Suspicion (1941)

When it’s on: Saturday, 13 June (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Over the years I’ve done an about-turn when it comes to my feelings regarding Suspicion. On my first couple of viewings, I derided it as a fairly lightweight piece of suspense melodrama, moving inevitably in one direction until its rather nonsensical ending. Since then, however, I’ve come to enjoy it more, appreciating the performances of the two leads – along with the supporting cast, and especially dear old Nigel Bruce – and delighting in the distraction-free build-up of tension.

Perhaps my opinion of it is based in part on an apparently universal consideration – Suspicion came after Rebecca; both starred Joan Fontaine, and whilst she won her Academy Award for this one it was seen as an apology for the Oscar she should have been given for her turn as Mrs de Winter. In short, Rebecca’s the better film, Suspicion a simpler and lesser effort. I still think Rebecca is brilliant, incidentally; it’s definitely in my top ten Hitchcocks (sadly, I do have a list of top ten Hitchcocks) and played a large part in making me a slavish follower of the great man. But there’s an awful lot going for Suspicion, made with both Hitch and Fontaine ‘on loan’ to RKO and giving Cary Grant his first of four starring roles for the Master of Suspense.

The story is a linear one, told largely without convolution and focusing tightly on the main pair. Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, the bookish daughter of a rich family who seems resigned to a life of spinsterhood. By chance, she meets Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant) on a train journey. He’s in her first class carriage, but he’s carrying a third class ticket, which should give an early indication of the sort of man he is. Steadily, he charms his way increasingly into her life, winning her hand in marriage when she overhears her parents discussing her lack of prospects and is duly compelled into his arms on a reckless whim. Once wed, the problems really begin. Johnnie seems to spend with abandon but he has no source of income and little inclination to find one. His gambling debts become an issue for Lina. Later, she learns that he embezzled money from the accountancy firm he worked for briefly, amassing £2,000 in arrears that he has no means of paying back. Into their home comes Johnnie’s friend Beaky (Bruce), a nice but slightly dim patrician who might as well come with a big ‘Kick Me’ sign on his back. Beaky sees Johnnie’s rogueish ways as essentially harmless japery, but Lina suspects differently when her husband comes up with investment projects for them both, involving Beaky’s money. When Beaky dies in Italy, having consumed too much brandy (something that the film establishes will be the end of him), she becomes certain Johnnie’s at least involved. Coming across a document that implies she would need to die in order for his insurance payout to happen, she starts fearing for her own life as every word and gesture Johnnie utters seem loaded with murderous intent.

Over the years, Suspicion has become as famous for what happened behind the camera as anything witnessed on the screen. Seen as a pawn in the endless battle for control waged between Hitchcock and producer David O Selznick, the film’s production was defined by hissy fits by Fontaine (quite a different character off-screen from the timid personality she projected on it), the two stars clashing, and that ending. Suspicion was adapted from Francis Iles’s 1931 novel, Before the Fact, a murder story without the mystery because it was told from the perspective of the victim, who was recounting the events leading up to her imminent poisoning by Johnnie. The film follows the book’s events reasonably closely, until the critical denouement when Lina refuses to drink the milk brought to her by her husband, a concoction that it’s strongly implied is laced with ‘a substance in daily use everywhere. Anyone can lay his hands on it, and within a minute after taking the victim’s beautifully out of the way. Mind you, it’s undetectable after death (quoted from Lina’s friend, the Christie-esque crime novelist Isobel (Auriol Lee)). In the minutes that follow, Johnnie is cleared from suspicion in Lina’s mind, a cop-out ending that slaps the face of almost everything that’s happened beforehand, though there’s a nice possibility that she’s just believing what she wants to believe and Johnnie will deal with her later, perhaps not long after the RKO logo has signaled the end of the movie.

The reason they went for the finale they did was all bound in the presence of Cary Grant, a likeable star over whom audiences would disapprove when they learned he was playing a murderer. Instead, he’s every inch the charming rogue as essayed by Beaky, haplessly falling in too deep when his happy go lucky relationship with money threatens to land him in trouble. Hitchcock complained about Suspicion for the rest of his life, arguing they should have gone for the novel’s climax but were overruled by conservative studio bosses. And what a neat piece of work it would have been, the clean-cut hero turning out to be a callous villain, but alas not to be.

That isn’t to say Suspicion isn’t a very good ninety five minutes of entertainment. The crux is on the screen very early when it’s made clear Lina fancies the pants off Johnnie. There’s a moment when he’s fiddling with her hair, teasing it into silly shapes, and every time he touches her it forces a visible sexual shrill from Fontaine, clearly unused to being touched so intimately and liking it very much. As soon as they’re married the tension kicks in, from little instances of deceit like Johnnie hawking their antique chairs to the death of Beaky, which points all the way to a contrived murder by his best friend. Beneath the handsome, winning exterior, he’s a sociopath, something Lina slowly comes to realise despite her wishes that everything will be all right in the end. The film contains some delicious scenes, like the Scrabble game in which Lina’s making words with the tiles like ‘doubt’ and ‘murder’ whilst imagining Johnnie hurling Beaky from a clifftop. and then there’s the best moment, the serving of the ‘murderous’ glass of milk. Johnnie carries it up the stairs to their bedroom on a silver tray; everything’s in shadow apart from the milk, which glows luminously in the dark to force the viewer’s perspective onto it. Marvelous filming, the stuff of dark intent.

By all accounts, the Johnnie Aysgarth who appears in Before the Fact is an implacable cad, having an affair behind Lina’s back and being every inch the heartless opportunist who’s prepared to kill his way out of debt. Grant’s Johnnie is a softer character, likeable despite himself and salvageable because of his one saving grace, that he does in fact love Lina. Fontaine’s character isn’t quite the tossed about wallflower she played in Rebecca, but her dogged devotion to – and eternal willingness to forgive – Johnnie turns her into a bit of a chump, albeit one caught in the trap of loving him too much to feel any other way.

The film is a startlingly good exercise in pure suspense, eschewing potential sub-plots in order to emphasise the central couple and build the tension between them. I really like it, and can’t think of many better ways to while away an afternoon than by taking this in, and then Rebecca, which follows at 2.40.

Suspicion: ****

PS. For a Facebook group I’m part of, I counted down a personal top ten of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Difficult to confine it to that many, to be honest, with apologies to other films I really like, such as (but in no particular order) Frenzy, Sabotage, The Trouble with Harry, Lifeboat, The Birds, Rope, I Confess and Dial M for Murder. Let’s face it, the man was a stone cold genius. The running order, over which you are welcome to disagree, is:

10. Notorious
9. The 39 Steps
8. Psycho
7. Rebecca
6. Rear Window
5. Strangers on a Train
4. The Lady Vanishes
3. Shadow of a Doubt
2. North by Northwest
1. Vertigo