Big Screen Berkeley: Suspicion

Cary Grant brings Joan Fontaine her milk in Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion".

Though he’s been dead for more than 30 years, Alfred Hitchcock remains an instantly recognizable pop culture icon. His French acolyte Claude Chabrol, on the other hand, could have walked down any street in America without fear of recognition, but he left behind his own impressive body of work when he passed away last September.

Pacific Film Archive’s new series, “Suspicion: The Films of Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock”, reunites the two masters of suspense via a generous selection of 20 films screening over the next six weeks.

The series begins at 7:00 pm this coming Friday, January 13, with a screening of Hitchcock’s classic slow-burn thriller Suspicion (1941). Adapted for the screen by Joan Harrison and Alma Reville (Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock) and based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles, the film arguably marked the beginning of the director’s purple patch, an unequaled 20-year period encompassing critical and popular success on screens big and small.

This was the first of Hitch’s four collaborations with star Cary Grant, here cast as manipulative playboy Johnnie Aysgarth. Johnny meets cute with dowdy, insecure Lina (Joan Fontaine, like Hitchcock on loan to RKO from producer David O. Selznick for this film) during Suspicion’s cheeky opening scene, in which their train travels through a pitch-dark tunnel en route from Waterloo Station to rural Hazledene. We immediately get the impression that Johnnie may not be entirely trustworthy: he sneaks into Lina’s first-class compartment with a third-class ticket and then convinces her to lend him sufficient funds for an upgrade.


Cut to the extremely artificial village of Hazledene (most of which is a glass matte painting), where Johnnie and Lina are reunited and formally introduced at a foxhunt. An aborted trip to church follows, there’s some not always mutually agreeable flirting, and before you know it Johnnie has nicknamed Lina ‘Monkeyface’ and the two are planning to elope. And elope they do, prior to a honeymoon highlighted by stock footage of Naples, Venice, and Paris.

Back home and eager to settle down into quiet domesticity, Lina soon discovers that Johnnie owes considerable sums of money to an array of bookies, touts, shopkeepers, and decorators. He’ll do anything to raise funds — including selling a pair of highly prized armchairs given to the new couple by Lina’s father (Cedric Hardwicke) — and quickly loses the only job he can get by stealing 2,000 pounds from village estate agent Melbeck (a moustachioed
Leo G. Carroll).

Even the arrival of Johnnie’s avuncular pal Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce, as charming and scatter-brained as ever) can’t entirely convince Lina that her husband’s on the up and up. After Beaky ends up dead in a Paris hotel room, the film begins to transition from light romantic comedy to something a bit darker — and Lina begins to suspect her number may be up next.

Fontaine’s subtle performance, in which she convincingly swings from trust to suspicion and back again, earned her a well-deserved Academy Award. As for Grant, he’s equally good: the audience know Johnnie is a cad, but can never be certain whether or not he’s also a psychopath. The film ends with the couple again united, but the question remains: is this another false dawn? Once the credits have ended and the lights have gone back up, will Johnnie be quietly poisoning Lina in a parallel cinematic universe?

Two years later, Hitchcock would direct the shot-in-Santa Rosa Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotten portrays a lovable uncle who’s actually a merciless serial killer. By the end of that film, we have no doubt that Cotten is a bad guy: we’ve seen him try to murder his own niece. In Suspicion, however, we never actually see Grant do anything worse than borrow money. Shadow of a Doubt is generally considered the superior film, but could it be that Hitchcock pulled off the more audacious feat in Suspicion — beating the Production Code by allowing the bad guy to get away with murder and get the girl, too?


[Interesting footnote: on a telegram he sends to Lina, Johnnie misspells his name ‘Johnny’—is this another clue to his untrustworthiness, or simply a continuity error? Answers on a postcard to the usual address, please!]

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.