23 March 2012

Suspicion (1941)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Music: Franz Waxman
Starring: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce, 
Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty
Alfred Hitchcock's association with producer David Selznick gave us some of the best noir films that came out of Hollywood in the fist half of the 20th century. However, their seven-year contract was a troubled one, because Selznick demanded full creative control over the film, imposing his own restrictions over the director's vision. On the other hand, Selznick was often infuriated by Hitchcock's 'jigsaw cutting' which meant that the producer could only follow the director's vision. In later years, Hitchcock referred to his working arrangements with David Selznick thus: "The most flattering thing the producer ever said about me - and it shows you the amount of control—he said I was the "only director" he'd "trust with a film". However, Selznick didn't make that many films; most of the time, he was loaning Hitchcock out to other producers.

Suspicion was one of the earliest films that Hitchcock directed for an outside producer; though he had a measure of freedom that he didn't often get at Selznick International, Suspicion was still unfaithful to its source material - 'Before the Fact' by Anthony Berkeley (writing under the pseudonym Francis Iles). 
The film begins, as so many of Hitchcock's films often do - on a train. Shy, young Lina McLaidlow (Joan Fontaine) runs into charismatic stranger Johnny Aysgarth, who crashes into her first-class compartment with a third-class ticket. He is outside her ken, but she is intrigued by him. Then, she runs into him again at the Hunt, and while she is cautious, he is beginning to sweep her off her feet. 
Her innate sense of caution wars with her emotions, but when she overhears a conversation between her parents which makes it clear that they think she is doomed to remain a spinster, Lina throws caution to the winds, and allows Johnny into her heart. Her wealthy father thoroughly disapproves of Johnny, though he cannot remember what it is that made Johnny dishonour his family's name - he either cheated at cards, or it was a woman or... 
None of which Johnny repudiates. He is charmingly insouciant. When he kisses her in the car, he tells her that she must be the only woman who said 'yes' when she meant 'yes'. When she asks him whether all those other women kissed him irrespective of what they said, he admits they did. He even answers her question about whether there were a lot (of women)... he tells her he began counting the number of women once, when he couldn't go to sleep, but stopped at 73. 
So. Compulsive gambler, womaniser, a charming ne'er-do-well who lives off his friends and his own wits - that's the man whom Lina, dowdy, unworldly, spinster-to-be, has fallen in love with. Her father is incensed, but Lina is so in love with her Johnny that she cannot think straight. She elopes, leaving behind a note for her parents, and marries Johnny. When they reach their new home, Lina is astonished to see the house that Johnny has rented - its furnishings, the maid, all bespeak great wealth.Which she knows he does not have!

She gets her first shock when she realises that Johnny had married her in anticipation of her inheritance. He as much as tells her so, but is quick to point out that if she has to wait until her father comes around, he'll borrow from another friend to tide over the present. Lina is besotted by him and pushes her misgivings to the back of her mind. She is helped by the fact that her mother calls her to wish her well, and to tell her that her father has sent them a wedding gift. Lina is overjoyed. So is Johnny, until he realises that the 'gift' is two antique chairs that his father-in-law had refused to part with for love or money. 
Lina persuades Johnny to get a real job; he promises her that he will. In fact, he has an offer to manage his cousin, Capt.Melbeck's estate. Lina is happy again, and the newly-wed couple are very happy.  And then, 'Beaky' , Johnny's well-meaning but often foot-in-the-mouth friend comes to visit. He is genuinely fond of Johnny even with all his flaws, and has no qualms in subsidising his friend's lifestyle. 

Meanwhile, Lina is beginning to catch on to more and more of Johnny's lies. She comes home one day to find that the chairs her father gave her are missing; Johnny has the grace to confess that he sold the chairs to an American who had fallen in love with them. But even that is a lie; Lina discovers them in the village antique shop. Johnny comes home with gifts for everyone, including the maid, and confesses that he won the money at the races. Her query about where the money came from, to bet on the races, is met with quick laughter from Beaky. She is angry and upset but it all dissipates quickly when Johnny shows her the receipt for the chairs - he's bought them back for her. They decided to celebrate, but Beaky's toast to Johnny's 'last bet' almost ends in tragedy for him. In fact, Johnny says, 'One day, it will kill him.'
Lina is desperate to believe that Johnny is not as bad as he seems. When she's told by a gossipy acquaintance that Johnny was seen at the races, she decides to visit her husband's office. There, she discovers that he had been fired six weeks ago for embezzlement, though his cousin will not prosecute if he will pay back the money. Lina has had enough. She decides to leave him, and even writes a letter to tell him so but loves him too much to go ahead with her decision. 

And then, her father dies. Lina is heartbroken, and Johnny is such a comfort. However, Johnny's hopes of a large inheritance are dashed when General McLaidlaw's will is read. In a bid to resolve his financial affairs, Johnny persuades Beaky to bankroll a real estate development scheme; they form a corporation and Lina tries hard to convince Beaky to take a more active role in the partnership. Johnny is livid that she is trying to derail him, and for the first time, Lina is frightened of her husband.
It seems her fears are unfounded. Johnny seems to have given up the idea of a partnership. But he seems intent on taking Beaky to see the place and Lina is frightened again. Her unspoken fears spell themselves out on the table as she and Beaky play an anagram game. 
However, her fears have no foundation. Beaky comes back safe and sound from a visit to the proposed development, and  persuades Johnny to come up to London, while he proceeds on to Paris to dissolve the partnership. Lina is happy again, the shadows of her suspicions being chased away by the sunshine of Johnny's love. While they are away, Lina has a visitor. The police inspector informs her that Beaky died a curious death in Paris in the company of an unidentified Englishman. They had apparently had a bet and Beaky drank a huge beaker of brandy in one shot. When Lina calls Johnny's club in London, she's told that he had checked out the previous morning. 

When Johnny comes back, he claims he has been in London all along. Lina notices the murder mystery he's reading; the author, Isobel, is a friend of the Aysgarths.  The book has the same premise, and when Lina meets Isobel, the latter tells her that it was based on a real-life story - and the book of the trial was with Johnny! She also finds out that Johnny has been trying to raise a loan on her life insurance. 
Did Johnny kill Beaky? Is he going to kill Lina too? After all, he has claimed that if he ever were to commit a murder, he would do it simply. And he's wormed the secret of an untraceable poison, one that is a commonly used household substance, out of Isobel. 

The pace is pitch perfect, the tension slowly building as Lina moves from being a happy wife in love to a woman who is scared of her own shadow. Right up until the last scene, we are not sure whether Johnny killed Beaky, and whether he is plotting to kill the woman he claims to love. 
Watch Suspicion for the performances. Cary Grant, in a step away from his usual roles, is perfect as Johnny - liar, gambler, even thief, but suave and charming, and totally in love with his wife. Everyone likes Johnny. As Beaky (a very fine performance by Nigel Bruce), who knows him through and through, tells Lina, "Johnny is Johnny. Everyone likes him." Even Captain Melbeck, Johnny's cousin and employer asks Lina in frustration, "How does he get away with everything?"

Nigel Bruce is funny, and eminently likeable as the bumbling 'Beaky'. He adores Johnny and will do anything for him, including subsidise his cockamamie schemes. He is the one person who likes Johnny unconditionally; he has no illusions about what Johnny is, and is quite in awe of Johnny's abilities to come up with 'howlers' (lies) on the spur of the moment.

The film, though, belonged to Joan Fontaine. As Lina, she changes from the quiet, old-maid-ish girl to a woman who, head over heels in love with a scamp, throws caution to the winds. Later, she is a frightened woman who cannot stop loving her husband even though she thinks he is a murderer. As each of her fears is met and countered, a new one comes to take its place. Fontaine's performance makes us feel her fear and anxiety every time. Fresh from her success in and as Hitchcock's Rebecca, she won a well-deserved Oscar for this role.

The master of suspense is at his best as he casually stokes the tension with some seemingly-innocent scenes - Johnny is strangely callous about Beaky's condition after he drinks brandy; the words on the table when they play the anagram game spell out 'doubt' and 'murder'; the letter from the insurance company that Johnny hides in his coat pocket... taken by themselves, they are all inconsequential, and can be seen as the workings of a deeply troubled mind; taken together, as the tension builds, we are forced into thinking there can be only one answer - Johnny is a murderer. He has murdered two people, and will soon murder the third. Simply. Obviously. The only question is, will he get away with it? 

The last scene was a cop-out, however, one which had me sit up and go, 'What the...?', a scene that undermined everything that had gone before. It spoilt the whole film for me, since Johhny's explanation in the end was so against everything that had been shown of his character arc in the film until then. All the foreshadowing that darkened the latter part of the film and built up the tension between Johnny and Lina is suddenly dissipated just like that.

Johnny is a charming wastrel, a compulsive liar, and an inveterate gambler. But is he a murderer? The book, on which the film is based, says he is - unambiguously. In that, Aysgarth is a charming psychopath, who has already murdered two people. He is also an adulterer, having numerous affairs, including one with his wife's best friend, and their parlour maid. Lina is a woman who has been waiting for her husband to kill her for months; when he finally offers her the poisoned milk, she is almost relieved to end the agony of suspense.

Hitchcock's own preferred ending (he said in an interview) had Johnny as the murderer. But with a twist: His whole movie is told from Lina's point of view. We see her love for Johnnie, we see her suspicions being tweaked by little incidences, we see her fear increasing. When she knows that Johnnie has been asking Isobel about untraceable poisons, she knows that he is planning to murder her. He is the only man she's ever loved, and now that she knows the truth, life is no longer worth living. Before he comes up with the milk, however, she's writing to her mother - about her love for Johnny, about how he is planning to kill her, and that she means to die. She signs and seals the letter, and hands it to Johnny to post in the morning. She drinks the poisoned milk that Johnnie gives her, and the movie ends with Johnny posting her letter, unsuspecting that it will seal his fate.

In the trivia that was added to the DVD, Hitchcock's daughter says that neither of these endings was acceptable to either the Studio, Cary Grant's agent, or to the preview audiences. And so, in a hastily devised and shot final scene, Johnny's murderous intent became the figment of Lina's paranoia, derailing and subverting what could have been a psychological manipulation of us, the audience, as we watched a crime play out on reel, from the victim's viewpoint.

In fact, the film's trailer bears out that testimony. It transposes Lina commenting on scenes from the film, and ends with her saying, "These are the facts, the evidence before the crime. I wanted you to know in case I met a violent end." This film is her voice, and we see the action unfold from her viewpoint as she narrates (or writes) the whole story to her mother.

However, Hitchcock's biographer, who had access to the memos between the studio and the director, claims that Hitchcock intended  the film to be the workings of a woman's paranoia. It is Lina who is slowly going insane; it is she who is convinced, on practically no evidence, that her husband is a killer. And it is this slow descend into the darkness of her own mind that Hitchcock wanted to show, taking us, the audience, along for the ride. 

If that is true, then the way the film ended was the only way it could have ended, but I still feel that it was too hurried a change, and too much of an about-turn to be convincing. It ruined what had been until then a compelling film.

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