32 suspicion

#32 — Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)

Alfred Hitchcock had an abundance of theses he kept circling around to during his career, a natural outcome of his prolific nature and usual ability to take his pick of projects. That’s a significant part of the reason cineastes tend to flip over Vertigo: it’s the one instance in which the master filmmaker took a swing at the piñata of his creative psyche and every laced candy came tumbling out. Part of the fun of examining the best films of Hitchcock’s career, then, is considering precisely where they fit into the puzzle of his whirling mind. It is one thing to look at Suspicion, a prime exhibit in the argument that marriage is treacherous territory, is riveting in its own right, a primer in taking suspense to levels so agonizing it can only provoke nervous giggles. It’s worth seeing it as a sort of response — perhaps inadvertent, perhaps not — to the same year’s earlier Mr. & Mrs. Smith, widely considered the one straight comedy Hitchcock directed in his career. In that picture, marital conflict is positioned as the stuff of burbling farce. Unsurprisingly, Hitchcock never seems fully at ease within the film, which only enhances the sensation that Suspicion as an answer meant to better express the director’s diabolically cynical worldview.

Suspicion follows the rapid courtship and tensely charged marriage of Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) and Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine). Lina comes from money and quickly realizes that Johnnie has a flurry of bad habits and no income of his own. Though he expects that they can just live off the family fortune, Lina insists that he pursue his own career, and thus the chasm of discontent begins to crack open. Compounding the problems is Johnnie’s propensity for stretching the truth, fueling Lina’s mounting lack of trust in her husband. Hitchcock plays this out beautifully, like a dealer who’s memorized the order of the cards in the deck and gleefully anticipates every reaction as he doles out another. He keeps pushing the woeful worry of the film right to the edge, then nudges just a bit more, sending a new dusting of pebbles tumbling down the cliff face.

Based on the 1932 novel Before the Fact, by Anthony Berkeley Cox (writing as Francis Iles), the screenplay is credited to Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, and Alma Reville. It is of course that last name that provides the additional bit of tempting dark speculation to the inner psychology of the film. Hitchcock’s frequent and trusted collaborator, Reville was also his wife, and the thought of the two of them working together to concoct this depiction of marriage as dangerous misery piles on the layers of splendid psychodrama to an already intellectually and emotionally potent film. All this added knowledge is hardly a requirement to understand the dark pleasures of Suspicion. Right there on the surface, Hitchcock manages to a imbue a glass of milk with pronounced menace. That’s a mighty achievement, no outside research required.

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