Sunday, September 26, 2010

Suspicion (1941)

For aficionados of the mystery genre and, more specifically, fans of the Master of Suspense Suspicion has been written off as a compromised masterpiece. The film is brimming with several iconic shots and memorable scenes, but many complain that the story and characters have been watered down to please those with sensitive cinematic palettes. The film’s detractors cite how the adapted screenplay is drained of the menace and complex psychological dissection of victim mentality that was readily present in the source novel. Yet even if that were the case they have overlooked that the compromised final scene of the film offers a more ambiguous resolution to the plot, not to mention the fact that the entire film is a wonderful study in the use of suspense in narrative storytelling.

In 1932 the English author, Anthony Berkeley, writing under the pen name of Frances Iles published the novel Before The Fact. When released, the critics labeled the book as an experimental exercise. Unlike previous mystery novels that employed a whodunit plot structure Berkeley wasted no time in explicating who the villain is in the piece. And unlike many English mystery novels of that day, the murderer is never caught and the story ends on a somber note.

To adapt the novel into a workable screenplay Hitchcock looked to his personal assistant, Joan Harrison, his wife, Alma Reville, and the screenwriter Samson Raphaelson. And as for the two leads he cast Joan Fontaine, who had previously starred in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and Cary Grant, his first role in a Hitchcock picture. Many people going in to see the film for the first time, with only the movie poster as a frame of reference, make the common mistake in thinking that Cary Grant is the main protagonist in the story, but as in the novel the film is a study of a sheltered and lonely woman preyed upon by a penniless playboy.

Hitchcock’s first great masterstroke in this film is the way he structures the story from the viewpoint of a woman, Lina McLaidlaw. The narrative never strays away from her, and so we only see what she sees and know no more than she does. With this technique Hitchcock is able to keep audiences actively involved in the story. The Master of Suspense was so fond of this technique that he returned to it more than a decade later during production of Rear Window.

Lina, played marvelously by Joan Fontaine, is a psychologically complex individual. She is a meek dowdy bookworm who has been written off for spinsterhood by her own parents, and yet she has a definite desire to break out of her comfortable cage. The way Hitchcock and his collaborators introduce us to her reveals the central contradiction in her character from which all the drama in the story hinges on. To put it simply, the comfort and security Lina feels from her mundane and ordinary life has robbed her of all emotional excitement.

It’s no coincidence that in the film Lina is inextricably linked to the sport of horseback riding. This seemingly inconsequential character detail goes a long way to explaining her attraction to Johnnie Aysgarth, played by Cary Grant. Horseback riding, an activity associated with the upper class, is a sport that depends on the rider’s ability to break and train a potentially dangerous animal to obey whatever commands they are given. Thus a major attraction Lina sees in being with Johnnie is the challenge of domesticating him. Hitchcock hints at this at the start of the film by having Johnnie and Lina first meet in a cramped train car, a makeshift womb, with Johnnie the playboy, hung over, trying to con Lina to pay for his train fare and Lina, her glasses wrapped tightly on her face, clutching a book on child psychology. In effect Lina’s motivation in engaging Johnnie in a relationship is not based predominantly on a sexual attraction to him but an unhealthy motherly attachment to him. Lina McLaidlaw belongs to the long line of emotionally dependent mother figures in Hitchcock’s repertory, alongside such notables as Madame Anna Sebastian in Notorious and Norma Bates in Psycho. The only main difference being that Lina is a tragic heroine while Madame Sebastian and Norma Bates belong to the castrating female archetype found in literature and film.

Evidence of Lina’s maternal attraction to Johnnie can be seen in how she never reprimands him for gambling away her money, selling her family heirlooms, and even embezzling money from his boss. She deals with Johnnie like a frustrated mother would treat her teenage child. She doesn’t scold him, but rather patiently waits for him to do the right thing, which in her heart of hearts she knows he is capable of doing. And when he is giving her more trouble than she can bear she comforts herself with the belief that he’ll grow out of it.

Whereas popular interpretation of the Johnnie and Lina relationship has most often been reduced to a victim/victimizer co-dependency. That overt simplification does not take into account Lina’s self-awareness from the start of the film to the type of man Johnnie really is. Her marriage to Johnnie, besides being motivated by a misplaced belief in her ability to reform him, is also her only means of rebellion against her parents and the stifling upper class community that she came from. An upper class community whose hypocrisy allows them to tolerate men like Johnnie Aysgarth primarily because they have the luxury of running back to their mansions and servants when the perceived danger and excitement that comes from associating with him becomes far too much to bear. Lina’s relationship with Johnnie may not be all that healthy, but it is far healthier than everyone else’s prurient fascination with him.

Cary Grant’s portrayal of Johnnie Aysgarth is reminiscent of Grant’s screwball comedy work in films like His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story. In fact, if you remove all mention of murder in the plot then this could have passed for a very cutting and satirical comedy. The banter that Grant fires at Lina and practically everyone that dares engage him in conversation is laced with such acidic wit that if it came out of an actor that didn’t have the kind of charm and sophistication that Grant exudes then the film would crumble under the weight of all the melodrama. By subverting the audience’s expectations of what a “Cary Grant picture” means Hitchcock calls attention to the audiences Pavlovian response to specific actors within the star system, and also just how cookie cutter Hollywood’s Dream Factory really is.

Unlike the novel, the central question in the film is whether Johnnie is merely a harmless rogue or a cold-blooded murderer. One viewing of the film will leave no doubt for most viewers of Johnnie Aysgarth’s guilt, but by never saying outright that Johnnie is guilty or innocent creates an anxiety for the audience. As caustic as Johnnie may be we, the viewer, still love him and dare not think of him as a murderer. This is mainly due in part to the audience’s attachment to the Cary Grant persona. The evidence is freely available for us to review and as much as we care not to believe it our idols are susceptible to the same dark urges we all face.

So with all this said, does the film’s ending work or does it make Suspicion one of Alfred Hitchcock’s compromised masterpieces? Personally I find the ending appropriate. Lina, the audience surrogate, knows Johnnie is a murderer but so in love is she with him that she would rather die by his hands then live her life without him. Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense because he understood human psychology. What scares us to death are not werewolves, vampires, or ghosts. What arouses real panic within our hearts is the fear that those we love want to do great harm to us.