Film Review: Suspicion (1941)

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Greatness of film makers of Alfred Hitchcock’s stature can be seen when their more controversial work are films that wouldn’t cause any fuss if made by ordinary director. In case of Master of Suspense one such work is his 1941 thriller Suspicion.

Film is based on Before the Fact, 1932 novel by Francis Iles. Plot is set in 1938 England (a year before Second World War, which was raging during the production of the film). Protagonist, played by Joan Fontaine, is Lina McLaidlaw, daughter of General McLaidlaw (played by Cedric Hardwicke), well-off member of Sussex gentry. While riding a train, she meets Johnnie Aysgarth (played by Cary Grant), notorious but charming playboy who, at first, seeing her bespectacled, doesn’t think much of her but changes his mind after seeing her during fox hunt. She becomes determined to seduce her and does so easily, because Lina is concerned that she might end up as old maid. They quickly elope, but after honeymoon Lina soon learns that her husband is not only chronically broke, but also a hopeless gambling addict that spends money on horse races, with most of that money being obtained through theft, embezzlement and shamelessly lying to his friends. As time goes by, Lina begins suspecting that Johnnie has married her only for her money and after her father dies, she begins fearing that he plans to murder her.

Hitchcock has worked with Joan Fontaine a year earlier, in his Oscar-winning Hollywood debut Rebecca. She won Oscar for Best Actress for the role of Lina McLaidlaw, although many critics claim that such award for compensation for not getting it a year before for much better performance in Rebecca. Fontaine indeed had better role in previous role, and many can argue there is lot of similarities between both characters, but Fontaine’s performance in Suspicion is nevertheless very good and contributes a lot to success of this film. She is, however, overshadowed by Cary Grant, actor who was, by that time, specialised for roles in romantic comedies. In Suspicion he displays great charm and incredible suaveness, but his character becomes much darker until the end of film when the viewers, just like protagonist, begin wonder whether Johnnie is actually sociopathic murderer. Grant’s performance looks even better when we consider that Fontaine and him didn’t get along well on the set. Grant didn’t get along well with Hitchcock too; great actor and great director, however, managed not only to patch differences after the film, allowing three much better collaborations, but also became lifelong friends. Grant and Fontaine’s performances are well-complemented by supporting cast, most notably wonderful character actor Nigel Bruce who provides excellent comic relief in the role of Johnnie’s old friend Beaky Thwaite. British stage actress Auriol Lee, who tragically died in traffic accident shortly after production, is also good in role of Agatha Christie-like crime author who appears to inadvertently give advice to Johnnie how to commit perfect murder.

Hitchcock has again showed his superb skill and direction and easy handling of Hollywood resources that allowed him to almost flawlessly reconstruct his native England in Californian studios. He also easily shifts between various genres within the same film. The beginning, which looks like screwball comedy, is the best, although not perfect. There is one scene, set during seemingly innocent walk, that suggests Johnnie violently attacking Lina, which is never properly explained and later gets brushed off. Hitchock is much more successful in later stages of film, where the tone shifts to dark and often disturbing thriller, with slowly building suspense that culminates in the famous scene in which Johnnie carries potentially poisoned glass of milk to her scared wife. But, for many adoring Hitchcock’s fans, Suspicion gets ruined with the ending which strays from original novel and is often considered a cop out. Hitchcock years later stated that he wanted to remain faithful to original source and deliver dark, or at least ambigious, ending. In the end, he was vetoed by studio whose executive wanted to follow Hays Code (which barred depiction of perfect or unpunished crimes) and were concerned that audience wouldn’t accept Grant as murderer. Some of cinema historians in more recent times expressed doubt that Hitchcock really wanted dark ending and claimed that he was at the time, long before being worshipped as cinema genius, satisfied with studio’s version. Whatever the truth may be, Suspicion has, like some of Hitchcock’s earlier works, relatively weak ending. But that shouldn’t prevent modern audience from enjoying this well-made thriller which is, despite all the controversies, undoubtedly Hitchcockian.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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