Is there anything quite as infuriating as a good film with a terrible ending? Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion is a case in point: a fascinatingly tense and dramatic film for the most part, it suddenly goes off the rails at the end when the director delivers a final five minutes that, frankly, fails dismally to match the preceding hour and a half. Not that the blame should lie entirely with Hitchcock, though. Unfortunately his hand was apparently forced by the studio, RKO, who requested a different ending after one of the first instances of an audience preview viewing so that their bankable star, Cary Grant, was portrayed in a much better light. Hitchcock agreed, and reportedly spent the rest of his life complaining about it.
Grant and Joan Fontaine play Johnnie Aysgarth and Lina McLaidlaw, a young couple that fall in love in southern England and subsequently marry. McLaidlaw is a prim, dowdy type and is charmed swiftly by Aysgarth’s notorious society cad: he is a womaniser, gambler and bullshitter par excellence, and has hitherto managed to talk his way out of every debt or charge that has come his way, living the high life without ever sullying himself with an honest day’s work.
Though Lina’s stern father General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) disapproves of his daughter’s marriage, she goes ahead anyway, and post-honeymoon the newlyweds move in to an idyllic new home. Seemingly set up perfectly for family life, Lina gradually learns more about her new husband, specifically regarding his predilection for gambling, his embezzlement of funds, his lies about work (he is sacked and spends his time at the racetrack without telling Lina) and his apparent desire to use old friend ‘Beaky’ Thwaite (Nigel Bruce) in a quick-buck property deal.
When Lina’s suspicions about her husband increase, she begins to believe that he is capable of murder, and starts to fear for her own life after Johnnie tries to take out a life insurance policy (not to mention the fact that he spends an entire dinner party discussing the best ways to poison someone with two experts in the field). In the book that Suspicion is based on, Francis Iles’ Before The Fact, Johnnie does in fact poison his wife, and this is the point that Hitch and the studio failed to agree on. Hitchcock wanted to see a murder unfold from the point of view of the eventual victim but RKO felt they needed a more ‘heroic’ ending for Cary Grant. As such, in the final five minutes of the film we see Johnnie save Lina from falling from their speeding car as it rounds a cliff edge, when she was convinced he was intending to push her out of the vehicle to her death. It makes little sense as an ending. When the car stops, Lina believes she has made a mistake and that her husband is not the murderer she thought him to be, but in re-affirming her love for him and her hopes for the future she conveniently forgets about the elaborate web of deceit he has gradually woven during the rest of the film. Come on…are we supposed to buy this?
There are a few scenes in Suscpicion that I absolutely love, that made me pause the film just to stop for a moment and think ‘Aaaah…Hitchcock’, but my favourite sees Lina alone in the house after the visit of two police officers that are enquiring about Jonnie’s whereabouts. After they leave, we see Lina in her hallway at the foot of the stairs, but the sun shining through the upstairs windows creates a spider’s web-style shadow pattern on the walls, which the heroine appears to be trapped in like a fly. It’s used a couple of times earlier in the film and near the end we also see Johnnie slowly going up the stairs with a drink that Lina believes to be poisoned with similar web-like shadows around him. This last time we are seeing the spider rather than the fly. Simple, and superb.
The biggest shame is that the original novel actually has an ending that would surely have been handled superbly by Hitchcock: despite knowing she is about to be poisoned, Lina is compliant and lets her husband kill her. However she has also written a letter to her mother detailing all of her suspicions, and the novel apparently ends with Johnnie whistling to himself as he goes to post the letter, unaware that it will implicate him.
If it’s disappointing that the upbeat ending of the film doesn’t fit, that’s probably due to the fact that the rest of the film is very good. Suspicion is far from complex, but there are several moments that show Hitchcock at his very best. Witness the way the words ‘doubtful’ and ‘murder’ appear while they are playing Scrabble, for one. And there is a superb shot at dinner where Johnnie questions the local surgeon about untraceable poisons; as he does so the doctor carves into his food, which looks like a poussin, with the same delicate precision he presumably displays in his job. After Lina’s father dies Hitchcock makes great use of a portrait of the old General, and it repeatedly pops up throughout the film, the father-in-law haunting Johnnie from the afterlife. Scenes of this quality deserve a more rounded story within which to sit.
The film was nominated, however, for Best Picture at the Oscars, and Fontaine won Best Actress for her performance (the only star to do so under Hitchcock’s directorship) but the fact that it is not as celebrated as much as Hitchcock’s later work is not without reason. There are some excellent scenes between Lina and Johnnie, where we are privy to her knowledge about certain facts, and can delight as he tries to wriggle his way out of a variety of accusations.
Suspicion is a disturbing film at times. From the moment he first appears on screen (on a train, trying to dodge the ticket fare) Grant oozes a kind of threatening malevolence that never really properly surfaces. Throughout the characters treat him as though he’s a likeable charmer, but while he is certainly charming he is completely unlikable; in one early scene the couple go for their first walk together, and for a brief moment there’s a suggestion that Johnnie might actually rape Lina. The character is so full of lies and deceit it’s a wonder RKO didn’t want the entire film re-written to protect Grant’s box-office appeal, never mind the ending. Grant was largely known for playing the lead in romantic comedies up until this film, the first of his four collaborations with Hitchcock. Suspicion was a serious departure from the norm.
Had the director got his own way, this might have been one of his masterpieces. Then again, had Hitchcock angered the studio in what was only his third Hollywood film, it’s entirely possible that he might have found jobs harder to come by as the 1940s rolled on. Perhaps he wouldn’t have then got the creative control that enabled him to go on and make his masterpieces. Who knows? But he played the game and did what he was told to do. As it stands this is a decent, slow-burning thriller with some fine moments and two excellent lead performances, but ultimately it is let down considerably by a weak final act.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Francis Iles (novel), Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, Alma Reville
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant
Running Time: 99 Minutes