Thursday, March 11, 2010
Although not usually one for spoilers when discussing classic films, the topic of this post has many of the films final elements revealed as they are key to the information examined here. Be warned.
There was so much going on behind the scenes of Alfred Hitchcock's 1941 suspenser, Suspicion, it's a wonder it ever got produced. Actually, it had been floating around for years before Hitchcock finally made it at RKO studios. Based on a novel by Francis Iles called "Before the Fact", the film version starred Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, and would be one of the first American made Hitchcock films that focused on the psychological aspects of its characters, much more so than his previous year's blockbuster, Rebecca.
At the time Suspicion was made, Alfred Hitchcock was under exclusive contract to producer David O. Selznick, the mastermind behind Gone with the Wind (1939). Together, they formed an unholy union that created Rebecca, Hitchcock's first American film, but Selznick was so unyielding to the British director on creative issues, Hitchcock was more than grateful to be loaned out to make Suspicion (Selznick was notorious for loaning out his talented contractees, making enormous profits off their services, instead of using them for his own films, except on occasion). Another of the Selznick group loaned to make Suspicion was the film's female lead, Joan Fontaine. She too, had been part of the success of Rebecca, being nominated for an Academy Award as the meek second Mrs. deWinter. Hitchcock had been keen on casting her in that role, even though publicity mad Selznick had hoped to recreate the hub bub he had enjoyed with his search for Scarlett while casting Gone with the Wind. The producer cast a wide net to entice established actresses to test for the part. In the end, Fontaine got the role and when it came time to shoot Suspicion, the shy, awkwardness she displayed in Rebecca held her in good enough stead with Hitchcock that he cast her again.
Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, a reserved young Englishwoman, who comes from a well-to-do country family but is well on her way to spinsterhood, a fact brought to the forefront by none other than her parents. Also a fact noted and filed away by handsome and roguish playboy Johnny Aysgarth (Cary Grant). Johnnie knows a good thing when he sees it (a skill that doesn't always shine through with his regular trips to the racetrack). The good looking ne'er do well woos and eventually charms the awkward lass into marriage, assuming the would be heiress will eventually net a fortune. As the weeks go by, Lina begins to see Johnnie for the scheming, charmingly manipulative man he is, yet still loves him. When his old friend , the lovable but slow witted Beaky (terrifically played by Nigil Bruce) arrives, Lina's suspicions grow even stronger. Johnnie persuades the trusting Beaky to go into a real estate venture with him only to see the friendly fellow die a questionable death shortly afterward. Finally, the shrinking wife, realizes her affable husband has inquired into her life insurance policy and sees his actions from that point in a sinister light.
Studio brass at RKO, didn't think the public would accept Grant as a cold blooded killer and wanted the film's ending to reflect that assumption. According to Alfred Hitchcock, in his famous interview with Francois Truffaut, he wanted the film to end with Fontaine's character realizing that her husband was a murderer, but so in love with him that she couldn't leave him. Instead, she writes a letter to her mother exposing her husband and proclaiming her wish to die. When Grant's Johnnie brings her the "poisonous" milk, she asks him to mail the letter, drinks the milk and drifts off. The final fade out, according to the director, would show Cary, whistling a chipper tune as he slips the letter into the mailbox. The weaker conciliatory ending didn't curtail box office returns and Suspicion was a bonafide hit over the 1941 holidays.
Hitchcock's signature use of creative lighting and camera angles, along with with an atmospheric score by famed composer Franz Waxman, garnered the film a nomination at the next years Oscars. (As to the directors creative genius, he also confessed to Truffaut that a small light was actually placed in the glass of milk carried by Grant up the dark stairwell to make it luminous. He wanted it to be the complete focus of the scene). The big winner at Oscar time was actually Joan Fontaine. The young actress, unhappily married at the time to actor Brian Aherne, felt she wasn't getting the guidance she needed from the formidable director and her sense of loss both on the set and off, brought to her performance the sense of fragility and paranoia, needed to convey Lina's neurosis. It won her the Best Actress Oscar, beating out her sister Olivia DeHavilland and fueling an infamous rivalry between the siblings which was never resolved. Many thought the win was a consolation prize for not winning with her Rebecca role, but as it turned out it was the only Hitchcock directed role to ever win an Academy Award.