Sunday, 14 August 2016

The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon: «Suspicion» (1941)

Original release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Suspicion (1941) begins when dowdy Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) meets and falls in love with a suave enigmatic stranger named Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). Despite the strong disapproval of her wealthy father, General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Lina elopes with Johnnie following a whirlwind courtship. Upon returning from their European honeymoon, the newlyweds take up residence in a luxurious country house, where Lina soon discovers that Johnnie is a penniless gambler and had intended to live on her income. She persudes him into getting a job, after which Johnnie accept an offer of work from his cousin, estate agent Captain Melbeck (Leo G. Carroll). 

When she learns that Johnnie has been fired for embezzling from Melbeck, Lina contemplates leaving him, but changes her mind after receiving the news of her father's sudden death. Meanwhile, Johnnie convinces his old friend Beaky Twaithe (Nigel Bruce) to finance a land development scheme. Lina expresses her concerns about Beaky, but Johnnie angrily warns her to stay out of his affairs. When Beaky dies under mysterious circumstances, Lina becomes suspicious that Johnnie is responsible. Soon afterwards, she visits her neighbor Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee), a writer of murder mysteries, who tells her that Johnnie has borrowed a book about untraceable poisons. At that point, Lina begins to fear that Johnnie is plotting to kill her for her life insurance. Later, when Lina is unable to sleep, Johnnie brings her a glass of milk, but she is too afraid to drink it, certain that it is lethal. The next morning, she announces that she will stay with her mother (Dame May Whitty) for a few days and Johnnie insists on driving her there. On the winding road, Lina's door unexpectedly swings open and Johnnie reaches to grab her arm, but she pulls away from him. He stops the car and in the subsequent confrontation, it emerges that Johnnie was actually intending to commit suicide because of his being unable to repay his debt. He explains to Lina that at the time of Beaky's death he was visiting the insurance company, trying to borrow money on her policy to repay Melbeck. Lina apologizes for doubting Johnnie and the couple returns home together.

Johnnie: Well, well, you're the only woman I've ever met who said 'yes' when she meant 'yes.'

In the 1920s and 1930s, literary markets in Britain and the United States were flooded with what we now refer to as «classic» crime novels, meaning «formulaic works that present murder as a puzzle to be solved, and that emphasize ingenious murderers and exceptionally talented detectives.» English novelist Agatha Christie, author of such works as The Secret Adversary (1922) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934), brought the genre to popular and critical acclaim, along with her contemporaries Dorothy L. Sayers, S. S. Van Dine and Anthony Berkeley Cox. Serving in the British Army during World War I, Cox worked as a journalist for several years before publishing (anonymously) his first novel, The Layton Court Mystery (1925). Under three aliases, including Francis Iles, he would write twenty detective novels between 1925 and 1939, many featuring amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham. When Cox wrote as Iles, which he did for only four novels, he did so in order to «disassociate himself from the classic detective novel, and to write detective fiction that violated its conventions.»

In his second novel as Francis Iles, Before the Fact, Cox related the story of Lina MacLaidlaw Aysgarth, a passive but wealthy woman overly attached to her husband Johnnie, who she discovers is an embezzler, has murdered his best friend and is about to murder her. Debilitated by her love for him, she cannot do anything to stop him and, in the climatic scene, she calmly accepts a glass of milk from him that she knows is poisoned and dies. Written as an «inverted» detective story — a subgenre of the classic crime novel claimed to have been invented by R. Austin Freeman — Before the Fact is told exclusively from Lina's point of view, revealing Johnnie's murderous nature in a startling opening paragraph: «Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realized she was married to a murderer.»

Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce and Cary Grant
The character of Johnnie Aysgarth was reportedly based on William Palmer, a seemingly benign man believed to have killed at least a dozen people using various poisons (mostly strychnine and prussid acid) in 19th-century England. Palmer's victims included his friend John Cook, his mother-in-law, four of his infant children and a number of creditors who were clamoring for him to settle his large racing debts. His lesser crimes included forgery, embezzlement and theft, the latter performed during his youth. His wife Ann, the daughter of an officer in the Indian Army, had brought a sizeable dowry to the marriage and her convenient death from cholera ultimately enable him to collect on her life insurance. Other heavily insured victims were his brother and an uncle, who perished after a suspicious brandy-swilling contest. Justice finally caught up with Palmer in 1856, when he was tried and executed at Stafford Prison.

Described as «one of the key texts in the history of crime fiction,» Before the Fact was originally published in the Daily Express between April and June 1932, under the more blatant title Married to a Murderer. Shortly before the serial concluded, Gollancz released it in book form to a successful reception. One contemporary reviewer commented: «For sheer, nightmarish horror it has seldom been surpassed. [...] Before the Fact is remarkably well done.» In 1935, RKO purchased the screen rights to the novel and planned to adapt it as a B-picture starring English newcomer George Sanders and former child actress Anne Shirley. Paul Trivers was hired to write the script, but the project never came to fruition. Before the Fact was subsequently shelved until British director Alfred Hitchcock showed interest in the property five years later. The story was definitely «fertile turf» for Hitchcock, who was fascinated by the idea of making a film about a woman so masochistically attached to her husband that she would actually allow him to kill her — if, in fact, that was what he intended to do. From the beginning, Hitchcock decided that he would keep the audience guessing until the very end whether Johnnie was really a murderer or if the whole thing was only a figment of his wife's paranoid imagination.

Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine and Alfred
Hitchock on the set of Suspicion
The second son of a poultry dealer and fruit importer, Hitchcock worked in advertising as an artist, before venturing into filmmaking in 1920 as a title card designer at Islington Studios in London. Within five years, he rose from art director to screenwriter to assistant director and finally to director, making his debut in that capacity with The Pleasure Garden (1924). With the coming of the sound era, Hitchcock was chosen to helm Britain's first «talkie,» a thriller entitled Blackmail (1929). In 1933, he was contracted by Gaumont British, where he quickly became the nation's leading director with the hits The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938).

By the late 1930s, Hitchcock's growing international reputation had caught the attention of independent producer David O. Selznick, who brought the director to Hollywood under a seven-year contract. Hitchcock's first American film was Rebecca (1940), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, in addition to receiving the coveted Oscar for Best Picture.

When Selznick loaned Hitchcock out to RKO for Before the Fact, later re-titled Suspicion, the production was elevated to A-list status and Laurence Olivier, the male lead in Rebecca, was announced to play Johnnie Aysgarth. This notion was soon abandoned, however, since the studio refused to have Olivier play a murderer. The role was then offered to Cary Grant, who had made a name for himself as a sophisticated leading man in screwball comedies. A former vaudeville entertainer, the Bristol-born actor made his screen debut at Paramount in This Is the Night (1932), with Thelma Todd and Lili Damita. The following year, he gained nationwide attention for appearing opposite Mae West in the racy comedies She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933), both of which were massive successes at the box-office. In 1936, Grant signed joint contracts with RKO and Columbia Pictures, quickly becoming a major star in such films as The Awful Truth (1937) and His Girl Friday (1940).

Joan Fontaine as Lina MacLaidlaw
After his bitter disppointment at being left out of an Oscar nomination for The Philadelphia Story (1940) and the personal trauma he suffered during the making of Penny Serenade (1941) — five of his close relatives were all killed when a German bomb made a direct hit on Bristol — Grant had apparently considered retiring from the motion picture industry. What renewed his interest in film acting was the opportunity to work with Hitchcock, whom he greatly admired. Grant and the director later reunited in Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North By Northwest (1959). 

The studio initially envisioned Frances Dee as Lina MacLaidlaw, but ultimately gave the assignment to Joan Fontaine, who was also under contract to Selznick. Since signing the young British-American actress in 1935, RKO had miscast Fontaine in a series of minor B roles and then dropped her contract after Gunga Din (1939), which starred Grant. George Cukor's The Women (1939) was an important stepping stone for Fontaine, before Hitchcock and Selznick developed her persona in Rebecca, for which she received her first Academy Award nomination.

Fontaine so wanted to play Lina in Suspicion that she begged Hitchcock for the part. In a handwritten note to the director, she pleaded, «Dear Hitch: [...] I must do that picture. [...] I am even willing to play the part for no salary — if necessary! Really, Hitch [...] this is the first urge I've felt to go back to work since Rebecca — and I am sure with you at the helm, I would not regret it. Please pull for me — I shall be eternally grateful.» Selznick reprimanded Fontaine for lobbying Hitchcock for the female lead in Suspicion. At the time, she was on suspension after refusing to appear in Robert Stevenson's historical drama Back Street (1941) at Universal (Margaret Sullavan eventually replaced her). When RKO paid Selznick a lucrative $116,750 to cast Fontaine in Suspicion, the producer finally agreed to the loan. He gave Fontaine a mere $17,833 salary and then remarked: «I don't care [...] so much about how much she makes as I do about making sure we keep her in line.»

Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine
Production on Suspicion took place between February and May 1941, with Hitchcock's unique «divide and conquer» methods often embedding distress into the filmmaking process. Grant, in particular, disliked what he saw as the preferential treatment Hitchcock gave to Fontaine and reportedly commented that her «bitchy behavior made it perfectly understandable that her husband could murder her.» Fontaine was far more generous towards her co-star, recalling with great admiration Grant's «focus» on his professional career. «He knew his best camera angles and exactly how the lighting should be to show him at his best,» she said. «Actually, I don't think he had any bad angles, and there wasn't any way you could light him that he wasn't at his best.» However, Fontaine noted that «the only mistake [Grant] made on Suspicion was not realizing that the part of Lina was the major role.»

About two months into filming, Hitchcock finally decided that Johnnie Aysgarth should turn out to be a killer. His studio-assigned producer, Harry E. Edington, immediately objected to this resolution, arguing that audiences would never accept as popular a personality as Cary Grant in that type of role. The resulting impasse lasted until Hitchcock finally — and reluctantly — altered the script (written by his former assistant Joan Harrison, his wife Alma Reville and writer Sam Raphaelson) to make Lina the victim only of her own paranoid illusions. In later years, Hitchcock stated that Suspicion should have concluded with Lina accepting that she is going to be murdered. He explained how he planned to achieve this: «She writes a letter. 'Dear Mother, I'm in such terrible straits. I know he's going to kill me, but I love him so much I don't want to live anymore, and I do think society should be protected.' Then, she seals the letter and leaves it by the bed. Johnnie brings up the milk, and she says, 'Could you mail this for me?' She drinks the fatal glass of milk, really committing suicide, and you fade out on her death. Next you have a cheerful, whistling Cary Grant popping the letter into the mailbox. That's how I wanted to end the picture. Black humor, you know.»

Suspicion opened at Radio City Musical Hall in New York on November 14, 1941. Although the studio-imposed «happy-ending» caused great dissatisfaction among moviegoers, the film was a massive critical and commercial success, becoming one of the top five biggest moneymakers of the year. The reviewer for Variety, for instance, describe it as «a class production [...] provided with excellence in direction, acting and mounting.» Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was also praised the cast, especially Fontaine, writing: «This young has unquestionably become one of the finest actresses on the screen, and one of the most beautiful, too; and her development in this picture of a fear-tortured character is fluid and compelling all the way.» At the 14th Academy Awards, Fontaine won the Oscar for Best Actress (the only acting win for a Hitchcock picture), beating her own sister, Olivia de Havilland, who was nominated for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn (1941). Coincidentally, Grant was also a nominee that night, only for Penny Serenade. He lost to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (1941). Suspicion received additional nomination for Best Picture and Best Score, but those awards were given instead to How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).

This post is my contribution to The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon hosted by Coffee, Classics and Craziness. To view all entries, click HERE.

Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir by Sheri Chinen Biesen (2005)
Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2004)
Elusion Aforethought: The Life and Writing of Anthony Berkeley Cox by Malcolm J. Turnbull (1996)
It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (2005)
Hitchcock and Adaptation: On Page and Screen edited by Mark Osteen (2014)
TCMDb (Articles) 
TCMDb (Notes)
The New York Times review 
Variety review


  1. I've always wanted to see this 'cause I'm interested to see Cary Grant play a less-than-upright character. :) It sounds good!


    1. You should definitely see "Suspicion" whenever you get the chance. Cary Grant is fantastic as Johnnie.

  2. Wonderful review...and research! I read the book last year, but had not known much about the author or the real story inspiration for the book.

    Suspicion is a film that has always fascinated me, though I've always rather wished for the ending that Hitchcock wanted. It was interesting to learn that many people felt the same way when the film was released...despite fears that people would not accept it.

    1. I completely agree. The ending was thoroughly unsatisfactory. And very anti-climatic, too. I wish the studio had allowed Hitchcock to shoot the ending that he wanted. The film is excellent as it is, but his ending would have made it perfect.

      Thanks for reading.