d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 99 mins.
Note: This review discusses details of the film's ending.
When I was an undergraduate, my university didn't offer a proper film studies department. Film analysis, theory, and criticism were all contained in a department broadly labeled "communications and culture," which also included classes in all rhetoric, television, diversification, and the history of speech. It did not appeal to me as a major, but I decided I'd enroll in as a double major with English anyway so I could sneak into all the upper-level film classes that only required one prerequisite and the intention to major. (I ended up with it as a minor, so whatever.) My favorite class from the department was, not surprisingly, one that covered the films of Alfred Hitchcock. On the first screening we watched Suspicion, and then began to work our way through the director's principal films in chronological order.
Why begin with Suspicion, though? I'd never been able to determine why the professor had us start there until I revisited it. This is not a landmark Hitchcock film, although there are numerous aspects of it that are exceedingly curious. It doesn't hold the same critical or cultural standing as many of his others, and I also wouldn't call it a great film alone. Yet there is something so unassuming and also undeniably Hitchcockian about Suspicion that makes a plausible starting point for the director's works. It's a good film and a good indicator of the dual macabre sensibility and playfulness he brought to numerous productions; it exemplifies how much the Hays Office grew to be frustrated by the director's innuendo; and it contains one of the director's most illuminating (to say the least) movie tricks.
Before the Fact, a 1932 novel by Francis Iles, had interested Hitchcock since production ended on Foreign Correspondent, and it's difficult to comprehend why: a charming man is conniving to murder his wife for her insurance policy. Money, murder, and matrimony were a possible witches' brew for the director, particularly when the possible murderer was portrayed in such a subversive and charming way. The part called for someone charming – someone who didn't just play charming, but was charming by design of the Hollywood studio system, someone whose image Hitchcock could warp like lumber in the rain. As he had done with Ivor Novello fifteen years ago in England, Hitchcock would do again with Cary Grant in America.
Hitchcock longed to work with Grant, who had made a name of himself in the screwball and romantic comedies of Howard Hawks and George Cukor and who was a genuine star in the way no other leading actor in his films had been yet. Suspicion would be their first of four collaborations. We can't get into Hitchcock's head, and arm-chair pop psychology can be borderline rude, but it's safe to say Hitchcock saw Grant as at least an alter ego and at most an object of envy. Although supremely confident in his skill, Hitchcock was undeniably uneasy in his own skin, particularly during the period of his life where his weight had ballooned to a possibly unmanageable degree. (While never slim, he wasn't always painfully rotund.) When you think about Grant's innate and subtle talent, too, it merges perfectly with the director's highly constructed style. Grant exists in the lens of a camera in a way that Hitchcock needn't correct; Hitchcock could build a film around Grant, confident that Grant's urbanity did not require his attention.
The basic structure of Suspicion remained in tact from the novel to the film, but it had to undergo some heavy cosmetic editing by screenwriters Samson Raphaelson and Joan Harrison, as well as Hitchcock and his wife Alma. Grant played the bubbly Johnnie Aysgarth and Joan Fontaine (in an Oscar-winning role, no doubt an apology for her loss with Rebecca) plays his wife Lina, who marries him after a short engagement. Typical of a Hitchcock film that doesn't want to reveal where it's going, Grant is light as air in the beginning (Johnnie continually refers to Lina by a rather bizarre nickname: "Monkeyface"), but as their marriage unfolds that he has been revealing quite a few financial details from her. He has debts and is a flagrant liar, and from the moment he becomes possibly a shady character in the film, the suspense is sometimes maddening – both in the respect that it's delivered well and delivered for about ten to fifteen more minutes than necessary. From its start to near its finish, Suspicion oscillates back and forth in perfect rhythm like a hand stitching a quilt; with each pass, another tidbit of information is revealed, and Johnnie becomes darker and more menacing. It's a thrill to watch Grant expand as the film goes on, but Fontaine seems to constrict in a way that disrupts their on-screen chemistry. (Yes, I know he wants to kill her, but still – they should have some good chemistry, right?) I don't find much memorable about the film stylistically except its best known flourish: Johnnie slowly ascending a shadow-covered staircase to deliver to Lina a poisoned glass to milk, which Hitchcock had illuminated with a bulb from the inside to emphasize its white toxicity.
But the ending would be where things became dicey. No other ending would seem to cause the director more trouble in his career. The problem for Hitchcock et al. was that Iles's book didn't blink an eye at murder. In the book, when the devoted wife realizes her husband is going to murder her, she fakes her own to spare him the penalty. And for Hollywood, which at the time valued punishment for crimes, that kind of talk is nothing but trouble. Patrick McGilligan – whose recent biography Hitchcock (A Life in Darkness and Light) is probably now the definitive text on the director's life and among the best on his career – writes that "telling Hitchcock what he couldn't do exerted a kind of aphrodisiac effect on his creativity." Hitchcock & Co. worked tirelessly to make the ending suitable, writing different drafts and filming a few possibilities. But before production ended, the president at RKO ousted a Hitch-sympathetic boss and Hays Office leader Joseph Breen was installed for the interim. The ending Hitchcock wanted – where Johnnie does kill Lina but mails a letter to her mother at her request, implicating him in her murder – was scrapped. Instead, as Johnnie drives Lina to her mother's and she thinks he's about to kill her by throwing her out of the car from the road on a cliff, he breaks down and admits he wants to kill himself, not her, because of the debt, and the two reconcile and drive away. ("I think it would have been beter if I'd shown them both driving and he's just looking back over his shoulder regretfully – because he didn't push them over," the director said later. Oh, if only.)
Even in a historical context, the end is the film's Achilles heel. Let's admit that Hitchcock did the best he could, but there was only so much he could do in an age of puritanical film censorship. I'm not aware of a single person today who thinks they should have abandoned the original ending in lieu of the viewer-friendly one demanded by the studio (although this review may introduce me to some). To put it bluntly, the ending and the rest of the film don't mesh. Hitchcock works so hard to create Grant as a suspicious character, only to pull the rug out from the audience.
The suspense alone might be the reason to recommend Suspicion (if you're looking for another reason, Cary Grant also makes it pretty darn worthwhile). Although many of the director's films until this point employed suspense successfully, perhaps none was such an enigma and mystery than this. So I can see the logic in starting us with Suspicion. Although it's not a masterpiece, it's a sign that for all the animosity Hitchcock had the Hays Office and the studios, he really did value the audience. Sometimes elements went beyond his control, and perhaps Suspicion is slightly more of a success when considering its history – even though the film, if not Lina, really falls off a cliff in the end.
16 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 99 mins.