Monday, May 18, 2015

Suspicion (1941)

Generally speaking, the Oscars are an incredibly difficult thing to take seriously. While The Silence of the Lambs (1991) sweeping the 64th awards show awards was a step in the right direction, the amount of blunders made by the apparently important institution is staggering. For instance there is no defendable reason why Harvey Kietel wasn’t nominated for best actor for his performance in Bad Lieutenant (1992). The same could be said for Matthew McConaughey’s knockout performance in Killer Joe (2012). Or how about David Lynch not winning best director for Mulholland Drive (2001)? The mind boggles. What exactly this has to do with Alfred Hitchcock and 1941’s Suspicion is this, Hitchcock was nominated for best director five times and shockingly (or perhaps not considers the organization in question) not once did he win. The only film of Hitchcock’s to win best picture, and deservedly so, was Rebecca (1940). Suspicion was also nominated for best picture and although it didn’t win, lead actress Joan Fontaine won best actress and its been suggested over the years that her win for Suspicion was the academy making up for not giving her the best actress award for Rebecca. That may or may not be the case but what is certain is that it’s a fantastic performance in a film that, while hardly obscure, has gotten pushed aside somewhat when compared to some of Hitchcock’s more famous films.  

Following an uneventful encounter on a train, Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine), a shy young woman is properly re-introduced to Johnnie Aysgarth (Carry Grant), a charming playboy who is immediately smitten with Lina. After initially resisting, Johnnie’s charms get the better of Lina and the two fall madly in love and are soon married. Not long after the marriage however Lina discovers Johnnie’s dire financial situation and his continuing to gamble against her wishes which only leads to more lies. With Johnnie’s behavior growing more and more suspicious along with his obsession with murder mystery novels, Lina slowly begins to suspect that Johnnie is planning a murder, and that his intended target is her.

Leave it to Hitchcock to take an idea such as a happy newlywed couple and twist it into something sinister. While Suspicion might not have been Hitchcock’s direct follow-up to Rebecca with Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) coming before, there are a few undeniable similarities between Rebecca and Suspicion and the two could be considered “cousin” films so to speak. The most explicit connection between the two films would of course be the characters played by Joan Fontaine in both films with both women being fairly provincial who marry into some pretty dark situations, although the situation Fontaine’s Lina finds herself in is possibly a bit more dangerous than the one her second Mrs. de Winter inherits in Rebecca. While Fontaine is phenomenal and deserved her Oscar, what really sells the film is Carry Grant. After all, the entire point of the film is to raise the question of whether or not Johnnie is or isn’t a murderer and Grant projects that ambiguity brilliantly. Much like his character, Grant was a charmer with an instantly likable presence. At the same time there is also something about Johnnie’s presence that gives off the impression of something darker hiding beneath the surface yet due to his slyness that possible dark side goes unnoticed by most. One moment a small nuance in Grant’s performance will give off the impression that there’s no way he’s capable of murder and a minute later another nuance will have the opposite effect. Truly an astonishing performance.

Hitchcock actually had the rights to the book the film was based on, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s Before the Fact, several years before the film was actually made. The biggest difference between the film and the book was the ending with Hitchcock wanting to go a specific route but the studio wasn’t having any of it. Hitchcock also hated the title “Suspicion”. There were a number of working titles for the film and Hitchcock wanted the film to be called “Johnnie” but "Suspicion" proved to be the more marketable title. What’s also interesting is that a colorized version was eventually made, however as noted by film historian Robert Osborne in the featurette on Warner Bros. DVD, the colorization of films specifically designed for black and white photography often take away from the power of the original photography. That is certainly the case with Suspicion, particularly with Hitchcock’s use of light and shadow, specifically during the films most celebrated moment involving the most intimidating glass of milk in film history. Perhaps due to the thematic similarities and ironically Fontaine’s Oscar win, Suspicion will in some ways always be in the shadow of Rebecca. While Suspicion might not be the psychological juggernaut that the former film is, it is nonetheless a quintessential Hitchcock film featuring one of the finest performances from any of his leading men and worthy of being referred to as a Hitchcock classic.  

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