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Alfred Hitchcock has held the title of master of suspense amongst cinema buffs for nearly seventy years. After directing over fifty films in both England and America in a career that began in the silent era and lasted well after Hollywood’s Golden Age had faded, he remains synonymous with thrills, chills, and unforgettable twists. Unfortunately for Hitchcock, however, many of his greatest works were considered ahead of their time due to their original themes and adult content. As a result, some of the director’s best works were altered and marred by the efforts of the studio system to make his unique visions fit the established standards accepted by contemporary audiences and censors. One such film is the 1941 thriller Suspicion, a film that has been debated to be among both Hitchcock’s best and worst projects due to its controversial, censor induced, ending.
The story begins, like many Hitchcock films, with a whirlwind romance. In this case, the couple in question is wealthy wallflower Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) and impoverished charmer Johnny Aysgarth (Cary Grant). Lina and Johnny briefly meet when she helps him pay for a first class train ticket when he is caught sneaking into her first class car after only paying for a coach ticket. The two later meet again through mutual friends who cue Johnny in to Lina’s wealth and class status and tell him that she’s ‘out of his league’. Despite or, even more likely, because of their income and class differences, he proceeds to relentlessly pursue her. While she resists his charms at first, she eventually gives in and agrees to marry him because she is equally flattered by his attentions and afraid of remaining single and being labeled a spinster. Upon returning from their honeymoon, Lina is shocked to learn that Johnny is far more destitute than she realized and that their house, furniture, and trip was not actually paid for by Johnny, but by loans that he had taken from his friends. She is horrified when she confronts him and he laughs off the matter, saying that they should not have any trouble paying back the loans with her monthly income from her parents’ trust. She grows increasingly disillusioned with him as time goes on and he takes on a job at her urging, only to lose it after being caught embezzling, and pursues a series of ‘business deals’ that are later discovered to be attempts at obtaining quick cash through gambling. The situation finally reaches a boiling point when Johnny convinces his gullible friend, Beaky (Nigel Bruce), to finance a land development scheme that he has concocted, which Lina suspects is really a clever con-job. After overhearing her begging Beaky to decline his offer, Johnny angrily decides to call the entire deal off. Before Beaky can dissolve his and Johnny’s corporation, however, Beaky is found murdered in Paris and Lina discovers that Johnny has taken a substantial life insurance policy out on her, leading her to suspect that there is something sinister behind her husband’s easy charm.
While films often diverge from the novels that they are based upon, Suspicion would have greatly benefited had its studio-altered ending been replaced with the original ending in its source novel, Before the Fact. Just as in the film, in the novel Lina eventually comes to suspect that there is more to Johnny than his playboy persona following Beaky’s death and her discovery of Johnny’s secret insurance policy. In the novel, however, the plot follows to its logical conclusion with Johnny poisoning his wife in an attempt to collect insurance on her life. The twist in the novel, however, is that Lina is already aware of her husband’s plan when he brings her a tampered drink, but consumes it anyhow as a final act of devotion to ensure that he can collect the insurance money and finally be rid of his many debts. While the ending in the novel hinges on Lina’s preposterously extreme fixation on her husband’s happiness, the final act of Johnny killing her is perfectly in line with the story’s preceding action. In the film, however, the plot builds to Lina accepting the poisoned drink, only to later realize that it was not poisoned after all and her suspicions were in fact unfounded. Although Johnny’s innocence is an equally intriguing twist that could have turned the film into an exploration of paranoia, there is nothing within the film’s plot that could lend credibility to such a turn of events. Furthermore, Lina’s discovery that Johnny was only researching untraceable poisons in an effort to commit suicide makes little sense, as he could have killed himself in a number of more simple and effective ways. Had Johnny taken the insurance policy out on himself the interest in untraceable poison would have supported his innocence and proved that he wanted to use the information to conceal his suicide in order to ensure that Lina could collect on his policy. This ending also leaves Beaky’s murder without any resolution, making his death little more than a frustrating red herring and a wasted use of an entertaining character.
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Beyond its jarring effect upon the film’s plot, Suspicion’s ending also calls Johnny’s behavior into serious question. At the start their relationship, he treats Lina with obvious condescension, mocking her lack of romantic experience, insulting her personal style, and calling her by the degrading nickname “monkeyface”. As their relationship continues his behavior toward her continues to be callous as he sells her treasured family herilooms without her consent, insists upon living off of her inheritance rather than earn his own living, and continues to treat her like a child or simpleton each time that she questions his actions. Johnny’s demeaning treatment of Lina would make sense if he were strictly interested in her for her money, but becomes baffling with the final revelation of his innocence and genuine love for her. Similarly, the lies that he tells to the police following Beaky’s death become illogical, as they only serve to hinder the police’s investigation into his supposedly dear friend’s death and implicate him in the murder in the eyes of his wife. Although the hasty resolution of Lina’s suspicions could be read as her forcing herself to believe yet another of Johnny’s lies with him left free to fulfill his plan once they arrive home, there is not enough evidence to definitively support that theory. While the studio does share part of the blame for the film’s anticlimax, Hitchcock was equally responsible for using the illogical filmed ending instead of another proposed ending that would have satisfied Hay’s Code regulations concerning criminals receiving punishment. In the alternative ending, Lina would have drank the poison with full knowledge of Johnny’s intents, but instead of letting herself die in an act of love she would have also have arranged for Johnny to mail a letter to her mother that secretly revealed Johnny’s plot to kill her. Although this version would have still required Lina to die, she would have been doing so in an effort to serve justice by ensuring Johnny’s capture rather than in a bizarre attempt to assist his psychotic behavior. Had it been utilized, this ending would have served as an effective climax that contained the trademark Hitchcock twist while still appeasing censors.
Although the script does contain a substantial let down, the film is saved by its intriguing performances. Cary Grant takes his famous charm into a fascinating direction in his portrayal of Johnny’s manic recklessness. In Grant’s hands, Johnny is an effectively ambiguous character who could be easily viewed as either an underestimated villain or misunderstood anti-hero. Joan Fontaine attempts to turn in an engaging performance as Lina, but is prevented from doing so by the lack of material that the script provides her to work with as her character regresses into a simpering waif over the course of the film, leaving her with little to do but wring her hands and pleadingly stare at Grant. Finally, Nigel Bruce enlivens the proceedings in his endearing portrayal of Johnny’s lovably oafish best friend and business partner, Beaky.
While it may fail to live up to the suspenseful potential of its premise, Suspicion is an entertaining film that was an essential stepping stone in Alfred Hitchcock’s career. The film stands out for its ambiguous ending (even by Hitchcock’s standards), and for the fact that it was one of only two Hitchcock films to win an Oscar over the course of the director’s expansive career. I recommend this film as a curiosity for Hitchcock fans and suggest that the best way to approach viewing it would be to watch it with an open mind and allow the suspicious atmosphere to weave its spell rather than focus upon the devil lurking within the plot's implausible details.
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