The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Johnny Aysgarth is a handsome gambler. He meets shy Lina McLaidlaw on a train while trying to travel in a first-class carriage with a third-class ticket. He begins to court Lina and before long they are married. It is only after the honeymoon that she discovers his true character and she starts to become suspicious when Johnny’s friend and business partner, Beaky is killed mysteriously.
Jason: I decided to let my thoughts about Suspicion simmer long after watching the film, because it really took me a while to decide what I thought about this one. Ever since our discussion about The Lodger, I’ve known going into Suspicion that it was compromised by RKO’s insistence that its leading man Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) not be portrayed as a villain, just as Ivor Novello couldn’t in the silent film. I knew that history was repeating itself and Hitch had to alter his screenplay to accommodate that. So right off the bat, while watching, I was on the defensive, thinking the film couldn’t help but suffer in comparison with what was originally intended.
James: I didn’t remember going into this film that Johnnie wouldn’t be the killer or that Hitch had to alter the ending to make it so. I think that greatly helped my appreciation. Above all, the suspense in this one is great. The final 10 to 15 minutes are amazing. I was really nervous for Lina (Joan Fontaine). I thought Johnnie was going to kill her. Or that she was going to be saved at the last minute. Of course, a part of me knew she would never die, but I still feared for her. All the clues point to Johnnie as an evil man, and the pace gets faster and faster at the end.
Jason: Interestingly, in the book this film is based on, Before the Fact, the heroine is indeed poisoned and killed by her husband. She loves her husband so much that she lets her kill him, simply because she can’t live without him, but she makes sure to write a letter to her mother explaining all her suspicions. After her death, the husband drops the letter in the mailbox, whistling away, essentially dooming himself. Man, I love that ending. And my first impression was that it would have been spectacular in the film.
James: You’re right, that other ending would have been . . . different. Perhaps better. Perhaps not. At first blush, it sounds like the darker story would’ve satisfied the likes of us, but who knows? I think this version will be even better on multiple viewings. If everything is in her head and she only imagined Johnnie’s evil, then it’ll be interesting to see how she saw subtle hints in the wrong light, and how she misunderstood so much of what he was doing. I think that’ll be very interesting to look for next time.
Jason: The more I think about it, the more I like both versions. In the film, Johnnie is simply an irresponsible playboy who hasn’t grown up. He’s a lazy ass who doesn’t understand the real world. You’re right, he’s a total cad, but he’s definitely not a murderer. All the dark elements of the story are completely manufactured by Lina, as she goes gradually mad with suspicion. And you know what? That’s a pretty damned fine way to spin the story. Even though I found the ending to be too abrupt and explanatory, I love (as you said) how it makes you re-evaluate everything that’s come before.
James: To me, Suspicion is saved by its final act.
Jason: I don’t know if you noticed this, but there’s a great moment the morning after Johnnie and Lina profess their love for each other. In an establishing shot of the house, we hear birds chirping away, and I even said out loud, “Uh oh.” I knew everything was going to soon turn sour. When Johnnie explains to Lina that he’s penniless, you feel bad for her, and as the secrets mount up, you get this increasingly bad feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s almost as if he’s torturing her, especially in that scene where he lavishes essentially stolen gifts on her, and she’s crying because he sold her heirloom chairs, and all he can do is demand a smile. It’s on the verge of sadistic.
James: I also noted the chirping birds! I remember thinking “God, it’s too early for someone to die. What’s gonna happen?” That’s hilarious. And all that happened was a simple marriage proposal. She’s doomed!
Jason: There was one more bird symbol in the film. When they’re at that mystery writer’s house having dinner, the subject of untraceable poison comes up, and as the doctor is dodging Johnnie’s questions, the doc is carving into some miniature fowl. A dead bird. Very nice touch.
James: As for the scene in which Johnnie is begging for a smile, it worked terrifically. I began to hate him even further, which helped me side with her even more, thus making Lina’s suspicion more powerful and more “true” for me. By that I mean I was totally on her side, which is what Hitchcock wanted. Without that, the tension would never work.
Jason: What’s great about Suspicion is the way the story methodically explores how a person can go from circumstantial evidence to suspicion, then to real doubt, and then to certainty. In retrospect, you see that the entire film is totally from Lina’s perspective (except for one jarring moment where we follow Johnnie out to another room where he explains to his ex-employer that he needs more time to pay back his debt). One thing I was happy to catch is the way she’s constantly reaching for her glasses to read something or see something more clearly. Obviously, she has a problem with vision, with seeing things clearly—a theme we’ve seen before, most notably in Young and Innocent.
James: I noticed the eye stuff as well, but I didn’t make the leap you did. But now that you say it, it’s totally obvious.
Jason: The big revelation scene is the Scrabble scene, in which Lina unconsciously spells out the words DOUBTFUL and MURDER on the table, then has her little death vision and swoons into a faint. I thought it was a little overdone, but mostly effective.
James: I like that Scrabble scene. I think Hitch did a great job of showing Lina’s thought process. I thought the fantasy was a bit much, but it works.
Jason: It’s really the beginning of the actual plot.
James: Which reminds me: For the first half hour or so, I really wasn’t enjoying this film. It felt like a romance that wasn’t working. I kept wondering why Fontaine’s character would like Johnnie. Was she trying to spite her parents? Or was he just the first guy to show interest? And I’ve talked many times about Hitch’s quick romances, but the quick marriage proposal in this film is one of the worst yet.
Jason: It’s funny, while I was watching the romance develop in the beginning, I was hearing you in the back of my mind. Would this film commit the Hitch sin of setting things up too quickly? And I’m not sure this is too quick. I would say, at least, that this one devotes the most time so far to its romance. I mean, this one gives a whole half hour, nearly a third the running time, to Johnnie and Lina’s courtship and marriage and honeymoon. And I don’t think she falls for him to simply spite her parents, although that’s part of it. I think it’s mostly to get past the idea of becoming a spinster, which genuinely scares her. Plus, I think she’s going through a kind of sexual awakening, and he’s the guy who’s there at the right time and place.
James: Johnnie is an ass and I just had a hard time accepting their relationship.
Jason: But even though he plays a total ass, I thought Cary Grant was awesome. What screen presence! I could tell right away, as he was bumping around on that train at the start (yep, another train), that he was going to fit right into the Hitch leading-man mold. He’s got that sly humor down cold, and, as was pointed out in the featurette, there’s also a little bit of darkness under the surface. I love some of the lines he delivered under his breath: “One night when I couldn’t sleep, I started to count the women I’ve been with, like counting sheep.”
James: I’m not saying that Grant didn’t have screen presence. I thought he nailed the role perfectly.
Jason: Now that I just wrote that line about counting sheep, wasn’t there a weird shot of Johnnie and Lina in the car, with sheep behind them?
James: Oh yeah, there were sheep back there. It was an interesting shot. Made me chuckle.
Jason: Anyway, the first moment of doubt I felt about Johnnie was when he struggles with Lina on the hilltop. Isn’t that an interesting shot, how it’s so far away and looks like he wants to strangle her or something? I thought, “What the hell?” That was my first foreshadow of something dark.
James: I thought that shot was a bit odd when I saw it, but it made sense later in the picture. The final struggle harkened back to that shot.
Jason: Yep, like we’ve been saying, it’s just the first of many situations that can have different interpretations. And I also liked the way Johnnie “fixes” Lina’s hair so that it points straight up.
James: I hated Johnnie’s constant use of the nickname “Monkey Face” for Lila. That really makes him seem more and more like a cad.
Jason: Yeah, “Monkey Face” was stupid.
James: He’s such an ass so quickly, I found it hard to believe that so many women like him. Particularly Lina. If she hadn’t overheard her parents, I doubt she would’ve gone with him in the first place. That’s why I think it was more about the spinster comment than her actually loving him. He’s the first guy to come along and she snatches him up, regardless of what he’s like.
Jason: Hmm, yeah, I think we differ on this point. I think there’s a certain type of woman (here I am speaking about women like I actually understand them) that falls for the fabulous-looking playboy type despite everything they stand for. Even though it seems that Lina should be able to see right through him—and in a way she does—she’s helpless in the face of his charm and is completely swept off her feet. I think that’s a very believable scenario, and I had no trouble buying it. I think she really does love him, or at least the irresistible image of him, and in a way, he makes her complete as a woman. She can’t bear to lose him, then. Which is the point of both the book and the film.
James: But again, the romance is too fast for me. I take it all with a grain of salt, but c’mon. She doesn’t know a single thing about him and suddenly she’s in love. He’s an ass who takes her money, yet she’s still in love.
Jason: Your mention of money reminds me that I was suspicious of Johnnie’s ways with money right from the start, when he asks Lina on the train for money to cover his first-class seat. And then, later, he dodges the bill at their new house, and Lina starts asking, “Are you sure you can afford—” but he cuts her off. I really enjoyed the build of that. And then the revelation: “I’ve been broke all my life.”
James: Yeah, I just found the romance hard to swallow. Particularly because of who she is. I mean, she’s intelligent. This is the type of girl who should see through him and realize he’s a jerk. Sure, sure, she’s naïve and has never had experience with a man and can be swept off her feet, but it still didn’t sit right.
Jason: I think it’s just fine. You say, “She didn’t know a single thing about him and suddenly she’s in love.” I think that’s very true about her character, and not a fault of the film. I’ll say it again: This film devotes a whole third of its running time to the build-up of the romance. One thing I liked in this respect is the kiss at the window, just after Lina overhears her parents talking about how she’s doomed to become a spinster. I like how he’s suddenly right there, and in defiance she kisses him and runs into the house. And there’s a playfulness to their romance that I really liked; it’s infectious. “Your ucipital mapilary is quite beautiful.”
James: Nope, the romance is too fast. Okay, it takes 30 minutes or whatever, but the couple is together for mere moments. Or rather, a few afternoons. Yippee. From what I can see, she doesn’t like the guy until she overhears her parents. And now that I think about it, he’s gone for a while after their first romantic scene. So I think she likes the idea of him, not Johnnie himself. She’s interested in him, yeah. He’s a celebrity of some sort. But I think she finds herself longing for love while he’s gone more than longing for him. I’m not even sure she really loves him. Maybe she just thinks she does. And later, when she finds out some nasty things about him, she’s the doting wife, just like she’s supposed to be. During that time, it’s her duty to love her man, and she does. Perhaps it’s her conflicted feelings—“Do I love him? Did I marry him for the right reasons?”—that help her believe he could be a killer.
Jason: Okay, I’ll agree that she’s in love with the idea of Johnnie rather than the person. I think I said that. But that doesn’t make the love any less powerful for her. Anyway, let’s move on. Did the montage of the honeymoon remind you of Rich and Strange, when the couple saw the world with their new inheritance?
James: I recognized the elements of their whirlwind romance around the globe, but I couldn’t remember what movie it reminded me of. Good catch. Speaking of elements borrowed from other films, was it just me, or was this film loaded with imagery and themes that matched those of either Rebecca or Shadow of a Doubt? Constantly throughout this picture, I remembered elements from those films: the obvious ones of Fontaine playing a naïve girl who eventually grows up, to doubt of the male lead. (Heck, even the fact that certain characters talk about how to perform a murder is right out of Shadow of a Doubt.)
Jason: Yep, lots of similarities with Rebecca, right down to the shadows across the walls that look like spiderwebs. Lina is caught in a web.
James: But all that being said, I didn’t think Fontaine nailed this one quite as well as she did with Rebecca. I think her innocence worked really well in the earlier film. It worked well here too, but I think she lacked the supporting characters or perhaps the story. Something seemed slightly off.
Jason: I think you’re right to some extent about Fontaine (although she’s still spectacularly gorgeous). She’s also a great Hitch leading lady. But I noticed, as you did, that Fontaine plays the role very similarly to how she played her part in Rebecca. (She won the Best Actress Oscar for this film, but many thought it was an acknowledgment of the Rebecca performance.) The role itself is very similar, in which she’s forever trying to figure out what’s going on.
James: I think one of the reasons Fontaine didn’t ‘wow’ me in this one (as she did in Rebecca) is because the Lina character is a bit more of the main character. She’s the “doer” of the story. There are points in this one when she has to stand up to her husband, or defend him to others. Her demeanor didn’t quite make these scenes real for me. That’s partially my fault simply because I still pictured her in the Rebecca role, but I think the Lina character needed her to be a little more extroverted. Hell, I think a simple hair change would’ve helped (anything but that damn bun she was wearing). Interesting that Fontaine once again has “bad hair,” as in Rebecca.
Jason: The more I think about it, I don’t know about these complaints. I actually thought Fontaine worked quite well in this role. I think its only drawback is the inevitable comparison with a very similar role. But that combination of naïveté and the need to stand by her man really worked for me.
James: The Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce) character is fabulous. While not exactly the comic relief, he certainly offers a bit of light-hearted warmth to the film, which is needed since there’s so much doubt between the other characters (once again, we see a married couple not quite getting that perfect relationship).
Jason: Yeah, I really liked the Beaky Thwaite character, and I immediately noticed the bird reference in his name. In the documentary, someone maintains that he is the film’s MacGuffin, and I started thinking about that but didn’t get very far. I guess he is, in a sense, solely for her. As soon as she starts thinking that he’s doomed at the hands of her husband, she’s off into her elaborate web of suspicion. And he turns out to be essentially unimportant to the plot.
James: I’m not sure about that whole MacGuffin thing. Perhaps. I guess he fits the mold of what a MacGuffin is, but it doesn’t ring true for some reason. Most likely because it isn’t his possible death that triggers her suspicion. It happens before that. Sure, Beaky is around and triggers it, but for him to be the MacGuffin, he’d have to be the centerpoint. But I know that I really didn’t like this film until Beaky’s character was introduced and we start to see the darker side of Johnnie. That’s when I really started to question things. I wondered what Johnnie was all about right from the beginning on the train, too, but it didn’t have any real power for me until Beaky came along and made him into more of a type of criminal instead of just a loser. That’s when the tension started for me.
Jason: Beaky’s the catalyst of the suspicion of murder, which gives even more power to the notion of him as the MacGuffin. (One of Beaky’s more prescient lines is “That Johnnie will be the death of me.” More fuel for Lina.) But I think you’re holding too tightly to a strict definition of the MacGuffin.
James: I’m holding too tightly to it? You yourself said you weren’t sure you agree with it.
Jason: Did I say that? I’m just saying that, in general, I think your concept of the MacGuffin is too strict. I think it can be pretty much anything that gets the plot—or even a certain aspect of the plot—moving but is, in the end, not particularly important to the actual story. In this case, Beaky could be seen as the MacGuffin because he’s the catalyst for Lina’s thoughts about murder.
James: While I’ll admit that my definition of MacGuffin is too strict, yours is most certainly too loose. If we go by your definition, then every film has a MacGuffin, and I disagree with that.
Jason: Okay, moving on. In this film, we have the most obvious use of the stairs as symbols. At about the midpoint, Johnnie and Lina have their first argument as they walk up the stairwell, and I enjoyed how that moment foreshadows his ominous walk up the same stairs, carrying the possibly poisoned milk. Now there’s a great shot, probably the film’s signature shot. Hitch put a light inside that glass to make it really prominent. Very nicely done.
James: I can’t believe we just finally brought up that milk. What a great, great scene. I loved it. It looked great as far as the direction, but it was more than just a nice shot. It was so tense. It was the culmination of the entire film. I found myself thinking we’ve seen this shot thousands of times before, but elsewhere, the killer has a gun or a knife. Here, he just has a plain ’ol glass of milk. Something so innocent yet deadly. Boy, that was a winner.
Jason: One thing I thought about this film, yet again, was “Damn, Hitch, why can’t you ever go on location?” There were some obvious process shots here that just looked so artificial. Would it be so hard for him to step outside and find a real location now and then? Did it have to do with an essential laziness? Is the argument that Hitch wanted controlled settings just a rationalization? I mean, Hitch is a guy who paid extraordinary attention to what he was putting on film, so don’t you think some of these artificial shots bothered him? I know it sounds callous to say this, but I think his weight and unwillingness to get up and move really hindered this aspect of his filmmaking. Then again, it’s become a kind of signature for him. I’m still on the fence about this one.
James: I do remember thinking that Hitch needs to go on location for a few outside shots. The clouds were just sitting there and it seemed hokey. I think he should’ve gone on location for certain scenes, like on the cliffs after they skip church. He could control most of the environment since it’s a relatively up-close shot. I doubt it was laziness, but I certainly think Hitch should’ve given up some of that control for the good of the picture.
Jason: I did notice those clouds just sitting there in the long shot. Just one of the many things that bugged me about all those rear-projection shots.
James: And I think the situation would’ve seemed more dangerous had they really been outside.
Jason: Wasn’t it interesting that brandy played a major role in the plot of this film? It wasn’t just a throwaway in-joke, but a plot point.
Jason: I recognized Dame May Whitty (Froy in The Lady Vanishes) as Mrs. McLaidlaw right away. You?
James: I too recognized Whitty. I actually thought the woman at the dinner table looked an awful lot like Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca. Not the same, but damn similar. Interesting when you note that there were supposedly lesbian undertones for both characters.
Jason: Did you find the music a little overbearing? I particularly noticed it when Lina writes her “I’m leaving you” note. It just seemed to suddenly crash with melodrama.
James: I noticed the music, which is usually a bad thing. It did seem a bit melodramatic at times.
Jason: It’s by Franz Waxman, who also did Rebecca, The Paradine Case, and Rear Window.
James: Did you see the Hitch cameo before you watched the featurette? I missed him.
Jason: I missed the Hitch cameo also.
James: Not one of the best cameos. Kind of far-off.
Jason: Well, some final thoughts … I noticed that Hitch has gone back to a British feel for the film, as with Rebecca. I thought that with Foreign Correspondent, he was becoming more Americanized, but this is back to his old tricks: British actors, setting, mood . . .
Jason: And an interesting observation from the Spoto book: Lina is reading a book called Child Psychology when she first meets Johnnie on the train, which is interesting, especially in light of the fact that she calls him a “child” when she realizes that he’s an irresponsible cad. She also calls Beaky a “baby.” It’s as if she thinks she understands both of them, but actually she gets everything wrong—which brings more significance to the fact that she is constantly reaching for her glasses to “see better.”
James: I noted the same things you did in the reading. It’s most impressive, actually. Those are things that went right by me, but here they are, right out in the open. Very cool.
Jason: And of course I noticed this detail, but on the hill after their first struggle, he leans in for the kiss, and we get a big close-up of her purse, which she clasps shut firmly. I didn’t make the connection at first, but that’s a visual symbol that her chastity is blocked to him.
James: Basically, I think Suspicion takes too long to get to the heart of the story, but once it gets there, it really takes off. I would’ve liked it had Johnnie actually been the killer, but the ending is acceptable, if not actually enjoyable. I didn’t buy his sudden change . . . or hers for that matter. But the more I think about this film, the more I like it. I mean, it’s a completely different picture after the fact.
Jason: I agree that the film gets better the more you think about it. It’s actually a very interesting study of one woman’s psychological breakdown. A totally different story from what was originally intended, but fascinating in its own way. An interesting dichotomy.