Sunday, September 29, 2013

Suspicion (1941)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                                Writers: Samson Raphaelson & Joan Harrison
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
Starring: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce and Leo G. Carroll

One of Alfred Hitcock’s most confident outings, Suspicion came on the heels of his triumph in Rebecca and starred Joan Fontaine as well, who won an Oscar for her efforts. And also like Rebecca, Hitchock’s film was nominated while the director himself was snubbed, which makes no sense at all. The film is tremendous and to this day remains one of the master’s least predictable and most interesting works. Based on the chilling novel Before the Fact, by Anthony Berkeley, it’s the story of a lonely, spinsterish woman who falls in love with a psychopathic criminal who marries her for her money. Fontaine plays the woman, Lena, who meets the criminal, Cary Grant, on a train back to the village where she lives with her parents.

Grant was one of Hitchcock’s best heroes, but this film is unique in that he is cast as the villain of the picture. The conflict is based on the fact that he is so secretive with Fontaine. When he borrows money for their honeymoon, she doesn’t find out until afterward he has no way of paying it back. When her father gives the couple a pair of antique chairs, Grant immediately sells them for gambling money, but buys them back when he wins big at the racetrack. It’s an up and down existence for Fontaine, who hasn’t really the nerves for his deceptions, and yet at the same time is desperately in love with him. Even the calming influence of Nigel Bruce as Grant’s best friend isn’t enough to quell her suspicions. But when Grant’s interests begin turning to murder, pumping mystery novelist Auriol Lee about poisons, she becomes convinced that he’s going to kill her to get the money he needs.

This was Cary Grant’s first film with Hitch, and he would go on to make Notorious, To Catch a Thief, and one of the greatest films for both men, North by Northwest. For Joan Fontaine and Nigel Bruce it would be the last of their two collaborations with the great director. Sir Cedric Hardwicke appears in his only Hitchcock film, while Hitch also hired one of his most frequent collaborators, Leo G. Carroll, who would appear in more Hitchcock films than any other actor. The direction is wonderful, with the shadow of the window casting a web across the stairway, implying that Fontaine is trapped in her marriage. This is made explicit when Grant as the spider brings up the glowing glass of milk at the end of the picture that may or may not contain poison. The film also benefits from a memorable score by Franz Waxman.

While stories about the difference between the book and the film revolve around the fact that the ending is dramatically changed, it seems pretty clear that this was Hitchcock’s intent from the very beginning. The oft-told story is that RKO was concerned about Grant’s image and refused to have him portrayed as a cold-blooded killer. What Hitch had really wanted was something a bit more nefarious in the end, but nothing like the grimness of the character in the novel. And ultimately the film makes a lot more sense, given the rollercoaster ride the audience takes along with Fontaine, the way it stands. The story, the ending, the music, all make Suspicion an incredibly satisfying film experience.

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