Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)

Another in the Cinémathèque québécoise film noir series

by Douglas Buck December 29, 2017 4 minutes (771 words) 16mm Cinémathèque québécoise, part of the Films noirs, films d’angoisse series

An early American film for Hitchcock, and his first of four with Cary Grant, in which he explores one of his favorite themes, the untrustworthy and insidious nature of married life, through the story of the extravagantly rich and beautiful, yet nebbish and uptight Lina (Joan Fontaine) who, despite the disapproval of her family, falls for charming playboy Johnnie (Cary Grant, who, whether as the put-upon nebbish bookworm harassed by Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby or as the lying cad in this film, remains so endearing I don’t know how anyone doesn’t fall for him) and marries him, only to slowly uncover a series of growing lies and betrayal (including gambling problems, massive debts and a destitute financial situation) that not only begin to strongly suggest her mom and dad might have been right about him, but that Johnnie, who she stubbornly remains smitten to, might be even more conniving than she cares to admit… as well as dangerous.

While the film sounds much more intense than it plays out, it remains effectively intriguing, with some nicely crafted tension that builds in unison with Lina’s paranoia as her trust evaporates at the slowly mounting evidence against Johnnie, allowing Hitch the opportunity to subvert the Grant persona nicely, having us (and Lina) closely studying that easy charm and those surface dimples to search for more nefarious and murderous intentions (to collect her life insurance) underneath. As far as being a film noir, however, the over-all worldview of the film isn’t really bleak enough (it’s the milieu of a romantic suspense tale, rather than one dripping with despair or angst) and, other than the famous and brilliantly conceived low-key, high-contrast lit scene that the film builds towards, with our ‘hero’ bringing the suddenly glowing suspect glass of ‘milk’ up the long dark stairway to the bedroom of our girl (with our identification point completely on her side, as he moves in darkness) waiting in terror, the overall lighting scheme of the film doesn’t really work to construct or reinforce a dark, paranoid perspective.

While not one of his greatest efforts, it’s certainly worthwhile to watch for the scene mentioned above and for Hitchcock’s work in slowly building the unsettling perspective and growing paranoia of his female protagonist (director Daren Aronofsky might have paid a little attention to this film in doing his own way-overblown troubled female perspective in the shrieking over-the-top Mother! as he might have learned a few things about the effectiveness of a little subtlety). Grant is decidedly Grant in the role (with the nice addition of the single understated yet effectively realized moment of anger with her, telling her not to mingle in his affairs) and Joan Fontaine is engaging as the initially earnest hopeful waif learning the unfortunate emotional ropes of betrayal, but unfortunately, it’s the conclusion of the film that, in vying for an audience-friendly happy ending, ends up more than a bit confusing and unsatisfying.

With the apparently significantly (and seemingly fascinatingly) darker novel the film is based on ending with our troubled heroine being correct in her assumptions, the film instead ends with Grant attempting to redeem himself. The problem is, even if the Fontaine character seems to blindly believe in him, it’s hard to take what his confession means, especially as it’s coming from someone we (and her) have witnessed over the previous hour and a half to be a full blown con man and liar. So while the film tries to sway (con?) us with a happy blast of romantic music and a seemingly hopeful reconciliation, it’s hard to know what that means – which presented slightly differently (and more knowingly) could have added some wonderful depth and a sense of subversion to the proceedings, but, in this case, only ends up confused with Hitchcock’s intentions unclear at best, unbelievable at worst. And while Hitch stated afterwards that he preferred the much darker ending of the original novel but was pushed by studio execs to accept the sunnier alternative, there appears to be plenty of correspondence evidence that supports that he was in full agreement long before production began with the audience-friendly conclusion.

One thing is for sure, if they had gone with that original ending (or even with one of the few earlier screenplay drafts that included some powerfully dark and tragic alternative endings), on that stark conclusion alone, the film would likely have shot like Johnnie’s car (with only Lina in it) full-throttle down the rocky cliffs and into the pantheon of the bleakest of classic noir.

Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   alfred hitchcock   cary grant   cinémathèque québécoise   film noir   joan fontaine