07
Sep
09

“I always think of my murderers as my heroes”

Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)

This film may well have been on Almodovar’s list of antecedents when he made his new film about a director’s vision being thwarted by meddlers. It was ticking along enjoyably enough, picking up pace and suspense as it hurtled towards its ending- until the ending rather turned everything on its head and left me feeling bewildered and short-changed. Is that it? Straight to imdb, where I learnt that Hitchcock was made to provide an alternative ending at short notice; America couldn’t stomach Cary Grant as a murderer. Their loss.

This is minor Hitchcock, one of his first from across the water, but a lot of the themes and signatures are in there somewhere. They’re just waiting to be dragged out, developed upon. Cary Grant gets up close to Joan Fonatine by insisting he must fix her hair, put out of place by the wind; she’s made him into a “passionate hairdresser”. Not much is made of the scene but he has a transfixed look as she lets him fix it and run his fingers through it. It’s hard not to think of Vertigo, the re-shaping of a woman to fit your particular idée fixe.

The film starts, daringly, with voices in total darkness. “I beg your pardon, is that your leg?”. We soon establish that Grant has wandered into a lady’s compartment whilst the train was going through a tunnel. As they sit, the camera focuses on Joan Fontaine’s feet, then slowly moves up to her stockinged knees, thighs hidden under a tweed skirt… when we are stopped in our tracks by a hardback book on Child Psychology. Pervy goings-on in a train compartment, again it’s Hitch’s milieu.

Lines like “Have you ever been kissed in a car before?” may be museum pieces today, but it’s still surprising how much sexuality Hitchcock manages to pack into the film. In Hollywood in 1941 this was as far as one could possibly take it. Grant and Fontaine are avariciously lustful in their getting-it-on scenes. At the outset, when Fontaine pulls away from Grant’s first attempt to kiss her, the camera gives a close-up of her handbag being snapped shut. Grant’s friend Binky tells an anecdote of how he once picked up a girl on Champs Elysées, and “it wasn’t until much later that I realised…”- Grant interrupts him here with a discreet cough. They can’t say it so they’ll leave it to our filthy imaginations.

There are three phases to the film; the depiction of young love, Fontaine infatuated and rebelling against her old-fashioned parents. Then, after elopement and a whirlwind honeymoon (we see stock footage of the Arc de Triomphe, the Grand Canal, as stickers are added to a travelling trunk), it becomes a comedy of manners. Fontaine realises she’s married a compulsive liar who’s addicted to gambling and has no apparent sense of responsibility. The third phase is when it really hots up, as Grant gets desparate for ways to repay his creditors and Fontaine sees cause to fear the worst.

Lina (Fontaine) may be dazzled by his lust and charm, but we’re warned that Johnny (Grant) is a rascal from that first encounter on the train. He’s travelling first class on a third class ticket and hasn’t enough money to pay the difference. After trying every avenue to talk his way out of it, he thrusts the conductor some change and some stamps he’s asked Lina for (“Legal tender, old boy. Write to your mother”).

The tricks continue as Johnny infiltrates a group of ladies come to invite Lina to church (“You’re not going to church, are you? You’re coming for a walk with me”). She resists initially, but at her door Lina overhears her parents discussing how their “spinsterish” daughter is unlikely to ever marry. She turns back and kisses Johnny passionately. She fancies him, but it’s clear that most of her ardour originates from the desire to rebel against the folks.

Johnny disappears for a week or so and we see Lina lovesick; looking him up in the phonebook, pestering the post office, lying in a swoon. They are reunited when Johnny gatecrashes a society ball and ushers Lina out the back door, into her car. “I love you”, she blurts out. “I love you,” replies Johnny, “and I don’t quite like it”. Back at her place he masks his unease by engaging in repartee with a huge portrait of her father (in military garb with a severe frown). The portrait falls off the wall at the mention of marriage.

After registry-office marriage and honeymoon, the couple wind up in a smart big house with a cheerful maid, Ethel. Who’s your telegram from, dear? Oh, it’s nothing- the bloke who loaned me £1000 for the honeymoon wants it back. I’ll just borrow more money from someone else. No you won’t, you’re going to get a job. “A job? Darling you’re a dreamer, be realistic”. Marry in haste, repent at lesiure. 

The following scenes are funny in an anarchic way. Lina reels in disbelief at her new husband’s flippant disregard for the puritan work ethic which she takes for granted. He and his nice-but-dim friend Binky are a pair of big kids. When she cries over Johnny’s dishonesty and immaturity, they try to cheer her up (or push her over the edge?) by pulling funny faces and quacking like ducks.

Johnny obtains a position and pretends to still go to work every day, some two months after he gets sacked for the small matter of £2000 going missing. In fact he’s up at Newbury, losing even more money. He gets found out every time, and Lina is on the brink of leaving him when her father dies. Johnny is put out that she is the only relative not to receive a lump sum in the will; instead they are bequeathed the portrait (it’s as if he knew).

We sense further mayhem when Johnny decides that the secret for success is “to start at the top”. Binky will borrow £30,000 to start a company in Johnny’s name and they will build a coastal resort. We’re also wondering, this being Hitchcock, where all the murders are. Just be a little more patient. Binky seems to know nothing at all about the practicalities of this venture and we see Johnny angry for the first time at his wife’s probing questions.

He decides to call the whole thing off; but he must take Binky to the cliffs to show him exactly why. As they play a variant of Scrabble, Lina uses the tiles to spell ‘DOUBT’, ‘DOUBTFUL’, ‘MURDER’ and ‘MURDERER’. Binky is oblivious. In Lina’s mind’s eye we see Binky pushed off a cliff, plummeting to his death. She faints.

Binky makes it as far as Paris to cancel the loan arrangement, with Johnny accompanying him to London. The police turn up at the house, investigating Binky’s death- witnesses say that another Englishman made him drink a large brandy (we’ve already seen what brandy does to Binky, Johnny remarking that “it’ll kill him one day”). The portrait of Lina’s father is in the frame as she hears the police’s story. When they leave she is tormented, shouting “He didn’t go to Paris!” at the portrait. A nice little touch is that on the way in and out, one of the inspectors is boggle-eyed (and a little unsettled) at the cubist painting in the hallway.

Lina visits their friend Isobel, a prolific crime novelist with a library full of court cases. Isobel blithely likens Binky’s death to the activities of a C19th serial killer who used poisoned brandy. She has the record somewhere… oh that’s right, I loaned it to your husband a few weeks ago.

Johnny receives a letter from an insurance company. Lina rushes to retreive it from his pocket whilst he’s brushing his teeth in the en-suite bathroom; the tension is mounting in all this furtiveness. The letter says he will only be eligible for the payout “in the event of your wife’s death”.

More comedy as Isobel gives a dinner party. Her brother, a home office doctor with a bald head and coke-bottle glasses, is quite a fellow. The camera focuses on his knife cutting a turkey as he deploys ice-breakers like “a very interesting corpse dropped in today”. The dining-table conversation is quintissential Hitchcock; people plainly titillated by the topic of murder. Johnny quizzes the pair on the least traceable methods of poison.

At home, Ethel and the cook are both on leave. Lina is terrified and she faints again. In near-total darkness, wearing a black suit, Johnny glides up the stairs with a glass of luminous white milk on a tray. He walks towards the camera until the glass is in the foreground. Cary Grant can never have looked so evil.

Lina wants to stay with her mother for a while, as well she might. Johnny insists on driving her. They speed along a winding cliffside road. The camera keeps switching, nervously, between a view of the sheer drop to rugged rocks, the steering wheel in Johnny’s grip, the ever-increasing readings on the speed dial, and Cary Grant’s frozen, psychotic expression. It’s unbearable and Lina almost falls out of the car off her own bat.

They tussle, the car stops, and finally the couple have it out. Johnny was in Liverpool when Binky died, trying to raise money. He was researching the poison because he wanted to kill himself, but now he’s decided to face up to his problems. He’ll go to prison if he has to. The final shot is of the car turning around and the couple going home to work through their problems. He’s not a murderer after all. Or is he?

Suspicion is a jolly jape. It picks up the premise that you can never be 100% sure what your husband/wife is doing or thinking, and runs a mile with it. The jovial appetite for a murder mystery sweetens the pill with black humour; he’s teasing us and we love it. That problematic ending, however, still jars with the rest of the film. Funnily enough, finding out that Cary Grant was actually innocent denies us the climax we had been craving.

The film could therefore be grouped with Rear Window, as one of those films that throws the conundrum back at the viewer and makes us question what we’re watching for. All Hitchcock’s tics and motifs are present, even if they’re yet to be fully fleshed out. In time he would have better stories to harness them to.

It’s an RKO production but it’s set in Southeast England, proper Horse & Hound territory. Cary Grant drifts in and out of his English accent. The DVD offered colour or black & white; the crude Technicolor was making my eyes stream so I switched to B&W after about five minutes.

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