Alfred Hitchcock or, as he was often referred to, “The Master of Suspense”, has made many films that could be commended, but perhaps one of the less visited is Suspicion (1941).
Based on Anthony Berkeley Cox’s (also known as Francis Iles) crime novel Before the Fact (1932), Suspicion focuses on newlyweds Lina (Joan Fontaine) and Johnnie (Cary Grant), and Lina’s realisation that Johnnie is not what he seems. In much the same way, the film echoes this treatment. Lina’s apprehension of Johnnie is made clear from the start, but a fear of becoming a spinster pushes her to get involved. They are soon married and living together, only for Lina to find that Johnnie has no job and is in serious debt. As lies and tales are spun, especially through Johnnie’s happy-go-lucky friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce), Lina begins to consider the possibility that Johnnie could in fact be a murderer.
This straightforward narrative really accentuates Lina’s doubt. Suspicion is told solely from Lina’s perspective, which is elevated in Fontaine’s Oscar winning performance, the only acting Oscar to result from a Hitchcock film. Appealing female protagonists such as Fontaine and their untrustworthy, monstrous husbands in cinema became almost a genre, if you will, from the ’40s. Also dubbed “women’s pictures”, Suspicion, Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) and Sleep, My Love (Douglas Sirk, 1948) were prime examples that would speak directly to women concerning themes such as, family, motherhood and or romance.
In retrospect, this style of genre found in melodramatic and gothic tones usually had conflicting themes with elements of the War and much of the era’s pre-feminism ideals. It is these ideals that can be seen through the gradual deterioration of Lina’s former independence, to her life as a married, but essentially unhappy, woman. It is through Lina’s clothing that a change in identity is expressed. At the start of the film, Lina’s fashion is masculine, with smart clothes and glasses, but when she becomes involved with Johnnie, her clothing becomes tight, restricted. In one-scene Lina collapses wearing a white dress, only to blend into the house and the dÃ©cor around her. This is also perfectly illustrated through Fontaine’s tiny stature, which is swallowed up in an enormous-sized mansion.
At times, it is hard to watch Suspicion. It feels like watching a rough Hitchcock production, with no glamour, icy-blondes and the score withheld. While Hitchcock would become an iconic director working in Hollywood, Suspicion was stripped back and quite clumsy in both its editing and set design; the illusion was constantly broken, with stagey elements rearing its ugly head in a variety of scenes.
Classic Hitchcock suspense is indeed present here, moments that later defined Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960) are scattered throughout. Almost frustratingly, these tense moments are mixed with humour, leaving you unsure as to whether you should laugh or feel sympathy. One example sees Lina, Johnnie, and Beaky playing scrabble, with Lina slowly forming the word “doubt”, to then “mudder”, fixing it up with “murder”. This is a dark moment at a stage of the film where Johnnie seems guilty, but then Beaky jokes that if you add the letters, “e” and “r”, you get “murderer”, providing a killjoy against the film’s dark tones.
Nevertheless, seriousness does find its way in, and when it does it’s quite striking. In one of the more referred to moments, leading up to the film’s conclusion, is Johnnie carrying a potentially poisonous glass of milk up the stairs for Lina. Hitch had in fact used a hidden light bulb in the milk as a way of illuminating the liquid, contrasting the darkness that surrounds the film.
It’s a shame to know that the book is different to the film; Hitchcock wanted to use the same ending , but the studio wouldn’t allow Cary Grant and his on-screen persona to be ultimately seen as the villain. Seeing the alternative ending shows Hitchcock’s rebellion and commitment to the right story.