After the success of Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Fontaine reteamed in 1941 for Suspicion. It was also the first of four films he made with Cary Grant, and was the highest grossing picture of that year. Fontaine won an Oscar, but just watching it again last night I marveled at the talent of Grant.
Suspicion is a great example of how Hitchcock slowly builds suspense. The movie is about an hour and a half long, and the first hour feels like a comedy. It’s only very late that we, as an audience, feel like Fontaine is in trouble, and that’s when she does, as the film is mostly framed through her eyes.
Fontaine plays a dowdy, bookish woman who seems well on the way to spinster-hood. Grant, a rakish playboy, takes an interest in her, and they fall in love and marry. It’s only later that she finds that Grant is allergic to work, addicted to betting on horses, and has no money. Somehow he gets by on loans from others, and he is so charming and affable that no one ever seems to get mad at him.
He comes up with a scheme to buy and sell property with his school friend, the wonderfully named Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce, perfectly playing a lovable English twit). Fontaine starts to suspect that Grant wants to kill Bruce for his money, and when Bruce dies in Paris she really gets worried. Later she intercepts a letter and finds that Grant tried to borrow against her life insurance, but she would have to be dead for him to do it. Throw that in with Grant’s morbid interest in murder mysteries (he picks the brain of a neighbor, an Agatha Christie-like character) and paranoia swoops around Fontaine.
That the film goes from light-hearted comedy to dark thriller so subtly is Hitchcock’s gift. He gives us clues along the way–early in the film, Grant and Fontaine go for a walk and a wind gust comes up and he grabs her arms. She reacts strongly, and he says, “What, did you think I was going to kill you?” Playing a Scrabble-like game, Fontaine makes the word “murder,” which sends her into a fainting spell. The house where they live have semi-circular windows, which cast shadows that look like spider webs, with Fontaine trapped in them.
The ending is very controversial. Some say Hitchcock hated it, because he was forced to do it. In the book on which the script is based, Grant’s character does kill Fontaine, but she writes a letter to her mother telling her she fears he is going to kill her, and asks him to post it. He does, not realizing he is implicating himself (letters are very important in the film, even Hitchcock’s cameo shows him mailing a letter). But, because the studio did not want to have Cary Grant as a murderer, they changed it so all the fear was simply in Fontaine’s mind, and they live happily ever after. I would have much preferred the other way.
Grant does play the role as if he is a killer, though. He’s an actor who was always able to play light-hearted while seeming to have terrible, dark secrets. There’s a dinner party scene with the mystery writer in which Fontaine watches his face as they talk about perfect murders, and he mentions poison. He seems particularly excited at the prospect of an untraceable one. Later, in perhaps the film’s most famous scene, he brings Fontaine a glass of milk. He enters a darkened room, and carries it up the staircase, the milk illuminated. Hitchcock was able to do that by putting a small light in the glass.
Suspicion is one of the better Hitchcock films, despite the cop-out ending. Fontaine did win the Oscar (she was jobbed out of winning for Rebecca, so perhaps that’s why) but Grant wasn’t even nominated and he should have been (he was only nominated twice in his career and never won until an honorary Oscar). It is essential Hitchcock.