blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Suspicion (1941, Alfred Hitchcock)

Suspicion is a peculiar picture, both in terms of content and context. It’s one of those Hollywood pictures from late 1941, before Pearl Harbor, but it takes place in England, which was already in the war. So it’s set before the war. It’s an all-British cast (not to mention director Hitchcock) making an American film, so it feels a little like a thirties British Hitchcock but not really. Then there’s the ending, which certainly seems like someone had it changed—but did they—with Hitchcock saying he wanted to keep it different from the source novel’s finish.

The film’s about well-off but not too well-off Joan Fontaine falling for broke playboy Cary Grant, who’s got blue blood and empty pockets. He’s presumably a gigolo, though he reforms for Fontaine. They have a meet-cute on a train, where he makes fun of her appearance, then he later sees her on a horse and becomes enthralled. In their subsequent outing, the film hints at some sinister nature, with director Hitchcock and editor William Hamilton very deliberately implying Grant’s doing violence to Fontaine. Except, really it’s windy, and he’s just trying to steady her, or something. It’s an incredibly distinct moment—and the only thrill for the next twenty minutes or so—but the film never uses the device again. Just this one time do Hitchcock and Hamilton decide they want to trick the viewer.

The rest of the film is about the characters trying to trick one another.

See, Fontaine didn’t know Grant was a lazy, no good when she fell for him, but once they’re married, there’s really not much she can do about it. The film occasionally hints at Fontaine leaving Grant and turning back because she’s just so enamored with him—even though starting at the one-hour mark, every one of their interactions involves him lying to her and manipulating her—so instead, she’s just going to wait for the next scene. Now, Fontaine’s great. Like, her stressed-out, terrorized performance is amazing stuff. Unfortunately, her part is just paper thin. I misremembered she had some pride thing for not wanting to throw in the towel with Grant before she starts suspecting he’ll murder his best friend for money, but, no, he’s just Cary Grant, so what can she do?

Hitchcock focuses on Fontaine’s experience–occasionally pulling the camera back long enough for him and cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. to show her literarily trapped in a spider’s web—which apparently pissed Grant off because he thought the movie should focus on… him gaslighting his wife about money. Grant just fell too hard for Fontaine to do due diligence and find out what dad Cedric Hardwicke would be willing to cough up to support the newlyweds. Grant’s disappointment leads him to take a job with a cousin, Leo G. Carroll, before deciding to convince his chronically drunk, questionably intelligent best friend, played by Nigel Bruce.

Suspicion is at its most charming when Bruce is around. Bruce brings comic relief even to the scenes where Grant’s being an obnoxious prick and Fontaine’s defending him way too long. Until Grant gets outright hostile to Fontaine—how dare she talk about business when there are men around—the film’s a series of scenes where Fontaine discovers Grant’s lying about something, Bruce makes it weird (and funny), and there’s some character development for Fontaine at least as far as Bruce is concerned. Unfortunately, when Bruce leaves, so end Fontaine’s regular interactions with anyone besides Grant.

Fontaine does become convinced Grant’s too obsessed with village celebrity Auriol Lee’s crime thrillers, leading to some scenes with Lee around, but none of them amount to anything. Instead, they’re third act filler when the film’s got to keep Grant and Fontaine apart so she can’t get wise to what he’s doing. And apparently, he doesn’t notice her becoming increasingly terrified of him at every moment.

The film infamous doesn’t go for one ending but then doesn’t fully commit to the other either. They’ve got a chance to change gears—and some great devices they introduced in the first act during Grant and Fontaine’s courtship—which could be well-utilized in the finish, but instead… the audience just isn’t privy to the specifics of the resolution. Instead of expressively not copping out, Suspicion goes for an incomplete.

While Fontaine gets to stay busy, active, and inventive with a shallow part, Grant does not. At one point, Hitchcock breaks the fourth wall with Grant laying on the charm, which doesn’t work once but might’ve been an okay recurring bit. But, alas, it is not. Bruce’s fantastic, Hardwicke and May Whitty are fun as Fontaine’s parents. And Lee and Carroll are good. The problem with the supporting cast isn’t ever the performances; it’s just the parts being too minor.

The technicals are all great, especially Stradling’s photography and Franz Waxman’s music. Hitchcock’s direction is usually phenomenal. Suspicion’s a great time; it’s just clear—studio or not, code or not—they didn’t have the right ending.

4 responses to “Suspicion (1941, Alfred Hitchcock)”

  1. Hi Andrew. This one is a mixed bag for sure. It has some great moments though and I do love the scene where Johnny and Lina attend the ball near the beginning. The glowing milk is one of the most unforgettable shots in cinema.

    For the longest time I felt cheated by that ending and was so disappointed that it took me many years before I’d watch this again.

    Over time I’ve gradually become more accepting of the ending. I think the whole point of the film is that she gets so caught up in her suspicions and in reading too much into certain events that she, and indeed us in the audience, starts to think suspicions are fact and reality and won’t be moved from that view.

    Thanks so much for joining.

  2. Oh boy, you said it. There is so much to admire about this film – the cinematography alone is worth the ticket price, especially that scene where Cary Grant carries the glass of milk up the stairs. But the ending!! The film always falls apart for me near the end when Grant and Fontaine go on that drive, and things do not turn out as they should.

  3. Suspicion is a frustrating film, though I’ve grown more accepting of it on repeat viewings. I think the ending is still pretty sinister– is Johnnie lying or is he genuine? Now, whether or not that ambivalence was intentional– who knows?

  4. Wow. It’s always interesting when a director like Hitchcock fumbles a plot, but this still looks intriguing.

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