We’re going back a few years to examine a film from Hitchcock’s 1940s output. A year after winning the Academy Award for Rebecca, Hitchcock reteamed with star Joan Fontaine for another one-word titled mystery, Suspicion. This classy thriller pairs Hitchcock for the first time with the smooth Cary Grant, and though the director doesn’t stick the landing due to studio interference or his own desires (depending on who’s telling the story), Suspicion is another remarkably fraught love story from the Master of Suspense.
After a whirlwind courtship, the shy Lina (Fontaine) marries playboy Johnnie Asygarth (Grant) only to discover he might have devious intentions in mind.
In a nod to the screenwriting process, Lina’s friendship with a writer of detective stories comments on Suspicion’s own narrative structure. Written by Samson Raphaelson and Joan Harrison, Suspicion plays out like a 1940s paperback, with Lina as a smart-suited Sam Spade. Similar to other Hitchcock heroines Joan Fontaine’s Lina is shy, quiet and reserved. It’s impossible to assume a woman as beautiful as her isn’t finding male attention, although upon meeting Johnnie in the train compartment she rebuffs his attempts at chit-chat. It is only once Johnnie hears of Lina’s sizable estate that she becomes the rabbit to his fox.
When I reviewed The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) I mentioned Hitchcock’s inability to pull off the broad comedic tone. Suspicion’s humor is droll and usually in mocking to Lina. Johnnie constantly defuses situations through humor, with the aid of Nigel Bruce as his friend Beaky (even his name is a joke) – whether it be tickling under her chin or calling her “Monkeyface,” meant to be a term of endearment. Though never enough to leave you in tears, the humor enhances Lina’s paranoia. Is Johnnie being funny or is he “gaslighting” her, in a way?
Fontaine had played a similar heroine, caught adrift in a new world with a strange man she’s supposed to love, honor and obey, as she did in Rebecca. The roles are so similar as to be interchangeable – with similar endings, to boot – and this isn’t necessarily a role for Fontaine to stretch her wings. Like Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949), Lina is shocked that a man could love her, but once she realizes his affections it’s hard to resist. Despite her reserved exterior, Lina capriciously marries Johnnie only to discover, quel surprise, that Johnnie has no job or means of making money.
It’s hard staying mad at Cary Grant and many of their marriage woes fall back on Lina – serves her right for marrying the first guy she meets! Blinded by love, or lust, it’s easy to spot the violence inherent in their romance from the first time the two are on a hill together, with the appearance that Johnnie’s throwing Lina off it. Fear of falling plays heavily in Suspicion as the two “fall” in love, and find themselves mutually in peril because of it.
As with Rebecca, Hitchcock wraps Lina’s world up in a gauzy, idealistic package. Outside of Johnnie’s inability to find a job, she remains cloistered. Her family, her father in particular, loom over her – Johnnie’s marriage proposal literally sees her father’s portrait “jump” off the walls in retaliation – and though she calls Johnnie a “baby,” she’s still in diapers herself…metaphorically speaking.
Cary Grant plays the closest thing to an outright villain as Johnnie, and audiences fall on clear sides regarding the ending. Depending on the source, Johnnie’s revelation at the end was either studio imposed, for fear of audience backlash against Grant’s persona, Grant’s own refusal to alienate his audience, or Hitchcock’s as a means of subverting expectation and/or to emphasize female paranoia. As the audience worries about Johnnie’s intentions it’s impossible to act against him. The Cary Grant persona is in full effect and it’s why the film works so well when it’s setting him up as the villain, and it’s also why the film’s ending is such a crushing disappointment. Not only does it completely belittle Lina’s intelligence, but it also requires extreme jumps in logic to make sense.
This beautifully produced psychological suspense thriller may have more gendered notions of psychology than our timely for today, but to watch Grant flirt with villainy is beyond delicious!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.