Judge Paul Corupe is quite a passionate hairdresser.
"If you're going to kill someone, do it simply."—Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant)
Harmless liar or murderous cad? Lina (Joan Fontaine, The Constant Nymph) thinks that her new husband may be planning on kill her for her inheritance, and her suspicion is eating away at her marriage.
One of Alfred Hitchcock's earliest films on American soil finds him doing what he does best—coyly playing with audience's expectations and taking tension to the absolute breaking point. Made the year after Rebecca and starring the same leading actress, Joan Fontaine, Suspicion shares the stage with Spellbound, Notorious, and the aforesaid Rebecca as one of the acclaimed director's best films of the 1940s. Despite the infamous studio tampering and a less-than-meaty plot, the film is thoroughly Hitchcockian, a textbook example of suspense that is both entertaining and absorbing.
Facts of the Case
When Lina meets handsome young playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant, North by Northwest), she ignores his dishonorable character and the warnings of her parents to challenge her own reputation as a spinster. Johnnie initially sweeps the young girl off her feet, only to disappear for weeks on end. When he finally returns, they decide marry, but after their whirlwind honeymoon, all is revealed—man of leisure Johnnie has no way to pay for the trip or their new sprawling manor. Lina learns more about Johnnie's gambling debts and habitual fibbing from her husband's close friend "Beaky" Thwaite (Nigel Bruce, The Hound of the Baskervilles), who drops by for an extended stay in their guest room. After proving unable to hold a steady job, Johnnie gets even further behind in his debts and persuades Beaky to enter into a business partnership to develop a cliffside property. Their association ends when Beaky mysteriously dies, and Lina can't shake the feeling that not only was Johnnie responsible, but that he may be coming for her next!
Suspicion has the distinction of feeling like a Hitchcock of old, but with a better budget, star power, and solid visual imagery. Like several of his earlier British films, Suspicion is almost a pure exercise in tension, uncomplicated by political contexts and world events that would sometimes serve to draw the viewer away from the immediate action on screen. The film even boasts a similar atmosphere to his British films with a European setting and a polished cast of English supporting actors.
Suspicion's straightforward plot is a classic model of the way Hitchcock expertly presses his audience's buttons as he slowly cranks up the pressure in each successive scene. Presented through Lina's viewpoint, which shifts from blind love to acute paranoia throughout the course of the film, the viewer is forced to question Johnnie's motives at every turn. This makes for some memorable moments, including an anagram game with Scrabble tiles, in which Hitchcock puts you directly in Lina's chair. Point-of-view shots slowly reveal words like "doubt" and "murder," which leads to a frightening fantasy of Beaky plummeting to his death from the very cliff that their business was devised to develop. As Hitchcock steadily and beautifully builds to the film's climax, Lina turns into a blubbering victim-to-be of her own accord and Johnnie ascends the stairs to the bedroom with a potentially poisoned glass of milk. Although the conclusion is famous for suffering under studio tampering and is usually cited as a weak compromise in light of the scripted ending, the first 90 minutes of suspense are far more important. There is a reason the film is called Suspicion and not "Fears Confirmed" or "Doubts Eased," as the true enjoyment in the film comes from an awareness of the sly methods that Hitchcock is using to play with our perceptions
Joan Fontaine gives a virtual repeat of her performance from Rebecca: a reserved young lady who impetuously and unknowingly marries into a dangerous situation. Although this performance garnered her the 1941 Academy Award for Best Actress, most feel that the nod was more to make up for her loss the previous year, and I'd have to agree. Fontaine certainly does a fine job as her nagging doubts drive her increasingly mad, but she is completely overshadowed by Cary Grant who is wonderfully ambiguous as the womanizing gambler, Johnnie. Grant projects a steady threat of violence, as though he could go over the edge from debonair to deadly at any moment. Hitchcock heightens the sense of danger as much as possible, forcing his audience to constantly wonder if "monkey face," his cute pet name for Lina, is as cruelly mocking as it implies, or if his intention in grabbing his wife-to-be on the top of a cliff is to toss her off, or to fix her hair. It is surely on the strength of his performance here that Grant went on to appear in three more of Hitch's finer films, Notorious, To Catch A Thief and North by Northwest.
Eventually though, this unrelenting emphasis on the nature of Johnnie's character starts to get tiresome. Not much seems to happen in the film that isn't meant to throw further uncertainty on Johnnie's character, from the mysterious disappearance of Lina's father's antique chairs, to a speedy car trip along the dangerous cliff. Like most of Hitchcock's pictures from the early 1940s, Suspicion is enthralling, but overlong, just on the cusp of wearing out its welcome.
Now over 60 years old, Suspicion looks unbelievably good. Excellent detail and contrast levels almost boost this transfer into the same league as a Criterion title, except for a few telltale source artifacts that crop up now and again. Blacks are solid and deep, and whites are crisp and luminescent. The extent of this restoration is admirable, and my hat goes off to Warner Brothers for doing a fine job on Suspicion—and really all of their classic title releases in the last few months. The mono soundtrack comes off a little flat, but that's not really surprising considering the age of the film. Still, dialogue remains remarkable clear, with only Franz Waxman's score getting the short end of the fidelity stick, an understandable source limitation.
You can see just how good the remastering work on the film is when you compare it to the included theatrical trailer, which is full of nicks and scratches. Far more worth your time is the only other extra, a 20-minute featurette entitled "Before the Fact: Suspicious Hitchcock." The talking heads of Pat Hitchcock O'Connell, Bill Krohn, Peter Bogdanovich, and others look at the film's loose connection with the Francis Iles novel it was based on, Cary Grant's early career, the censors getting flustered over an implied lesbian relationship, and of course, Hitchcock's preferred ending that was nixed by RKO. An informative and well-put-together effort.
This gorgeous release of Suspicion is one of the more notable releases in Warner Brothers's excellent new Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection, definitely worthy of purchase as part of the set or as a single disc.
No doubt about it, Suspicion is absolutely not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Before the Fact" Making-Of Documentary
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