Suspicion seems to be passed over most of the time, perhaps considered Alfred Hitchock’s sophomore slump after coming to the States and doing Rebecca. One can perhaps see why, since it’s got some quirks unusual to the rest of Hitch’s oeuvre. Rebecca stands out as easily the most comedy-free film Hitchcock over made (at least in the States), and though Suspicion doesn’t start out that way, its second half or so becomes rather humorless. The casting of Cary Grant in the lead male role was also an interesting choice, since Grant would have been best known at the time for his screwball roles in goofy movies rather than the comedy-drama-action-romance guy he became better known for later (although Penny Serenade came out the same year as this, 1941). That Hitchcock presented Grant in Suspicion as a possible murderer and an irresponsible, care-free adult child may have been a reason why he avoided casting Grant in more sinister roles later. (Think Rope or other Jimmy Stewart roles.) Hitch loved playing with audience expectations (again, Jimmy in Rope), but Cary Grant just isn’t very convincing as any kind of menace.
Suspicion is oddly difficult to put one’s finger on, in terms of some kind of meaning. Certainly meanings could be applied to it – complex and highly nuanced ideas can be pressed into the fabric of films that may have been intended simply for their suspense value. This isn’t really a typical Hitchcock route to take, however. So what is in Suspicion? What stands out in it? Joan Fontaine plays Lina, a pathetic, insecure, deeply needy woman who can at least be seen for an adult, despite her weaknesses. She seems repressed from the get-go by her military father and upper-class upbringing. She doesn’t really get her first taste of freedom and rebellion until Johnnie (Cary Grant) shows up and whisks her away from church to go on an outing. In this first outing, he attempts to undo the top button of her blouse (classic first-date mistake). But this wasn’t their first encounter; that took place on a train (of course – Hitch loved trains almost as much as he loved ladies and murder). In that first episode, Johnnie is immediately characterized by being immature, talkative, boyishly likable, dishonest (sitting in a first-class compartment with a third-class ticket), and broke (he has to borrow a stamp from Lina to upgrade to first class). Lina also discovers Johnnie’s likeness in the magazine she is reading, the first time the film features a character’s image as an inaccurate representation of their actual selves. Lina is taken with Johnnie because he is clearly an unconventional man. Johnnie, if he is taken with Lina at so early a stage, is taken with her precisely because she is entranced by him.
Flags fly all over the place in the film’s early scenes hinting at the course of the narrative and at what’s going on beneath the surface. After Johnnie persuades Lina to skip church, the camera cuts to them from a distance on a hill on a windy day, then cuts again to a close-up to show them struggling in what at first appears to be an incident of extreme importance. It turns out that Johnnie was only trying to play with Lina’s hair and Lina, never before so approached by a man, nervously fends him off, but only for a moment. This flag, along with the other indications of Johnnie’s character, very quickly create the impression that Johnnie is a “suspicious” guy, to say the least. The audience should assume that Lina would also recognize this, if not for her overhearing a conversation in which her parents say that she’s a spinster and always will be. Her response to this is to elope with Johnnie behind her parents’ backs. Just before doing so, however, Johnnie and Lina have an imagined conversation with Lina’s father’s large portrait. Both of them put words into her father’s mouth, insisting to each other that his advice to them is “loud and clear,” despite the fact that they never ask the man himself what he thinks.
This is the second instance in the film when the likeness of a character deceives others, and perhaps the third (so far) in which the image on screen appears to be something it is not. Both Lina and Johnnie – but especially Lina – return from their expensive honeymoon assuming that Lina’s parents will be furious. It turns out, oddly, that they are not. Lina’s father gives them two chairs as a wedding gift, priceless family heirlooms that Lina deeply admires. Her response is overwhelming relief and gratitude, while Johnnie wishes they had simply been given cash. Incidentally, the fact that chairs are given to Johnnie and Lina is telling. Chairs are about stasis, foundation, and home; they are everything that Johnnie is not, everything that Lina is allowing Johnnie to drag her away from.
The film is full to the brim with instances of Lina shocked at Johnnie’s foolishness, then falling again head-over-heels in love with him. Her suspicion of him knows no bounds, progressing quickly to suspicion of murder. No sooner does Johnnie acquit himself of his alleged murder of Beaky but Lina suspects him of plotting to kill her. The suspense only works because the audience is given Lina’s point-of-view, along with a few little (cheat?) segments she doesn’t see, but which look equally suspicious. We are not implicated in Johnnie’s immaturity, then, but rather with Lina’s. Or, if she is not “immature,” per se, she is more foolish than Johnnie by virtue of marrying him, expecting more from him than he is, and constantly swooning for him rather than showing a little confidence and independence. What is Hitchcock commenting upon here? The institution of marriage? Or the propensity of many individuals to marry desperately, perhaps? More broadly, perhaps he is pointing to the foolishness of immaturity as well as an overall lack of discernment. Lina does not learn any lesson by the film’s end; on the contrary, it ends all too abruptly. The impression is given that Lina will continue to suspect Johnnie of imaginative crimes and intentions, she will continue to be “unable to stop loving him,” and he will continue to be Johnnie. Whether Hitchcock had in mind one of the above critiques, some other one, or just wanted to make a little suspense movie is hard to tell.
PS: Incidentally, here is ANOTHER instance of Hitchcock overlaying a woman’s face with that of a landscape. And in each instance, it’s not just “a” landscape, but one of immense, climactic importance, a location where drama will soon unfold. Observe: