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Suspicion (movie)

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Suspicion_(1941).jpg
Suspicion DVD cover

Suspicion (1941) is a film noir directed by Alfred Hitchcock starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine as a married couple. It also stars Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, Isabel Jeans and Heather Angel.

It is based on Englishman Francis Iles's 1932 novel Before the Fact. Suspicion is one of the famous examples where, in the process of rewriting the novel for the big screen, the plot was tampered with to an extent that Iles┤s original intention was completely reversed. As William L. De Andrea states in his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994), Suspicion "was supposed to be the study of a murder as seen through the eyes of the eventual victim. However, because Cary Grant was to be the killer and Joan Fontaine the killee, the studio—RKO—decreed a different ending, which Hitchcock supplied and then spent the rest of his life complaining about."

During the 1930s, soon after the advent of the talkies, sunny-boy Cary Grant acquired the screen image of the perfect young gentleman, the kind of cheerful young man every mother in her right mind would want as her son-in-law. By 1940 Grant had starred in so many light-hearted romantic films as well as screwball comedies that casting him as a scheming murderer seemed risky from the start. As far as the literary basis of the film is concerned, Iles's novel is experimental in that it is not a whodunit: It does not take long to determine the identity of the villain and his motives. According to Colin Dexter, Before the Fact is a "crime novel" rather than a "detective novel", Iles being "the father of the psychological suspense novel as we know it today". It is true that the police do not play any role in the book; none of the characters is ever charged with a crime, let alone indicted or convicted of one.

The novel: Outline of the plot

Before the Fact is the story of Lina, a "born victim". She is raised in the country in the early decades of the 20th century and, at 28, she is still a virgin and in danger of becoming an old spinster. She finds country life with her parents rather boring, and only lives for strangers that might be passing through or that have been invited by someone living in or near their village. When the novel opens, such a stranger has just arrived: 27 year-old Johnnie Aysgarth, from an impoverished family who are, as she is told, "of rotten stock". General McLaidlaw, Lina┤s father, is opposed to the marriage, and everyone seems to know that all that Johnnie is after is Lina's money, Lina herself having been told from an early age on that Joyce, her younger sister, has got all the looks and that she, Lina, has got the brains.

In spite of these difficulties, Lina and Johnnie get married after only a short engagement. They go to Paris on their honeymoon where they stay at the best hotels and dine at the best restaurants, and, on their return to England, move into an eight-bedroom house in London. Only six weeks later, Johnnie, who has not got a job but whom Lina expects to have a regular income anyway, admits to his wife that they have been living on borrowed money and that there is none left any longer. Gradually, though unwillingly, Lina takes over the responsibility for the couple's finances and suggests to Johnnie that he should get a regular job. Also, they leave the expensive house and move to the country; they settle down in a part of Dorset where they do not know anybody and start living in a more modest house. For the time being, they both rely entirely on Lina's allowance. Reluctantly, Johnnie agrees to take a job: He becomes the steward of a large estate a Captain Melbeck has come into. Lina would always have liked to have children, but, as it turns out, she never gets pregnant.

As time goes by, Lina realizes - gradually and unwillingly - that Johnnie is a crook. Apart from being a compulsive liar, he by and by turns out to be

  • a thief: For example, during a tennis party he steals an expensive diamond belonging to one of the guests and, soon afterwards, a piece of Lina┤s jewelry. Also, he removes Lina's four Hepplewhite chairs and sells them to an antique shop in Bournemouth.
  • a forger: He forges Lina's signature to be able to cash one of her cheques.
  • an embezzler: He embezzles Captain Melbeck's money to be able to pay his gambling debts. Luckily, Melbeck says he is not going to prosecute.
  • an adulterer: During his marriage he has affairs with a lot of women and village girls including Lina's best friend, Janet Caldwell - he has rented a flat in Bournemouth especially for that purpose -, and Ella, their parlour maid, by whom he even has a son.
  • eventually, a murderer: He incites General McLaidlaw to do a trick involving chairs while he and Lina are staying with the General for Christmas. This is too much physical exercise for the General, and he dies a sudden death. Some years later, Johnnie sees no other way of cheating a rich school friend of his, Beaky Thwaite, out of his money than to travel incognito to Paris with him, go to a brothel there and have him drink a whole beaker of brandy in one gulp so that he drops dead.
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However, Lina's own death will be Johnnie's first "real" murder. He goes to great lengths to conceive of a new method of murder that cannot be detected. When Isobel Sedbusk, the author of detective stories, happens to spend the summer months in their village, he associates with her and, on the pretext of discussing material for her new book, elicits one new method of murder from her: swallowing an alkali commonly used but never suspected as having a poisonous effect on humans - an alkali which, on top of that, leaves no trace in the human body when a post-mortem is carried out. At the very end of the novel, Lina, who really seems to have gone mad, catches flu. She has been waiting for her husband to try out that new method of murder on her for months now. When he brings her a drink to her bedside she swallows it deliberately, knowing that she is drinking a poisonous cocktail. Again Johnny is going to get away with it ("People did die of influenza."), and this is really what Lina, so much in love with her husband, hopes will happen.

The novel covers a period of approximately ten years: Johnnie Aysgarth's courtship of, and marriage to, Lina McLaidlaw, the disintegration of their marital life and her imminent death - although the reader cannot be too sure that she is really going to die. The interesting device employed by the author is the use of an omniscient third person narrator. The whole story is told from Lina Aysgarth's point of view. We know everything she does and everything she thinks. On the other hand, we know practically nothing about the villain except for what Lina sees and gathers. That way a lot of suspense is created.

The Hitchcock movie

In places, the screenplay of Suspicion faithfully follows the plot of the novel. There are, however, a number of major differences between the novel and its film version. For example, all references to Johnnie Aysgarth's infidelity were removed. True, in the first days of Johnnie's "courtship", while the couple are driving through the countryside in Lina's car ("Have you ever been kissed in a car?"), she asks him how many women he has had. Johnnie gives a humorous rather than a really evasive answer: He says that once, when he could not go to sleep, he started counting them, just like sheep jumping over a hedge, and he fell asleep at number 73. However, this, even back in the early 1940s, was accepted, or at least tolerated, male behaviour, especially of a man who was considered a playboy. Much is left open for the cinema-goer to decide: Did he actually sleep with any, some, or all of them? Or did he only kiss them? The crime of adultery, on the other hand, is altogether left out in the plot of the film: Lina's best friend does not appear at all, and Ella, their maid, certainly does not have an illegitimate son by Johnnie: Sex is not an issue.

In both the novel and the film version, General McLaidlaw opposes his daughter's marriage to Johnnie Aysgarth. In the book as well as the movie, Johnnie freely admits that he would not mind the General's death because he expects Lina to inherit quite a substantial fortune from her father, which would solve their (ic his) financial problems. The book, however, is much more sinister, with Johnnie egging on the General to physically exert himself to a point where he collapses and dies. In the film, General McLaidlaw's death is only reported, and Johnnie is not involved in any way in his death. Again, Johnnie's criminal record remains incomplete.

There are several scenes in the film which create suspense and in which the viewer is left in doubt as to Johnnie's intentions. In one of them, at the end of the film, Johnnie is driving his wife at breakneck speed to her mother's. Suddenly, the door of their car is open, and Lina is in danger of falling out and down the cliffs. For some seconds, the viewer must think that Johnnie is trying to throw her out. Immediately afterwards it turns out that he actually saved her life, that he just tried to close the door (which opened all by itself, or what? Why on earth didn't he stop the car instead? Why was he driving so fast in the first place?). This scene, which takes place after her (final) illness, does not exist in the book.

And of course the ending itself is different: In Iles's novel, Johnnie serves his sick wife a drink which she knows is poisoned. Nevertheless she gulps it down. In the film, it can be seen untouched on the following morning. Instead, she expresses the wish to go back to her mother's. Johnnie insists on driving her. The highly unbelievable scene on the cliff road follows. When the car has finally come to a standstill, Johnnie can persuade Lina to come home again: The final image, without words, is their car making a complete turn. What remains is Lina's (and the viewer's) constant fear that Johnnie might be a killer.

In fact, Hitchcock was quoted as saying that he was forced to alter the ending of the movie. He wanted an ending similar to the climax of the novel, but the studio, more concerned with Cary Grant's "heroic" image, insisted that the ending be changed to what is seen in the film today.

As far as film language is concerned, a musical leitmotif is introduced in Suspicion. Whenever Lina is happy with Johnny - starting with a ball organised by General McLaidlaw -, we hear Johann Strau▀┤s waltz "Wiener Blut" in its original, light-hearted version. At one point, when she is suspicious of her husband, we hear a threatening, low-key version of the waltz, metamorphosing into the full and happy version after the suspense has been lifted. At another, Johnny is whistling the waltz. At yet another, while Johnny is serving the - obviously poisoned - drink of milk, a sad version of "Wiener Blut" is played again.

A visual threat - something that could not be done on the printed page either - is inserted when Lina suspects her husband of preparing to kill Beaky Thwaite: On the night before, at the Aysgarths' home, they play anagrams, and suddenly Beaky has the word 'Murder' on the table in front of him. Seeing the word, Lina imagines the cliffs Johnny and Beaky told her they would be going to on the next morning, and faints elegantly.

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