by Jenny Jones
Prim, bookish Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) meets handsome playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) on a train. From the opening scene, the characters’ economic status is clear, as wealthy Lina bails the financially hapless Johnnie out when he is caught sneaking into first class. Lina is intrigued from the start by this dapper, obstreperous fellow who is cut from so different a cloth than her own, but Johnnie’s intentions are not entirely clear. They encounter each other again at a social gathering, and he gleefully wrangles a one-on-one walk with her in lieu of church. She protests his play to kiss her on the windswept terrain – but somewhat halfheartedly.
The Heights Theater,
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producers: Robert Altman, Scott Bushnell, Robert Eggenweiler
Writers: Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, Alma Reville
Cinematographer: Harry Stradling Sr.
Editor: William Hamilton
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
US Theatrical Release: November 14, 1941
US Distributor: Warner Brothers
Then, seemingly, his interest has waned. Lina waits for calls or letters from him and is despondent when she receives no word. When he crashes a ball she is attending she is exultant. Brushing aside his claim that he’s been with more women than he can count, she professes her love, and he returns her affections. They soon elope, to the chagrin of her parents, and after a whirlwind honeymoon throughout Europe, Lina is quickly confronted with a harsh reality. Johnnie is broke.
Slowly, inexorably, Lina (and along with her, the viewer) begins to piece together just how much of a financial wreck Johnnie truly is. He gambles away her family’s prize possessions, then buys them back. All is well. But, it turns out the money Johnny used to retrieve them was stolen from his employer, we discover he has actually been fired for weeks without informing Lina. As Lina takes the emotional roller coaster that is Johnnie’s mounting debt, the central question becomes: Is Johnnie merely a woeful spendthrift, or is he in reality a deceitful liar who would go to any length for money – even murder. When old chum Beaky (Nigel Bruce) turns up dead after entering into a business partnership with Johnnie, Lina fears the worst.
The penultimate scene depicts Johnnie carrying an eerily glowing glass of milk up the stairs to a waiting Lina who does not know whether her adored husband is capable of murder, and may be about to find out. Will she drink the milk?
This suspenseful, yet stilted tale has classic Hitchcockian elements of a female character in the throws of psychological turmoil. While the maudlin Fountaine garnered the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in Suspicion, it’s Cary Grant that stands out. Despite his always-winning smile and affable affect, the possibility exists that OUR Cary Grant is evil, and such a concept is antithetical to a cinema history that once listed him as #1 on the list of Greatest Movie Stars of all time (Premiere, 2005).
What makes the film ultimately intriguing is the still-contested story of the making of Suspicion.
In their famous interview series, Hitchcock relayed to Francois Truffaut that his original ending to Suspicion had Lina drinking the milk – knowing full well it was poisoned but no longer caring. Before willingly hastening her death, though, Lina was to write a letter exposing Johnnie to her mother, which he mails in the final shot of the film, sealing his own fate. However, RKO adamantly refused to allow Hitchcock to make a villain out of beloved American actor Cary Grant. This account makes sense in terms of the finale, which feels abrupt and falls flat, as studio censorships so often do.
The research of Donald Spoto, renown Hitchcock biographer, shows otherwise. He stipulates that Hitchcock’s intent always had been to make a psychological portrait of a woman who was neurotic, obsessed, and prejudicially paranoid about her husband. Hitchcock wished the plot to unfold without a clue to the ending – in other words, shot through Lina’s suspicious eyes. Spoto’s analysis certainly gibes with Hitchock’s portrayal of psychologically tangled women throughout his filmography (case in point: Marnie). Watching the film with this idea in mind lends depth to the subtly of Grant’s portrayal of an at turns loving, teasing, and caustic Johnnie. Sadly, though, we will never know Grant as a “bad guy” and what manner of villainy he could have deployed.