There are mild spoilers in this review. Mostly, this is a discussion of the setup in its first quarter. If you don’t want to know anything at all about the film, please don’t read further.
Alfred Hitchcock had been brought to America by producer David O. Selznick and immediately struck gold with “Rebecca”, a huge hit with the public and Best Picture winner in 1940. Hitchcock’s career was immeasurably boosted by the film but Hitchcock, who had his own method of doing things, found the hands-on Selznick incredibly meddlesome from his point of view. Selznick had a long record of major productions from “A Star Is Born” to “Gone With the Wind” and was not the type to back down.
“Suspicion” was Hitchcock’s second picture with Selznick, and people involved with the film said Selznick treated Hitchcock with great politeness and left the director relatively independent (for Selznick), even allowing Hitchcock to produce as well as direct the picture. Yet he still maintained control, and did things like entirely rejecting Hitchcock’s first script.
There are lots of stories about the production. There was tension on the set. Cary Grant took an almost visceral dislike to Joan Fontaine, finding her moody and difficult. Fontaine, just 22 and in only her second major role, felt intimidated by the actors around her and insecure about her own ability. Hitchcock rather liked this and even told Fontaine the bad things the other actors were saying about her. This made her listen only to him for acting advice, and I suspect amping up any tension between Grant and Fontaine worked in favor of the film. For his part, Grant felt Hitchcock lavished attention on Fontaine while ignoring him and swore never to work with him again (though he eventually made “Notorious”, “To Catch a Thief” and “North by Northwest”).
Then there was the screenplay. It was based on the novel, “Before the Fact” by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox). The novel is much darker and in it, Johnny is a philanderer with illegitimate children, a forger and a murderer. Hitchcock was quoted later on saying they had planned to film the novel as it was but were prevented by the studio from following through. Film scholars have since uncovered not only no alternate script but also letters from Hitchcock stating that from the beginning it was to be about a woman’s growing suspicion fueled by her own interpretation of unrelated events. Hitchcock was probably saying that he would have liked to film the book as it was, with Johnny a true villain. Both Hitchcock and Selznik resented the fact that films were given much stricter censorship than books.
Still, Cary Grant had risen to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars by this time and was not under contract to any single studio. Therefore there was pressure from all of them to not damage his image by making him into a murderer. It was also 1941 and movies could only do so much and there were strict conventions on how they could end. The ending seems tacked on, and contrary to what many think, I believe it is quite ambivalent and open to interpretation.
It’s full of Hitchcock touches such as opening with dialogue over a black screen. A train has entered a tunnel and the bookish and proper Lina Mclaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) is just meeting the charming and talkative Johnny Aysgarth (Cary Grant) and basically brushing him off with disinterest. He had seated himself in a First Class compartment with her though he only had a Third Class ticket. He reappears at the local foxhunt where he is doted on by the young women. It seems he is well known in the area, a part of the local set, though he is a playboy and disapproved of by parents. Here he flirts with Lina, tells her she needs a new hair style and tries to kiss her, an advance rejected by the click of a purse clasp. Still, a seed has been sown. On her part, Lina has heard her parents discuss her as a likely old maid, and this seems to open her to an adventure.
In any case, she abandons the bookish look and frumpy hairstyle and for the rest of the film looks like Joan Fontaine, which is to say, absolutely stunning. Johnny crashes the Beauchamp Hunt Ball to see her and a romance is set in motion. We’ve already seen that Johnny is charming, brash and possibly cunning, because he seems to pop into Lina’s life a little too frequently. They elope. There is a montage of an expensive and lavish honeymoon in Paris, the Riviera and Rome after which we find Johnny showing Lina the beautiful Georgian house he has got for them as well as beautifully furnished. (It is a wonderful set, especially the elegant entrance hall with a large Palladian window which throws shadows over everything, shadows which become important later on.
It’s at this point that Lina (and we) learn that Johnny has “borrowed” money to pay for all this and expects to live on Lina’s money. She is surprised, thinking he was rich, but still in love, forgives him, saying affectionately, “You’re a baby”. To her, just someone who hasn’t grown up, knows no responsibilities and is used to having things handed to him. She wants him to work. He sells her father’s wedding gift of Renaissance chairs. His dear friend “Beaky’ (Nigel Bruce) comes to stay for a few days. He actually is rich, and sets Lina straight that Johnny is an inveterate liar and rogue and can’t wait to be entertained by what whopper he’ll come up with to get out of his next jam.
After that the film seesaws back and forth giving us evidence of Johnny’s character flaws and redeeming qualities through Lina’s eyes, with his dark side growing more and more evident as it does. Some of his flaws are serious indeed, and after a while we don’t know whether to believe anything he says. Johnny is no catch by any stretch of the word. He’s gotten along on his good looks and charm and everything to him is dreaming up a new scheme to get money without working for it. Eventually Lina has to wonder if he’s not out to kill her for her money.
Hitchcock does this very well, gradually building tension by revealing more and more of the discrepancies in Johnny’s character. Lina begins to test him with simple questions to which she already knows the answers and he fails the tests. But sometimes he seems to be gravely guilty only to be rendered innocent as when Beaky says he almost died (justifying her suspicion that Johnny is trying to murder him) only to hear him say that Johnny saved him. This happens over and over, creating tension and then relieving it.
The acting is the best part of the film. Both Grant and Fontaine are absolutely excellent. Grant was known now from his romantic comedies but had shown a dark side in “Sylvia Scarlett’, and even in“Topper” and his first film,“This Is the Night” where he’s quite ready to beat people up. It’s interesting to watch him portray this character in both charming and menacing ways often in the sam. Fontaine was good at playing intimidated characters as she showed in “Rebecca” but here she’s in love and suspicious at the same time and intelligent enough to put things together for herself. Niigel Bruce gets a good comic role that requires him to be a bit naive but not buffoonish as the Universal Studios Holmes films often did. The rest of the cast is a splendid group of British actors including Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty, Leo G. Carroll and Isabel Jeans, but they get very small roles with not much to do. This is one of the weaknesses of the film. Only Auriol Lee stands out as the local mystery writer, full of advice about poisons that do the trick.
It’s a good but not great Hitchcock film. The screenplay seems off in some ways. If it is supposed to be, as stated, a study of an overwrought woman who is suspicious by nature and who fabricates mortal danger out of thin air, then Johnny is much too flawed a character. He’s an embezzler, a gambler, a thief and a liar; she has too many genuine reasons to not trust this man and his many lies. Even if you buy the Hollywood ending as a true resolution, you’re still stuck with a man of poor character and a type of fellow who rarely changes their ways. But there are still many things to enjoy in this film. After all, it’s still Hitchcock.