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.

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Charade (1963)

September 18, 2006

Charade is a fun, well-known classic from the early 60s starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and directed by Stanley Donen. It’s also one of wifey’s favorites, so I have seen it previously on several occassions. charade3.jpgThis past Friday, however, I saw it for the first time in quite some time, and I was reminded of just how good a film it is. Hepburn plays a newly-widowed woman named Regina Lampert who discovers her late husband had been concealing a secret stolen fortune. The problem? Neither she nor anyone else can figure out where he hid the money. So when the American government, the French police, and several of her husband’s desperate ex-comrades come out of the woodwork, all laying claim to this fortune, Reggie finds herself uncertain of where to turn and whom to trust.

This film sounds suspenseful, and indeed it is – many even say there’s a Hitchcock-like feel to it. However, it doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as Hitchcock, and a lighthearted banter and romance between Grant and Hepburn is interwoven throughout the film, making it more of a comedy-suspense film. It’s Donen’s deft blending of these elements that really gives the film its charm. In addition to the two headliners, there’s a great supporting cast, featuring charade2.jpgWalter Matthau (who’s hilarious), George Kennedy, and James Coburn. This was the only film Grant and Hepburn did together, although there were a few attempts to reunite them, most notably in the following year’s Father Goose (Hepburn was not available, so Grant was paired with Leslie Caron instead). Considering how well the pair worked together onscreen, it’s unfortunate that another collaboration couldn’t be made. But at least we have this classic.

A great deal more can be written about Charade and, indeed, a great deal has, which is one reason why I’m not going to go on at length here. Watching it this last time did get me thinking on a tangent, however. Over the past several weeks, most of the American films I’ve seen have been from the 30s and 40s. So suddenly jumping forward 20-30 years and seeing Charade, it was a good way to see the juxtaposition of filmmaking from two different eras. It is a distinction not always made by people of my generation (being born in the mid 1970s, there often is a tendancy for us simply to lump all pre-1970 films into a big “old movie” category and not notice the finer patterns and differences of the time periods). But having seen Charade right after so many screwballs and early noirs, it was clear how different Hollywood had become during the intervening time. Film had discovered itself as an independent artform and was continuing to develop in that regard. No longer was it as similar to the stage either in its settings, which tended to be more wide-ranging, or in its scripts, which while still smart, tended not to be quite so consistently high-brow. Charade was filmed in Cinescope, and this and other formats were being specifically developed to capitalize on the size of the big screen. It had a lively, jazzy Henry Mancini soundtrack that was an example of how music was being brought more front and center. The same goes for the colorful opening titles. The acting, particularly in its supporting cast, reflected a push towards realism that was being caused by the method actors and others. Overall, it’s hard to pinpoint with precision all the differences, but when taken in whole, there is a certain playfulness and self-reflexiveness of the film genre by the 60s that makes it as different as night from day from the early Hollywood films.

But I digress. Check out Charade. It’s lots of fun.

arsenic.jpgThe biggest Cary Grant fan I know, my wife, has never been a big fan of Arsenic and Old Lace. Thus, this is the only instance that I am aware of where I actually like one of his films more than she does. Before last night, I had seen it only once and that was several years ago, so I was happy to get a chance to watch it again and to see if it was as good as I remembered. I was not disappointed.

Directed by the legendary Frank Capra and based on a hit Broadway play, Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic screwball comedy where Mortimer Brewster (Grant) discovers his kindly aunts are actually poisoning elderly men (not out of spite, mind you, but out of charity) and burying their corpses in the cellar. Before he can run away with his new bride, Mortimer must try to sort out this mess, while also dealing with his crazy Uncle “Teddy” (who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt) and the return of his convict brother, Jonathon (Raymond Massey), who resembles Boris Karloff and would like nothing more than to murder his sibling. Superbly written, these subplots intertwine into a farcical masterpiece full of surprises and some truly funny moments.

Grant’s the only real big-time star, but the rest of the cast is full of recognizable faces from classic Hollywood (Peter Lorre, Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson). The film seems perfectly cast, with each actor playing his or her role just right. The versatility of Cary Grant never ceases to amaze me. That a person who can brings such depth and emotion to his serious roles (in films like Notorious) can also excel at physical comedy to the degree displayed in this film is just mind-boggling. One can say something similar about the directing of Capra, who not only can bring to life such touching films as It’s a Wonderful Life, but in the case of Arsenic, he shows a remarkable understanding of the comedic timing and energy needed to make such a topsy-turvy plot work.

While I still enjoyed it, I must admit that I liked the film more the first time I saw it. I think first-time viewers of this film are more taken aback and amused by the whole ridiculousness of the plot. This time through, I knew what was coming and, with so many subplots being introduced into the story, the film seemed to drag a bit long as it tried to resolve all the loose ends (this is somewhat characteristic of Capra – though he’s one of my favorite directors, he does tend to run his films a little longer than they need be). Nonetheless, there’s no denying this film’s status as a classic, and I will laugh at many of these scenes no matter how many times I see them. It’s also worth noting that while I may have liked the film slightly less this time around, my wife liked it somewhat more. Thus we seem to be overcoming our stubborn, contrarian viewpoints in order to find some unlikely, but endearing, middle ground that will ultimately promote our domestic harmony. This oddly seems an appropriate way to end a discussion about a screwball comedy.