately flocked to by a host of girls, the proverbial flies round a dung heap. In a series of dizzying dance steps he swoops Lina out of there so they can be alone – bizarre, he literally seems to have been at the ball for about 5 minutes before they leave (seems a lot of trouble as he looks toned immaculate in his white tie). You have to admire Johnnie when he’s asked about his previous conquests – he’s very open and says one night when having difficulty sleeping he tried to count them and ‘passed out on number 73’. He’s the Bill Wyman of his day, the cad/Lothario. His charm is that he is so blatant about it and doesn’t attempt to hide both the truth or his reputation, which makes him attractive to the female audience and someone to admire/be jealous of for the guys. Johnnie also looks just like Cary Grant, which always helps.
This driving back to her place scene is that classic ‘we’re-sitting-in-a-studio-car-being-bumped-around-by-prop-men’ shot, a token bit of back projected road slipped in all too unconvincingly (there’s another screaming back projection bit later, in the daytime so even more glaring, after her father’s will is read).
Johnnie’s sweep-you-off-your-feet seduction continues. He mixes the charm with little levels of aggression and moodiness, all irresistible. There’s a lovely tracking move around them as he gives her another long old kiss (not in the same league as the epic Grant and Eva Marie Saint kiss from ‘North by Northwest’ but getting there). Hitchcock loves a bit of kissing and especially likes to showcase these moments of intimacy with pay attention camera moves. Lina seems too doe eyed and innocent to me – ‘are you courting me?’ she asks, after the big old swooping kiss. Does she really have to ask? He’s all over her like a fake fur.
Ill advised, Lina lets herself be eloped off and they’re married. Immediately the alarm bells should be ringing, he totting up bills galore. They honeymoon all over the place (a rather hackneyed travel poster montage here – a bit of an obvious way of showing this cheaply, with a few screaming stock shots thrown in for bad measure), and then come back to a house he has bought – because that happens, the husband buying a house without so much as consulting his wife. She just seems to accept it all and, again, it seems a bit too broad in her roll over and take it-ness. She is shocked when he openly tells her he has ‘been broke all his life’ and plans on paying off everything once her inheritance comes through. You have to admire his front…
There are elements of light comedy in these early marital scenes, Lina telling him he has to go to work and he looking at her with a humorous punctuation sound effect. When the crusty antiquated chairs from her parents’ place are delivered, Johnnie hides his dislike of them by positioning himself in a forced relaxed posture, clearly extracting the Michael out of these rather monstrous out of place seats. He promptly flogs these heirlooms and still has the front to defend his actions. Flanked by Johnnie and Beaky, they depart the room, her face worried at what she has let herself in for.
Lina desperately wants to believe, and believe in, her husband but my word does he test her. Gambling, lavish present buying, vague excuses and BS abound – she clinging to wanting him and her love, it being eroded by his more and more outlandish behaviour. Grant of course is the perfect actor for all this – anyone less suave and cool and you’d just end up hating him for being a total richard and abusing his marriage and his optimistic Mrs.
The film hits a tone that is kind of cringy. Johnnie’s outrageous shenanigans spur Lina into more and more desperate ways of trying to control him, she addled by love and shock at what he gets up to. By halfway through the film Johnnie is coming over as a real dark force – the near asphyxiation of the brandy swilling Beaky emits nothing but an unsympathetic dismissiveness from Johnnie as his friend lays in his choking chair. Hitchcock piles on the finger pointing as we struggle to maintain respect or admiration for this despicable cretin, this wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Lina slowly unravels the extent of Johnnie’s fibbery – the pretence of going to work (hello there Leo G. Carroll as his boss, Captain Melbeck…well, not really his boss as he doesn’t actually work there), the further horse racing visits, the pilfering of two grand from his ex-work (Melbeck is also his cousin and says he won’t prosecute as long as the cash comes back)…it all beggers belief.
The camera is pretty mobile throughout, the director cannot resist the occasional long take and roving camera flourish (see 58’50”, a good long take with crane shot and the inevitable grandish staircase). There’s an astonishing bit of Hitchcockery as they play a game of anagrams – she spelling out DOUBT, then MURDER as we see her imagining Beaky being shoved off a cliff.
This scene screams Hitchcockian style. It’s a tad out of whack with the rest of the picture but expresses her increasing irrationality and conflicted feelings perfectly as she falls to the floor in a faint. Lina’s dark mood as she approaches their house, thinking Beaky has been bumped, is depicted by dim lighting and a foreboding camera track. When she sees Beaky all too well, the lighting lifts, the music swells and all is – albeit temporarily – right with the world again. However, when Beaky eventually dies she reads the paper the cops give her – her father’s portrait gazing over her shoulder in an ‘I told you so’ way. At this point, if she hadn’t before, she truly does have cause for suspicion***.
There’s a whole subplot that is quite fun also – Lina is friendly with a local crime novelist (Isobel Sedbusk, played by Auriol Lee), and Johnnie has been chatting to her about poisoning and general murderous details. It’s a little abstract but does add another layer of suspiciousnes at his door. The death of Beaky through brandy excess is mirrored in the plot of a book Johnnie had borrowed – all seems a bit convenient to me, but I suppose quite intriguing and fun.
The two leads are great, giving lovely subtle nuanced performances. Fontaine in particular – although playing a kind of similar role to the one she had in ‘Rebecca’ (although in this case she actually gets a name) has a really good way of being meek and then steely and determined. Grant is always top notch and his allowing himself a tiny smile after she confesses ‘I couldn’t stop loving you if I tried’ is a typically ambiguous expression. I like them both enormously and they really do make the – sometimes pretty ridiculous – film work.
The famed ‘walking up the staircase (there it is again) with the glowing glass of possibly poisoned milk’ (a light inside the glass for maximum neon style action) is very good and a clear highpoint of the movie. The groundwork regarding untraceable poisons has been laid by this point and the tension is great. In one shadowy and superb shot Johnnie appears and carefully carries the glowing beverage up the staircase to her room. Magnificent. It’s lovely that all the suspicion and all the intrigue and question marks leads up to something as innocent as a glass of milk.
I can’t help thinking by the end that if this what the rest of her life with Johnnie is going to be like, the poor woman will be a wreck within the first year. She’s already a bundle of suspicious nerves and, even with the rather far-fetched redemption of Johnnie, it all seems very questionable.
The whole enterprise is potentially great – and enjoys a good reputation – but it does seem a bit fumbled. The finger of suspicion points so definitely at Johnnie and the evidence stacks up so convincingly that it’s like the director has set himself one of his challenges to try and then magic himself out of it all. It’s entertaining all the way through and both the stars are top notch but the rather rushed ending in particular feels all a bit ta-dah! It’s been discussed that this was not Hitchcock’s choice and the ending was forced upon him (see notes below) and the film suffers for it. It’s a good watch and has much to recommend it, though.
*doing it in style here and picking up the Best Actress Academy Award at 1942’s Oscar ceremony.
**The term ‘unipital mapillary’ (the tiny indentation between the clavicles) is a non existant biological term that one of the screenwriters Samson Raphaelson invented:
Johnnie: ‘Don’t do that’.
Lina: ‘Why not?’
Johnnie: ‘Because your ucipital mapillary is quite beautiful’.
Hitchcock pops up at about 45 mins in, wearing a sporty little hat and posting a letter – apparently the film was meant to end with Lina dying from the poisoned milk but then Johnnie posts a letter she had written to her mother containing all the details of his evil nature. Perhaps Hitchcock wanted to get the letter posting in there somehow.
*** a good old profile shot of Lina at this point also.
The version I watched was on the Universal label – interestingly they include a complete colourised version of the movie , which is well worth a look. Colourisation was a bit faddy back in the 80’s and 90’s and is undoubtedly a ludicrous and just-so-wrong idea. But I have to say that even though it literally shouts disrespect it’s such a curious thing to do that it’s kind of gripping. The images resemble old photos that have been hand tinted but in motion, it’s really pretty amazing to watch and technically fascinating how they managed to do this before the more recent leaps in CGI. It’s silly and pointless and totally wrong from a purest point of view but is also a fascinating curiosity in the history of cinema. I suppose in some ways it resembles the latest penchant for 3D-ising 2D movies, a stupid idea if done badly and a short term financial gratification of a process that when done properly (ie. ‘Avatar’) is pretty astonishing. Hey – why not 3D-ise the colourised version of ‘Suspicion’ and remix it in 7.1 for Blu-ray?! And while we’re at it, swap Cary Grant for Brad Pitt, that’ll put some bums on seats…