Out of all of the all selections for the Marriage and the Movies course, this was the one that I looked forward to watching the most. Just imagine the thought of Alfred Hitchcock directing a marriage movie! As you might expect of the director and a film bearing the title Suspicion, it’s more about the shadow of murder hanging over a couple than a love story. I predict that the course’s professor will have interesting things to say about it!
Joan Fontaine plays Nina McLaidlaw, a girl so bookish and reserved that her wealthy parents convinced that she will end up being an old maid. But then along comes Johnnie Aysgarth, the playboy and all round ne’er-do-well played by Cary Grant. He sweeps her off her feet and off they go to marry (this seems to happen a lot in the movies picked for this course). But once the honeymoon is over, she discovers that he is penniless, has no income and expects to live off of her family’s money. Even worse, when that money isn’t forthcoming, she begins to suspect just how far he would be willing to go to get it.
The film is riveting to watch throughout. Whatever its other faults, Hitchcock’s talent at engaging your attention is in full play here. You might get whiplash from the swift changes in mood however. One even gets the impression that Hitchcock is having fun with the constant switches between a happy interpretation of scenes and a suspenseful one, overtly symbolized in the change of key of the accompanying musical leitmotif. Fontaine earned an Oscar for her performance in this film, apparently the only actor to do so in a film directed by Hitchcock. But I think it’s really Grant who deserves the most praise. At first he’s just an irreverent dandy, then later he starts to look like a conman and a compulsive liar, until eventually Nina sees the seeds of a violent murderer in him. In order to preserve the suspense, Hitchcock needed the audience to find all of these roles plausible while keeping things ambiguous. Grant’s acting makes this possible, while keeping the charm up the whole time.
Unfortunately, as many other commentators have pointed out, casting Grant as the leading man also made it impossible to make his character a true villain since the studio wanted to uphold his heroic image. To accommodate this, the plot had to be a complete inversion of the intent of the author of the novel that this film is based on. Aysgarth’s guilt there is never in doubt and the whole focus of the novel is on the steadily growing dread in Nina’s mind. In this film, the dread builds up but then is swept away at the end when it is revealed that it was just Nina’s imagination all along. It kind of glosses over the fact that even if Aysgarth isn’t a murderer, he’s still a jerk. It’s not terrible, but it does feel like a cheap cop-out. From what I’ve read, Hitchcock actually preferred to film it this way and I’m tempted to ascribe this to his well-established misogyny.
None of this means that Suspicion is bad film, even if you think that the book’s originally is more dramatically powerful. Hitchcock’s talent is such that he makes it work. Even when you know that the twist is coming because you’re aware of the director’s reputation, watching it play out is still a thrill. Overall however, this is considered one of the great director’s lesser works and deservedly so.