Thursday, March 11, 2010

Suspicion (1941): Cary Grant a Killer?

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.


  1. Rupert,
    Great job. I love this film. I do wish that Hitch had been allowed to make Grant even more sinister.

  2. Thank you Connie. I always wondered if I would like a more sinister ending, but after discovering Hitch's thoughts on how he'd do it, I agree, I think this would have been a GREAT ending!

  3. Rupert, I'm also a big fan of this movie, for me one of Hitch's most undervalued of the 1940s. Grant and Fontaine are great leads (the way he keeps calling her "Monkey Face," you can't tell if he's being affectionate or slyly sinister). But you're right about Nigel Bruce being terrific--he steals every scene he's in. I liked Cedric Hardwicke and Dame May Whitty too. It was really good to hear the details of the ending Hitchcock wanted; it sounds like an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." I've always felt the ending that was used was a terrible letdown after all that suspenseful buildup--the movie just ends and fades away. Hitchcock did the same thing in "The Birds," and I've always felt both films just fizzled out at the end. Grant got one of his two Oscar nominations that same year for "Penny Serenade" (which seems to me to be Irene Dunne's movie) and I can't help wondering if he would have been nominated for "Suspicion" if the original ending had been used--he's that good.

  4. Hi,
    Sorry for the anon comment, but I'm mostly a lurker and don't have my own account. Great post, but I'm going to be the contrarian and state that this is absolute top-tier Hitchcock and that the ending clinches it.
    I've heard about the original ending before, and maybe Hitch could've pulled it off, but to me that sounds over the top and even anti-climactic. The final shot of Cary Grant's arm slowly drawing around Joan Fontaine's shoulders as they drive away from the camera is wonderfully ambiguous, suggesting both the lovely husband he's supposedly just been revealed to be as well as a spider who's completely entrapped his prey and is drawing in for the kill (after all, the lighting in their home strongly suggests a spider's web).
    The way I interpreted that last scene, Joan Fontaine's character was the one who came up with the alternative explanation for her husband's behavior and he merely agrees that that is what he was up to. She then proceeds to blame herself for not being a more perfect wife. The Hays Office as well as most of the audience would take the scene as face value, but her character was so desperate to believe Grant even as she was consumed with suspicion that it's more than plausible she just supplied him with the perfect alibi. The ambiguity is preserved and there remains the very real possibility that Fontaine gets murdered as soon as the credits roll. I would cite Suspicion as a prime example of how the production code could unwittingly produce a far stronger film than you might otherwise end up with. -- Ellie

  5. I'm one of those for whom the ending spoils the picture. The revised ending feels tacked on and doesn't flow with the rest of the film (like the one windmill in Foreign Correspondent that is turning against the wind). Cary Grant's performance (wonderful, as usual) gives too many cues that he is, in fact, a killer. The scene in which Joan Fontaine's letter is mailed ideally set up the original ending. The film is still vintage Hitchcock and showcases his cinematic artistry, plus some bravura performances...but with a disfiguring flaw.

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  7. Great work Rupert! I look forward to more of your writings. I am obsessed with classic movies and am always excited to see someone else sharing that enthusiasm.
    Aaron Brown
    "Coffee with Aaron"

  8. Great review Rupert! I love Cary in this movie. I have a question. What is it with milk and poison? The camera seems to like that shot. Like in the bogart and stanwyck movie. I think it was milk in that movie too. I could be wrong. I can't remember the name of it and I have it and really like that movie too lol. I am getting old. Anyway I think cary rocked this movie. Cary never got enough credit for being able to do different roles. I would loved of seen him be evil. ha!

  9. Jo, you're thinking of THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947) with Stanwyck, Bogart and Alexis Smith. It's a good one too!

  10. I agree with Ellie's statement about how the ending could be viewed as the spider pulling in their pray, but on the other hand, I would have loved to see the original ending that Hitchcock had planned. The new ending, changed the whole movie for me. It became a film about an insecure, naive woman who starts to DOUBT (as spelled out in the game they played in the film) her decision to target (with quite a bit of gusto) playboy Johnnie as her future husband. He betrayed her enough times, that she couldn't trust him, although she did still want him (out of love? or out of a need to simply be wanted). Such suspense, and completely unpredictable! I loved your review; I'm very pleased I waited until I saw the film to read it!

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  14. Where do you get the great history :-)
    This is one I have warded again and again, I love the cast and mouse game. I think Johnny is a CAD but in his own way really does love her, and can't go through with it.
    And she is so pretty and quirky .

  15. This is actually a really bad and rather stupid film. All it shows is the weird view on women of the time. The characterisation of Lina is just weird and Grant is wholly bizarre. There is little suspense in any of it and well the ending just made me laugh.

  16. Is monkey face really an affectionate name for a woman? I just don't get it.

  17. I haven't been able to get my hands on the source material (the book), but my guess is that the character of Lina is meant to be not quite so attractive as played by Joan Fontaine, ergo Monkey Face. According to the Wikipedia entry for the book, Before the Fact, Lina has a younger sister, Joyce, and Lina had been told from an early age that Joyce got the looks and she (Lina) got the brains.



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