Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Grant Mystique: Suspicion (1941)

Suspicion (1941)

By 1941, Cary Grant was THE movie star. Grant had cultivated a screen image based on charm, charisma, impossible good looks, and a refusal to take himself seriously. He was the ideal leading man for the age of the screwball comedy. But there was always something more to the Grant persona. Something darker. You saw glimpses of it in His Girl Friday, in which Hildy Johnson laments of Grant's vile Walter Burns, "I just wish you weren't such a stinker," and tells her fiancee of Burns's charm "he comes by it naturally; his grandfather was a snake." There were glimpses of it, too, in the callousness as armor against loss in Only Angels Have Wings. Even before his major stardom, there was Grant's antagonist opposite Fredric March in The Eagle and the Hawk, in which Grant played the most brutal character he was ever asked to perform. Alfred Hitchcock spotted it right away, and exploited Grant's potential as a sinister leading man in the first two films of their collaboration. In their first film together, Suspicion (1941), Hitchcock confronts the audience directly: could this man, this polished movie star, this easy light comedian, be a murderer?

Suspicion charts the marriage of shy heiress Lina McLaidlaw and charming deadbeat Johnnie Aysgarth. As they often do in Hitchcock films, Lina meets Johnnie on a train, where he is short the price of a ticket for the first class booth he enters. He begs Lina to lend him the difference, which she does. She spies him in the society column in the newspaper she's reading even as this unfolds in front of her. For his part, Johnnie has spotted Lina, too. She's "out of your line," one of his society acquaintances tells him, but he's bored with women who are "in his line." He contrives an introduction, and instead of escorting her to church, he sweeps her out into the wild, where he beguiles her with a ridiculous sense of humor. She finds him hard to resist. When he vanishes abruptly to London without a word, she pines for him, as much to spite her family's expectation that she'll be a spinster for life as for her attraction to Johnnie. But Johnnie is attractive and when he returns from London and finds her at the local ball, she's caught up in a whirlwind romance and marriage. They embark on a honeymoon across the continent and return to a house that Johnnie has arranged to rent, but there's trouble in paradise. Johnnie is in debt for the cost of their honeymoon and hasn't a shilling to his name. At her urging, he goes to work for his cousin, Captain Melbeck. But Johnnie is used to being a sponger and living beyond his means. He lies to Lina about his finances. After discovering that Lina will see no inheritance of consequence from her father, he intends to go into business with his friend, Beaky, to develop real estate. While they discuss the venture over a game of anagrams, Lina sees the words "doubt," "murder," and "murderer" in the tiles and has a premonition of Johnnie pushing Beaky over a cliff. When Beaky actually does turn up dead during a trip to Paris, Lina immediately suspects Johnnie. A conviction that she herself will be his next victim takes hold, exacerbated by a dinner with her friend, Isobel, a writer of mystery fiction, and her doctor friend. Johnnie describes his perfect method of murder--arsenic--and all Lina can hear is the means by which he will be shut of her. When she retires for the night, Johnnie brings her a glass of milk. Is it poisoned? Lina chooses not to drink it. Does she dare go on a drive with him? He seems increasingly desperate after being caught embezzling from his cousin, so perhaps? Or perhaps not? Does Lina love him more than life itself?

I wonder what Hitchcock thought of Hannah Arendt. Covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, Arendt described the man as "an efficient bureaucrat," and "nicht einmal unheimlich." "Not even sinister." This is the root of her conception of the appalling banality of evil. Hitchcock was a fellow traveler, I think. Hitchcock was motivated by the idea that a murderer had to appear to be attractive, or normal, or harmless, else that hypothetical murderer would never get close enough to kill anyone. Suspicion is among the first of his films to explore this thinking. He would refine it subsequently in Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers on a Train, and (most famously) Psycho. The banal murderer has some basis in reality, too, a fact that would soon be made manifest on a grotesque scale during World War II, in which the murderers were everyday citizens with the restraint of morality removed and given permission to murder a specific class of people. Hitchcock was sensitive to this. Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt has given himself the same kind of permission. When the younger Charlie tells her uncle "They're alive. They're human beings!" he replies, "Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?" The two murderers in Rope are equally ideological, finding in fascist philosophy a justification to kill for their own pleasure.

Johnnie Aysgarth, if he actually IS a killer, is blank-faced. Banal. Attractive, even. His motive is money. I doubt he even thinks about a philosophy. When confronted by a conversation about murder, he's pragmatic: nothing fancy, just poison, he tells the guests at the dinner party, planting the seed of distrust in Lina's head. As played by Cary Grant, were Johnnie to actually succeed in killing Lina, he would be the most beautiful and most charming murderer in all of film. His grandfather was a snake indeed.

As it was originally conceived in the source novel (Before the Fact by Francis Iles), Lina drinks the poison Johnnie places at her bedside, knowing full well that it will kill her. But she has incriminated Johnnie in a letter sent to her mother, and he is caught and punished for her murder. Hitchcock either did or did not intend to use this ending, depending on when he was talking about it. To hear Hitchcock tell of it, it's Schrödinger's murder, which is the whole point of the film up until the very end when you open the box and look. It plants suspicion, but confirms nothing. RKO pictures, on the other hand, did NOT want to use the book's ending because they felt it would alienate a paying audience to see Cary Grant play a murderer, both in this film and in subsequent films. Would that effortless charm tarnish with blood splattered on it? Could Grant ever play something light and funny again afterward? Instead, the film shrinks away from its natural conclusion, though it leaves it in play until the very end. There is something to be said for the ambiguity in Johnny Aysgarth's actions. Even when he's trying to save Lina in the end, he still looks like he's trying to kill her. RKO may have had the last laugh. Suspicion was a mammoth hit for them. It cemented both Grant and Hitchcock as bankable talents (as if that was even necessary for Grant at that point). Joan Fontaine took home an Academy Award for the film, making her the only actor to ever win an Oscar in a Hitchcock film. It was a success for all involved. But in truth, Suspicion creates an awful muddle of its ending. It can't go through with it. It doesn't have the instinct for the jugular. I think the end of the film seems like a cheat. It feels like bait and switch.

Suspicion is most successful when it demonstrates the flexibility of the Cary Grant persona. It takes it in directions that previous films barely hinted at. At the outset, Johnnie Aysgarth is recognizable as the Cary Grant of previous films. He's affable, funny, impossibly handsome. He's a composite of other characters from Grant's portfolio, particularly Johnny Case in Holiday. who dreams of a life of ease after making it big. Johnnie Aysgarth is Johnnie Case without the savvy or the luck, but with all the charm. The scene where he does up Lina's braid and dubs her "monkey face," is the prime Grant persona: self-deprecating, ridiculous, hilarious. It resurfaces when Lina's father delivers two heirloom medieval chairs to their new home and Johnnie lounges in them without an ounce of respect. Even when he's irresponsible, as he is when he borrows money to take Lina on a honeymoon or rent a lavish house upon their return, it's hard to dislike him. But even in the early going, there are hints. Johnnie first enters Lina's life in shadows, while the train is in a tunnel. When we first see them together out in the wild, they appear to be struggling, as if he's already attempting to do her harm. Hitchcock is keenly aware that an overt heel turn would lose the audience in an instant, so the sinister notes, when they first start to appear, are subliminal. The lighting does a lot of the work, particularly the ever-present spiderweb pattern of their house's great window, but also in shots where Johnnie is either partly or entirely in shadow. But is Johnnie malicious or just irresponsible? Johnnie is never overtly menacing until near the end of the film when he moves through the shadows with a glowing glass of milk. The shadows do the work because Grant's face is in darkness. The pattern is a spider's web. At that point, the audience knows. Or thinks it knows. It has been eased into the realization rather than bludgeoned with it, and by the time it comes, the Grant persona is intensely sinister without so much as a hair out of place.

Suspicion is not all about Grant. Grant himself didn't enjoy making the film. He initially bristled at Hitchcock's working methods and he didn't like Joan Fontaine. He never intended to make another film with the director, but recanted when he saw the results on the screen and at the box office. Suspicion finds Hitchcock coming into his own as "The Master of Suspense" for an American audience, just as his earlier films did the same for a British audience. Moreover, he was generally in more control of Suspicion than he was of some of his other films of the early 40s because he was on loan to RKO rather than under the thumb of David O. Selznick. Many of the hallmarks that make what we think of as a "Hitchcock" film are here in full, including what may be the apotheosis of the director's use of "significant objects." The director's ghoulish sense of humor gets more of a workout here, too. And the shadows. No other film in Hitchcock's portfolio makes such extravagant use of shadows in its storytelling.

Suspicion is filled with significant objects, maybe more so than most Hitchcock films. Viewers will remember the lighter from Strangers on a Train and the money from Psycho and the key in Notorious, among others. Hitchcock was obsessed with the narrative significance of objects. In Suspicion, there's a purse clasp when Johnie tries to kiss Lina for the first time, there's the letter Lina composes that perhaps incriminate Johnnie, there are the chairs whose sale catch Johnnie out in his lies, there are the Scrabble tiles spelling out Lina's fears, and there is the fatal glass of milk. The milk is the most ostentatious object in Hitchcock's considerable catalogue of such things, more so than the outsized props in Dial M For Murder (telephone and scissors). To draw attention to the glass, the director famously put a light inside of it, then dimmed the entire frame so that the glass was the entire focus of the movie. You can't even see Cary Grant's face as he brings it up the stairs (the image at the head of this piece is a production still, not a frame from the film). As with the shadows, or, more accurately, in concert with the shadows, this is Hitchock's most florid example of his technique on full display.

While the humor in the film is mostly an example of Hitchock exploiting Cary Grant's film image, not all of it is. The dinner party late in the film when Lina and Johnnie have dinner with Lina's mystery-writer friend, Isobel, shows the director amusing himself for the sake of amusing himself. This is particularly the case with the doctor, who relishes Johnnie's idea of poisoning someone with an approving "Ah! Arsenic!" while cutting into his Cornish hen like he's performing an autopsy. This scene also features Isobel's "companion," Phyllis, which is both a commentary on the last film Hitchcock made with Joan Fontaine (she played a paid companion in Rebecca, and Lina is a very similar character to the second Mrs. De Winter), and one of Hitchcock's frequent episodes of homoeroticism. The Breen office insisted Hitchcock delete Phyllis because she's obviously a lesbian even if no one says so outright, but Hitchcock simply ignored them. Because he was the producer of the film in addition to the director, he apparently had that power. What's so striking about Phyllis and Isobel is how unremarkable they are. Not villains, not major players in the plot. Just a couple happily existing in the margins.

This was Hitchcock's second film with Joan Fontaine, and as a mousy, sexually repressed character who is swept off her feet by a dashing, Byronic, dangerous leading man, it's hard not to associate her performance in this film as an extension of her role in Rebecca. The idea that Fontaine's Oscar for Suspicion is a "make-up" Oscar for being passed over for Rebecca is deeply rooted among film people, but they really are distinct performances. Unlike the second Mrs. De Winter, Lina actively pursues her object of desire and is definitely more of a fool for love. Even her posture throughout the film is more assured than it ever was in Rebecca. Lina is a considerably stronger character. Cary Grant felt that Hitchcock lavished undo attention on Fontaine during the filming of Suspicion, but Lina is the point of view character so it's entirely understandable why Hitchcock might want to focus on her performance. How good is Joan Fontaine, anyway? It's instructive to compare her performances for Hitchcock with comparable films like Jane Eyre or Frenchman's Creek (which like Rebecca is based on Daphne Du Maurier), which reveal that the heroines she played in Rebecca and Suspicion were outliers. While Jane Eyre is superficially a similar character, she has more spine than either of them, and the heroine of Frenchman's Creek is confidently sexual. So her performance in Suspicion is well modulated to the needs of the film rather than her own persona. Grant was right about Suspicion. It's Fontaine's movie even if Grant's name is first in the credits.

Suspicion was Grant's last film before America's entry into World War II, and as such, it acts as a signpost of sorts. It comes at the end of a series of films in which Grant's stardom went supernova. While I don't want to take anything away from the films that Grant made during the war--Destination Tokyo is a particular favorite of mine even if it is a propaganda film--Grant wouldn't ascend to the full flower of his stardom again until the war ended. Coincidentally, the film that kicks off Grant's post-war career was also directed by Alfred Hitchcock in spite of Grant's intentions in the matter. By the end of his career--and by the end of Hitchcock's career--the collaboration between them would be a defining element of both of their legacies.

As a personal note, Suspicion is the first film by either Grant or Hitchcock that I ever saw in a movie theater with an audience. That long-ago showing was a revelation for me, because it demonstrated the effect of both actor and director on more than a solitary viewer watching on late-night television. The crowd was a sell-out, which was surprising given that it was college students. Such was the drawing power of Hitchcock and Grant. And they were into it. So was I. I'm not generally nostalgic for film (as opposed to digital), but I AM nostalgic for the collective experience. There's a transcendental element to this, a sort of mass catharsis. It confirmed to me that movies were going to be my version of church for the rest of my life, only, y'know, fun and with less guilt. And so it goes.

My other posts on Cary Grant. Only about sixty more films to go:
This is the Night (1932)
Enter: Madame (1935)
The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
The Last Outpost (1935)
Wings in the Dark (1935)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Penny Serenade (1941)
North by Northwest (1959)

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