Suspicion, 1941, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. B&W, 99 minutes.
Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine), crushed after hearing her parents describe her as “spinsterish,” allows herself to fall for the charms of roguish playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). In short order, the two are married and off on a lavish honeymoon.
Lina is madly in love, but her feelings are soon tempered by the discovery Johnnie has no money and no intention of keeping a job. Little by little she learns of his many deceptions, and her concerns turn to fear for her life. Yet she still can be drawn in by his charming side, and remains in love with her dishonorable husband.
When a close friend dies mysteriously and Johnnie lies about his whereabouts at the time of his death, Lina is convinced Johnnie is guilty of murder.
Suspicion was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Original Score, and Best Actress for Fontaine, which she won, making that the only Oscar for a performance in a Hitchcock film. Her portrayal of the timid woman who gradually recognizes her husband’s true nature was subtle and nuanced, reminiscent of her performance in Rebecca a year earlier.
Grant’s performance is of particular note as well. He plays his character as charming and likable, and no actor of that time possessed more of those qualities than Cary Grant. He is tremendously appealing, and it’s easy to see why his wife is so enamored of him and reluctant to face the possibility he has an evil side, capable of murder. It’s hard to imagine any other actor of the time playing the role in this manner so well, and it contributes significantly to the veracity of the plot.
Yet there is an underlying dark side to Johnnie that shows itself throughout the story, making his charm somewhat eerie.
Hitchcock never missed a beat in using detail to enhance the story. In a pivotal scene, the glass of milk Grant is seen taking to his wife actually had a light placed inside of it, thus ensuring it became the focal point desired by Hitchcock. This subtle trick increases the tension of the scene, as does, of course, the score, which was also used to great effect in the film.
In later interviews, Hitchcock revealed that he would have liked to make Grant the killer, carrying out his evil deed by bringing Fontaine a poisoned glass of milk in the last scene. Unbeknownst to him, she is writing a letter to her mother in which she expresses her fear and conviction that her husband is the killer. She asks him to mail the letter for her, drinks the milk, and Grant is seen cheerfully dropping the letter in a corner mailbox, thus sealing his own fate.
However, Cary Grant’s star status made it virtually impossible for Hitchcock to cast him as a killer, a problem he’d encountered before when making a film in England with a matinee-idol actor he would have like to cast as Jack the Ripper. An unfortunate situation, because the preferred ending certainly would have been the better one.
Studio executives were so conscious of Grant’s image that at one point one of RKO’s producers cut out any scene or portion thereof that insinuated Grant could be a killer. Hitchcock furiously objected, and his habit of filming scenes exactly as he intended to use them, thus leaving little or no extra footage to work with, helped him win that battle and place all the removed scenes back where they belonged.
Suspicion is a good film, perhaps not Hitchcock’s finest, but notable for its tight storytelling and steady pace of psychological tension, with the buildup of anticipation of which he was master. The credibility, or lack thereof, of the ending makes one wish Hitchcock could have filmed it the way he desired, but the star system of the day and Hollywood’s at times annoying tendency to guarantee a happy ending precluded that possibility.