This post serves as my contribution to the 3rd annual For the Love of Film: A Film Preservation Blogathon. This year we are attempting to raise funds to digitize and record an original score for the recently rediscovered The White Shadow, the earliest film the young Alfred Hitchcock was known to work on. You can read all about the mission of this blogathon here. And as this is the final day of our fundraising efforts and we have a long way to go to make our goal, please consider clicking on the banner to the right and making a donation in support of The White Shadow and film preservation in general.
Given the chance to write about something connected to the celebrated Hitchcock filmography and mythology, I decided to take the opportunity to revisit a film of his I hadn’t seen in years, the early Hollywood effort Suspicion (1941). I first saw the film during the first bloom of my cinephilia and I was trying to get my hands on anything Hitchcock-related, and like most people I found it pretty underwhelming. But it’s a film that stuck with me, vaguely, and it rather inexplicably began to move up in my estimation over the years, particularly as I began to be more intrigued by the rare films that seemed to elude the master director’s iron grip (as opposed to his much more than his much-loved–and much discussed–masterpieces). Returning to the film a decade or so down the line, I was curious how my memories would hold up.
Within the context of the Hitchcock canon, Suspicion is a film with an odd reputation. It is almost unanimously considered second tier, but rarely characterized as an outright failure. The film as a whole is seldom discussed, but individual elements and scenes–most particularly the illuminated milk glass–are among the most discussed of Hitchcock’s career. And somehow it just doesn’t seem to inspire partisan reappraisals like some of Hitch’s other flawed films, such as the much-later Marnie (a film with a surprising number of similarities to Suspicion).
And how did I find Suspicion this time around? In short, it’s both a better and less interesting film than I remembered. But let me explain.
01) Unfortunately, the moments I most remembered from the film were the atypical ones. Most particularly, the image that stuck with me over the years was of two figures–Lina (Joan Fontaine) and Johnnie (Cary Grant)–compositionally stranded on a barren, wind-blown hillside as the wind whips savagely around them. It’s actually an even better sequence than I had remembered, part of one of the two truly masterful moments in the film. The scene opens after Johnnie convinces Lina to join him and several busybody neighbors for a church service, but at the last moment entices the reluctant Lina to skip the service and take a walk within him instead. As they are about to enter the church the neighbors finally notice Lina and Johnnie’s absence and spin around to face an idyllic, Thomas Kinkade-esque–and distinctly empty–rural scene. Then an abrupt, disorienting cut brings the viewer to the lonely hillside, in the midst of what at first seems to be an attempted murder, but in typical Hitchcockian fashion, the scenes quickly turns out to be something quite different altogether. It’s a tactic employed throughout the entire film.
I said that it was “unfortunate” that this was the image immediately above that lingered because it led me to (mis)remember the film as being a bit more spare and much more abstract than the film actually is. To be quite honest, I was rather hoping for Suspicion to turn out to be Hitch’s equivalent to Renoir’s Woman on the Beach (the film I wrote about at length for last year’s Film Preservation Blogathon), a film I’ve come to love dearly because of its flawed, studio-mishandled nature. Which leads me directly to:
02) Hitchcock’s later statements came to define the film, but they’re largely not true. In his celebrated interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock speaks at length about what he characterizes as an unequivocally botched conclusion:
Truffaut: “…you referred to Suspicion and said that the producers would have objected to Cary Grant being the killer. If I understand correctly, you’d have preferred that he be the guilty one.”
Hitchcock: “Well, I’m not to pleased with the way Suspicion ends. I had something else in mind.”
Hitchcock then goes into great detail about the ending he had originally imagined: that Johnnie would indeed murder Lina, with the twist that his wife is well aware of the fact, and willingly drinks the poisoned milk he gives her. And in a characteristically witty Hitchcockian twist, the film would conclude with a shot of Johnnie mailing a letter Lina had earlier asked him to post, unaware that its content details all of her suspicions about the murder, and justifying her reasons for allowing herself to be killed.
There’s hardly anything written about Suspicion that doesn’t relate this tale, and his daughter Patricia dutifully repeats the story for the featurette included on the film’s DVD release. But as Rick Worland has written about in great detail in the essay Before and After the Fact: Writing and Reading Hitchcock’s Suspicion,” the anecdote doesn’t hold up when scrutinized through the surviving archival material. While there were certainly doubts about how to conclude the film well into production–something rather atypical for Hitchcock–and there were indeed objections to Grant playing a murderer, there is no trace in any draft of the scripts of the conclusion Hitchcock related decades later. Which is not to say that the Hitchcock later projected isn’t far superior to the abrupt, unconvincing conclusion the film ended up with, because it certainly is.
03) Not only is Suspicion not abstract in the way I had remembered it, stylistically it’s a surprisingly fussy film. Because of the presence of Joan Fontaine, Suspicion is usually thought of as a failed retread/follow-up to Rebecca, made the year before to great acclaim (and an Oscar for Best Picture). In fact, many say that Fontaine’s Oscar win for her performance in Suspicion was actually intended compensation for her loss to Ginger Rogers the year before. And there are indeed many parallels that can be drawn between Rebecca and Suspicion–Fontaine plays similar, spinsterish characters in both, both films deal with innocent wives oppressed by charismatic (and wrongfully accused) husbands, very British in atmosphere (despite their Hollywood productions), and melodramatic in a way that make them, quite frankly, probably the closest thing Hitchcock ever got to making so-called “women’s pictures.”
The difference is that Rebecca had an underlying sense of menace and potential violence–to say nothing of one of the most memorable villains in the Hitchcock canon in the figure of Mrs. Danvers–that constantly punctures the delicately dream-like quality of the film; Suspicion instead relies on moments of intense psychological cruelty that are rather excruciating to watch (particularly as Fontaine meekly bears each humiliation), as well Nigel Bruce’s tittering, screwball-ish attempt at comic relief that just never quite finds a rhythm that works within the overall context of the film. And to make matters worse, the score by the (usually magnificent) Franz Waxman is frilly in a way that contributes to a cluttered style that seems distinctly un-Hitchcockian.
04) On the other hand, there’s a luminescent quality to stretches of the film that are visually stunning. From the satin upholstery of the bedroom to the glitter of sequins on Lina’s gowns to the couple’s matching silk bedclothes–I bet watching a good 35mm print of this film can be downright magical at moments.
05) And on second thought, the intricate lighting–compliments of Harry Stradling Sr.–occasionally make the combined gorgeousness of Fontaine and Grant reach heights of nearly inhuman beauty.
06) I have to agree with George Cukor’s assessment, recorded many decades later, that “Joan Fontaine g[ives]the most extraordinary performance” in the film. And of all people, Cukor should be qualified to tell such things.
07) But Cary Grant, unfortunately, is not so good. It’s a role in the same vein as Notorious, but where that later role brilliantly mixes passion, cruelty, and an implacable aloofness, Johnnie is manic in a way that is downright disturbing (and in turn undermines the film’s final revelations). In many ways, Grant seems to be attempting to shoehorn one of his much-admired comedic performances into the character of a possible murderer, and his trademark charm turns rancid in a disquieting way.
08) The “big” scene is as memorable as everybody says it is. If the unexpected cut described earlier constitutes Suspicion‘s first great moment, the sequence where Grant ascends the circular staircase with an incandescent glass of milk, with the shadows evocatively criss-cross into a chilling web and the camera elegantly careening to keep page with Grant’s ascent, is among the great moments in the Hitchcock canon.
As I noted earlier, Suspicion is one of the rare flawed Hitchcock films that doesn’t seem to inspire the occasional passionate defense; I was rather hoping I was going to be compelled to compose one myself. But that’s not the way things worked out, which means that for now I Confess maintains its spot as my personal pick for the master director’s most underrated film.
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