Suspicion (1941)

October 2, 2006

I watched two films this weekend – neither of which could accurately be described as horror movies, but both of which were suspenseful and/or creepy enough to be semi-appropriate for the Halloween season. suspicion.jpgThe first one was Alfred Hitchock’s Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. I had seen this film once before several years ago. My reaction had been lukewarm at the time; I had liked it but wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it. Returning to it now, however, I really enjoyed it. . . so much so that it made me wonder what was wrong with me the first time I saw it (I must have been having a bad day or something). This really is one of those black-and-white gems of Hitchcock’s early years in Hollywood, a time period which also saw the creation of such great films as Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious.

Suspicion follows the tale of a young lady, Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine), who falls for a charming young bachelor named Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant). The couple gets married and only then does the young wife begin to realize that, for all his charm, Johnnie is somewhat of a scoundrel who refuses to work but nonetheless incurs huge debts. What neither Lina nor the viewer knows is the extent of Johnnie’s character problems. How far is he willing to go to preserve his luxurious lifestyle? Would he be willing to murder someone for it? Perhaps even his young wife?

There’s no doubt that Johnnie is a scoundrel. The question is whether or not he is a fairly harmless scoundrel. Numerous suspicious circumstances arise, but they are always counterbalanced by Johnnie’s plausible stories. As a result, the viewer remains in a perpetual state of tension, unable to decide on the truth of the matter. The script is fantastic. One powerful device it utilizes (one familiar to readers of Shakespeare) is its mirroring of Lina’s predicament through a second character, Johnnie’s friend Beaky. Just as Lina joins Johnnie through marriage, Johnnie forms a union with Beaky through the incorporation of a business. Like Lina, Beaky knows of Johnnie’s faults; however (and once again like Lina), he is also is able to tolerate many of these faults because he believes Johnnie ultimately to be a good person at heart. Because of such similarities, when circumstances imply that Johnnie might have taken advantage of Beaky for his own personal gain, the viewer begins to suspect that Johnnie just might be capable of doing the same with Lina. Even with the growing suspicion that the viewer shares with Lina, the ambiguity remains and is in fact heightened with the film’s climax and resolution, so that one is never really certain what exactly is the truth.

Grant and Fontaine really bring this story to life. suspicion2.jpgWhile one might not be surprised to find that Cary Grant can play the part of the ingratiating charmer well, it might come as a shock to know he does an equally deft job with Johnnie’s more sinister qualities. Indeed, it is his ability to play both of Johnnie’s two faces that makes the film work in large part. I was even more surprised by Joan Fontaine. While I knew of her reputation as a fine actress, this is honestly the only film of her’s I have seen. She has a remarkable screen presence and brought great depth to her role. She would end up, in fact, winning an Oscar for her performance.

As always, Hitchcock’s direction is exceptional. One will notice he plays a lot of tricks with light and shadow in this film, trying to reflect Lina’s feelings towards Johnnie at any given time. Also, while I haven’t compared the films side-by-side, it appears that he got some practice for some of the shots he would use a few years later in Notorious, particularly some of the long shots done up or down the stairway. He does a remarkable job pacing and balancing the film, keeping viewers in a growing state of uncertainty that he intentionally leaves unresolved, leaving one to wonder even after the film’s conclusion.