Week 7: Suspicion (1941) Cary Grant, Scrabble Tiles, and Doing the Work

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

For Valentine’s Day my girlfriend and I watched 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, which got me thinking about how much I love Cary Grant (did you know that Christopher Reeve based his portrayal of Clark Kent on Grant in this film?). That led me to the first of Grant’s four collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, 1941’s Suspicion. Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart both made four films with Hitchcock and in each case Hitchcock pushed and challenged them to create some of the best roles.

Born Archibald Leach in Bristol, Grant learned pantomime & acrobatics on the vaudeville stage, giving him incredible physical control and grace. Just to watch him walk across a room is a marvel. Obviously I’ll talk more about Grant in each of his roles, but he’s never been better cast than in Suspicion, where his bottomless natural charisma is perfect for a character who’s a bit of a cad and skates through life on charm & guile.

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“Hey, let me borrow your money since I don’t have my own, thanks.”

Sadly, Suspicion has moments of greatness but never fully comes together for reasons that date back to the origin of the story, a novel by Anthony Berkeley titled Before the Fact. The book is told from the point of view of a woman who falls in love and marries in a whirlwind romance, only to discover that her husband is a thief, liar, forger, and eventually even a murderer. She suspects that he is going to murder her, but her love for him is so all-consuming that she lets him poison her rather than see him in prison. Cheery stuff.

Hitchcock and his screenwriters Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison (Hitchcock’s longtime secretary and occasional collaborator), and Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife) keep the structure of a virginal spinster who falls in love, but alter the tone. The film is still from her point of view, but now much of the drama about the husband plays out in her head. In the book, the audience is certain that the husband is up to no good; in Suspicion, it’s never clear until the very end whether Grant’s character is plotting to kill his wife, or if he’s simply a cad who’s desperate for money.

In the film, Lina is played by Joan Fontaine, who had worked previously with Hitchcock on Rebecca, Hitchcock’s only film to win Best Picture (Hitchcock was nominated but never won a Best Director award). Fontaine is a fine actress, and she’s well-cast in the role of the shrinking, timid Lina. Yet when up against the ball of charisma and energy that is Cary Grant, or the crack supporting cast of British character actors, she quickly fades. At best, Fontaine is a good blank canvas for us to experience her conflicted emotions and growing suspicion.

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Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, and Nigel Bruce as the impossibly-named “Beaky Thwaite”

The building of this tension works enormously well, as we’re questioning both Grant’s character Johnny, as well as Lina’s sanity. One of the most famous sequences in the film ingeniously places us in Lina’s headspace as she, her husband Johnny, and his friend Beaky Thwaite (easily one of the best names in cinema, played to British twit perfection by Nigel Bruce who rose to fame as Dr. Watson in the 1930s & 40s Sherlock Holmes films) playing a friendly word tile game similar to Scrabble. Johnny and Beaky are yammering away about their plans to visit some cliff-side beach property while Lina idly assembles words, first forming “Doubt” then “Doubtful,” and then finally “Murder” to which Beaky remarks “Shame you don’t have an ‘E’ and an ‘R,” then you could make ‘Murderer’” which sends Lina into a vision of Johnny pushing Beaky off a cliff. It’s efficient, effective, and a remarkably elegant way to communicate a character’s inner doubts.

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And make no bones about it; Lina is right to judge. Through the course of the film, Johnny constantly lies, embezzles money, steals from Lina, and generally behaves unbearably. Yet his friend Beaky (and almost all of the other characters in the film) constantly refer to how charming Johnny is. It’s easy to be taken in by Grant’s charisma, but I think in some ways, Suspicion functions as a critical view of men who skate through life on their looks & privilege and never worry about anything. For Hitchcock, a famously insecure person who struggled with weight and his own feelings of inadequacy, it’s easy to see why he might resent people like Johnny and want to see them taken down a bit (something I can certainly relate to).

The most famous sequence comes at the end of the film, when Lina has collapsed and told Johnny she doesn’t want him to sleep in their bed. Practically delirious, she suspects him of contributing to Beaky’s death in Paris, yet we don’t know if he did it or not. The ambiguity works terrifically up to this point, as we’re constantly unsure if Johnny is a murderer or not. Grant plays this role to perfection, with quick flashes of anger that belie his uncertainty & fear, all smoothed over by his movie-star smile and good looks.

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With Lina sick in bed, we see Grant climbing the stairs to bring her some warm milk. At a dinner party the night before there was talk of poison and whether it was untraceable. As Grant is ascending the stairs in a dark house with the lights off, our attention is drawn to the glass of milk on a tray. It looks like it’s glowing! That’s because it is; Hitchcock and his technicians placed a lightbulb in the glass, no doubt with a battery pack and wire running down Grant’s arm, to give the milk an otherworldly and sinister glow. This effect could only be accomplished in a black and white film and such technical ingenuity is stunning, even today.

And then the film falls apart.

The story that Hitchcock tried to sell after the fact, in the Hitchcock/Truffaut books and other interviews, is that he always wanted Cary Grant to be a murderer. Hitch even detailed a brilliant ending to the film:

“The scene I wanted, but it was never shot, was for Cary Grant to bring her a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and Joan Fontaine has just finished a letter to her mother: “Dear Mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer. Though I’d rather die, I think society should be protected from him.” Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says “Will you mail this letter to Mother for me, dear?” She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops the letter in.”

Hitchcock said that the studio and audiences would never accept Cary Grant as a murderer, something he also struggled with in casting stage heartthrob Ivor Novello in The Lodger (1927). And he’s not wrong, either. The problem is that he isn’t telling the whole truth. In studio memos from the time, Hitchcock and RKO Studio heads are all equally concerned and baffled as to how to end the film. Going into it everyone knew that Grant couldn’t be a killer; Hitchcock’s dream ending was clearly never anything more than a dream.

The final result has Lina simply not drinking the milk, then departing the next morning for her mother’s house, driven by an angry Johnny. As Johnny drives faster & faster along the seaside cliffs, the car door suddenly flings open and there’s a series of cuts that make it hard to understand what happens (reports differ as to whether Hitchcock was there for the shooting of this sequence, but this clumsiness in the face of Hitch’s razor-sharp precision leads me to think that he was not present), but Lina almost falls and Grant finally pulls her back in. As the car stops he berates her for pulling away from him even when he’s trying to save her and everything comes out; she’s scared, he’s innocent and was learning about poison to kill himself to make her life better and escape a debt he can never pay.

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There’s some puffery about how Grant will go back and accept jail time and she’ll stand by him, etc. Not only is it incredibly rushed, it’s tremendously unsatisfying given everything that came before. According to the studio records, the film’s ending was always up in the air even during shooting, and the final result is clearly the work of multiple compromises, pleasing no one. Hitchcock often had trouble with endings, with his instinct for irony & dark humor hamstrung by studio dictates and the morals of the day. 

Hitchcock himself admits that Suspicion and Rebecca are practically British pictures, with the setting, cast, and much of the crew all from the UK. Ironically, Hitch didn’t show the scrappy yet technically brilliant side of his directing in many of his early American films. Don’t get me wrong; the films are much better shot than his work in Britain and his command of the camera is exceptional. And the editing is worlds ahead of his British work, both in terms of pacing and the seamless way that all the pieces fit together.

Still it wasn’t until Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946) that Hitchcock started to experiment and push himself again. Perhaps it was a case of constant fighting with the studios, or maybe he was a bit intimidated. His early American films are handsomely mounted, well-acted, impeccably shot, and while they’re often great, they rarely scale the heights of his best work. I suspect that Hitchcock went from being a big fish in a small pond, Britain’s most celebrated film director, to the reverse in Hollywood, where he had a hard time starting over. Yet he kept making movies, whether he was wholly satisfied or not.

Looking at Hitchcock’s career, and the career of many contract directors in the 1930s and 40s, you’re stunned by just how prolific these filmmakers are. Hitchcock made 25 feature films from 1930-1949 (including a break to make wartime shorts); others made even more (Michael Curtiz, director of Casablanca, directed over 60 feature films during the same period). Hitchcock took longer because he was involved in the creation & development of each film, as opposed to grabbing a script that was given to him and starting on Monday (the way Curtiz was forced to work). And making movies at that rate means that you’ll have some missed opportunities (like Suspicion) or some downright bad pictures.

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Hitchcock directing Nigel Bruce and Joan Fontaine in the letter tile sequence.

More than anything, what I take away from Hitchcock’s career is his indefatigable work ethic. This is a man who enjoyed making pictures and kept at it, year after year. Even in his declining years he had several projects he was working on when health concerns made it clear he’d never direct again.

I’m seven weeks into this Hitchcock 52 project, 13% of the way done, and already I’m thinking about quitting. It’s so much more work than I would have assumed and as usual, it’s something I’m doing for no money. Lately I find myself in the strange position of being very good at coming up with ideas that I like and other people like, that don’t make any money.

It’s the amount of work that gets me though. Picking a movie, watching a movie, researching and reading, and then trying to find something to say about it critically and personally. It’s hard to find things to dig deep on, especially when you’re just not feeling it. What’s worth talking about? Does this idea even work? Am I just clumsily shoehorning old memories into a discussion of the work of Alfred Hitchcock, to say nothing of the hubris involved in equating and comparing myself with this genius that I admire?

Some days I just don’t have it in me. Like today. I’m in a bad mood, didn’t sleep well, have a headache, my neck still hurts from head-banging too hard to “Common People” at a dance party on Friday, my new tote bags haven’t been selling as well as I’d like, I’m waiting on a phone call from the vet about some vaccinations for my dog, I have too many things to do do, too much to write, too many things I’ve agreed to, too many jobs, too little money, too much, too little, too goddamn tired.

But I know I need to keep moving on. Writing and creating and putting yourself out there isn’t about waiting for the exact moment when the skies open up and inspiration shines down and your Art is perfect. It’s never perfect. There’s always something to change, or edit, or fix. But at some point, you have to get it done. You have to start shooting, because Cary Grant has another picture lined up. You have to finish that painting because the opening date for the show is set. You have to type the words into your computer whether you like it or not, because goddamnit I’m going to do this once a week, come hell or high water.

Almost no one can afford to wait for inspiration, and when you can it rarely strikes. Instead you just have to keep plugging away, making work every day, writing, trying, and doing what you can.

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All right you bastard, I’ll stick with this.

So I’ll keep working on Hitchcock 52, and I hope I’ll stick with it. And Suspicion is an almost-great picture, the kind of thing that might have been a masterpiece if Hitch had made it a few years later with more clout and experience. But it’s worth it for Cary Grant’s exceptional performance, one that proves he was more than just a pretty face. We’ll talk more about Grant in weeks to come, and I can’t wait to talk about him in my favorite Hitchcock movie, hell, maybe my favorite movie of all time. Stay tuned!

Watch It: Suspicion is not available on any streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO). It is available to rent or buy on iTunes or Amazon Prime, and can be found at almost any existing rental store or library collection.

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