Thursday, June 4, 2015

Suspicion (1941)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock


Alfred Hitchcock puts a bit of twist on his suspense storytelling as he explores the the physiology of a murder victim in forth American motion picture Suspicion. A love story that turns into an emotional mental conflict over if the person one married turns out to not be exactly who you thought is a story right up the alley of the filmmaker who would be celebrated for his suspense. Although having previously directed an Academy Award Best Picture the year prior it feels here as if Hitchcock has finally found the base upon which his career as one of the best filmmakers in cinema would be built.

Suspicion is a physiological thriller about a woman whose new husband turns out to not exactly be who she thought he would be, suspecting of his attempts to murder her. When the shy Lina (Joan Fontaine) married playboy Johnnie (Cary Grant) after a hurried, whirlwind courtship she did not expect to discover that he lived completely off barrowed money. His habitual lying to her and the obvious disappointment in lack of financial gain from marrying Lina begins to reveal ideas in her mind that Johnnie is up to something. Physiologically she begins to suspect Johnnie will go as far as to murder his own best friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce) to gain his money from a spurious business move they were concocting together. Signs of his interest in her life insurance policies lead to her suspicion that he might consider her death as financial gain. After avoiding ominous signs of her husband possibly poisoning her or pushing her over a dangerous cliff Lina breaks down. Johnnie reveals his truth of attempts to get out from his financial troubles and his own mental anguish from failing to do so. In conclusion Lina is relieved of the revelation of the truth versus the deadly mental images she had concocted, and the two set off together to begin to fix the fiscal and legal troubles that Johnnie had accrued.

What makes this picture and its style of storytelling so intriguing is how Hitchcock depicts that story from one character’s point of view, that being Lina, the victim. She is the conduit to which we see all that is happening within the picture and we experience what she sees and feels along with her. As far as we, the audience, are concerned we believe that Johnnie is an untrustworthy man with sinister plans that look to ultimately end in murder. The enthralling aspect is that Lina gives Johnnie the benefit of the doubt because of her love for him, very much allowing Johnnie the chance to murder her.

This Hitchcock picture is wonderful mix of all the things that make his style of movies great. Murder, suspense, romance, and mystery all line up in this thrilling tale based on the 1932 novel which explores the motives of a murder before they happen from the angle of the purposed murder victim who allows the crime to happen.

RKO had purchased the rights to the book with intentions of turning it into a cheap B-picture until Alfred Hitchcock’s name became involved. A fan of this story’s angle on a murder Hitchcock perused the picture when he was lent to RKO from David O. Selznick and his studio. Unlike the usual who-done-it murder mysteries this movie was to manifest that same idea of a purposed murder victim observing the motives building before her possible slaying.

The film would see the first pairing of star Cary Grant with Alfred Hitchcock of what would be a very fruitful professional relationship. Grant was already a wildly successful star in Hollywood in comedies, dramas, and romances and Hitchcock saw that this picture had the opportunity to utilize everything Grant had to offer in one singular character. Aside from his voice and body language Grant does a great deal of acting with his eyes, giving a sense that he is a man that can put up a fa├žade while pondering something deeper and more sinister within, sitting inside of his pondering mind.

Joan Fontaine was very eager to play the role of Lina well before she was cast to play the part. Upon concluding the novel “Before the Fact” she sent a personal message to Hitchcock, for whom she worked for in her Oscar nominated performance in Rebecca, supposedly saying she would do the part for free if he would cast her. Whether that story was true or not is beside the point that Fontaine thrived in the role of Lina. For a character that did more reacting to internal thoughts of whether or not her husband was plotting to kill her, she pulled off this very tricky task. Her performance captures the internal struggle of a person who believes her dear husband might be out to murder her despite wanting to deny these thoughts all at the same time. The Academy acknowledged her performance by awarding her Best Actress at that year’s ceremony which surprisingly would be the only performance in a Hitchcock picture to ever win an Academy Award.

It would be a crime not for me to mention the appearance of Nigel Bruce in the film as Johnnie’s dear friend Beaky. Bruce, who would be best known as Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes series of pictures, plays the overly excited, yet bumbling, good-natured friend who knows Johnnie better than anyone. As Lina grows in her suspicion towards Johnnie she comes closer to Beaky as a friend to trust. Bruce’s character in the feature is lovable and effervescent in contrast to the somber tones of Lina as she grows more melancholy in her ways. We too grow fond of Beaky so much that when we hear of his death we are shocked and suspect Johnnie of foul play along with Lina. Bruce’s performance leaves a strong impact on the story as a memorable character which really pushes the story along even though he is the McGuffin of the picture.

Also adding their skills to the screen are supporting players in Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Lina’s stern father and Dame May Webster as the murder novelist whose knowledge in the world of murders aids in the construction of the murderous idea in the mind of Lina and the audience. Both revered English actors play the proper British roles that lend to the credibility in the mind of Lina that make Johnnie appear not to be the clean cut man that we first met.

For the most part the picture stays true to the novel with Hitchcock focusing more of the mindset of Lina as she struggles with the idea that her husband is a possible murderer. The film does however take a massive turn with how the ending was constructed. In the novel Johnnie brings a poisoned glass of milk to Lina where she knowingly consumes it leaving a letter for her mother explaining how Johnnie had planned to kill her in this manner, making her an accessory to her own death.
Hitchcock was a fan of the book’s original ending, but the studio though it would be impossible for audiences to accept Cary Grant as a killer. Now Hitchcock had to find a way to make Grant still the lovable man that audiences wanted to embrace by the end of the picture and have him not kill Lina. As the milk scene plays, which is one of the most memorable shots in the movie as Hitchcock illuminated the milk with the use of a small light within the glass, Lina does not consume the believed poisoned beverage as she plans to get away from her husband the next day. After what Lina believed was another murder attempt Johnnie is revealed to have been considering suicide due to his money and legal troubles to which Lina replies they will face together as a couple.

This newly structured ending allows the movie to still follow the configuration of a person seeing her murder coming, but averts it into a neat little package which saves face of Cary Grant’s character. It was a decision Alfred Hitchcock greatly dislike, but the picture does remain entertaining.

Suspicion would garner profits for RKO and the picture did well enough critically to earn three Academy Award nominations, including a nomination for Best Picture. Alfred Hitchcock for the first time in America was given a bit more freedom of control over his picture, with the acceptation of the ending, of course. This would help Hitchcock to spread his wings as a director for the first time since moving to America, and allowed the filmmaker begin to display more of his style in motion pictures. Suspicion is a wonderful feature that stands very well with the test of time; a strong picture in the Hitchcock library of films.

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