Suspicion (1941) *** BBCiplayer

May 22nd, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock; Cast: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine; USA 1941, 100 min

Suspicion rarely emerges as a Hitchcock favourite. Critics don’t like writing about his 1941 feature, everyone opting for: Psycho, North by North West and Vertigo. Yet there’s Cary Grant, Hitchcock’s hero for all seasons, and the timidly appealing Joan Fontaine, who had starred in Hitch’ first American feature Rebecca (1939). ‘Brain trust’ writers Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville (Mrs. Hitchcock) adapted the script from Before the Fact by Francis Iles aka Anthony Berkeley Cox. And Harry Stradling (A Streetcar named Desire, Angel Face) served up memorable black-and-white images. So what could go wrong?

Well, the Hitchcock thriller is really about the destructive power of love, rather than its redemptive qualities.  Suspicion showcases how women are often drawn to charismatic cads rather than more sincere, stable types. And Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) is certainly one of them. A quietly bookish be-spectacled heiress she first sets eyes on Johnny (Grant) during a train journey where he cockily sits in First Class with a cheaper ticket, launching a charm offensive on the guard in a bid to stay there. She is smitten, and marries him fully aware that he doesn’t really love her in the slightest, and is a liar, and a profligate. Doubt and desperation gnaw away at her self-esteem as she suspects him of wanting to murder her. She wants to believe he’s a hero, and this powerful urge becomes a destructive force that feeds her toxic addiction. The studio atmosphere is not a great setting for this emotive tale, heavy back-projections spoiling the atmosphere. We are left with a few memorable vignettes where Hitchcock returns to his silent roots, with no need for dialogue.

Lina’s short-sightedness is a metaphor for her emotional blindness, although intellectually she is sharp cookie. And as her suspicion festers, the more the spiderwebs trap her, a prisoner of her own fear. Hitch makes us well aware from the get go that Johnny is fickle and emotionally shallow: first we see Lina enjoying few flowers in a vase on the table, these are replaced by a bouquet of roses, but then the flowers are gone, and Lina is fretting over the ‘phone. The coup of coups, and the only reason Suspicion is mentioned in the Hitchcock canon at all, is the famous light bulb, hidden in the glass of milk that Johnny carries upstairs to his wife – the spider webs in the background showing his evil intent. Fontaine is simply brilliant as the decent, love-sick woman who wants to believe her husband and live happily ever after – and we feel for her. But Grant’s bad-boy allure if more irritating than appealing – we just want to knock his block off!

But, alas the ending, Hitchcock returning to the botched plot in a very polite English way when talking to Francois Truffaut: “Well I am not too pleased with the way Suspicion ends. I had something else in mind. The scene I wanted – but it was never shot – was for Cary Grant to bring her a glass of milk that’s been poisoned, Joan Fontaine having just finished a letter to her mother. ‘Dear mother, I am desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he is a killer. Though I’d rather die, I think society should be protected from him”. Then Grant comes in with the fatal glass, and she says ‘Will you mail this letter to my mother, dear?’ She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out, and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mail box and pops the letter in”. If this sounds a little like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), you’re right. That wasn’t too difficult, was it?

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