Suspicion (US 1941) – Studying a Classical Hollywood film and its production context

These notes were first produced for a lockdown Zoom event in 2020 focused on the film Suspicion (1941), one of the RKO classic films held by the BBC and still currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK. Often overlooked in Hitchcock’s filmography, the film is topical again because of #MeToo issues both in its plot and also the experiences of its female lead, Joan Fontaine. (NB This post is over 4,000 words.)

Introduction

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most celebrated and most discussed filmmakers of the 20th century. But much of his reputation rests on a handful of famous titles drawn from distinct phases of his career. In the later stages of his career he was able to in effect run his own production unit, even when based on the lot of a major studio. He became one of the Hollywood directors promoted as an auteur and gave long interviews to the French critics turned directors, Claude Chabrol, Erich Rohmer and François Truffaut. He was also a showman and celebrity figure for audiences, promoting his own work in unique ways.

Hitchcock on set for Suspicion with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine

Suspicion is an important work for several reasons but in some ways it has been overshadowed by other films he made in Hollywood in the 1940s, especially Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), both of which starred Ingrid Bergman, and his earlier success Rebecca (1940) which announced his arrival from England. Rebecca had made a star of Joan Fontaine who had been nominated for an Academy Award. She would go on to win for Suspicion, the only actor to do so in a Hitchcock film. But during this period (from 1939-46) Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. Rebecca was a Selznick production but in 1941 Hitchcock and Fontaine were loaned out to RKO and Suspicion was made as an RKO film. Hitchcock was in control of the production but there is still a debate about whether RKO pressurised him into changing the film’s ending.

The ‘romance thriller’

Hitchcock was one of the few Hollywood directors recognised by audiences and critics alike during the studio period. His late 1930s films made in England were often hits in America and he became established as a Hollywood director through his work for Selznick. ‘Hitchcockian’ later became a term to describe the films that carried his ‘signature’ – i.e. his choice of themes, genre, performers, narrative structures etc.. Many of these films were forms of the ‘romance thriller’. This isn’t the title of a genre so much as a general term for several different kinds of films. They all had at their centre a romantic/sexual relationship between a man and a woman, but this was a relationship threatened by one of two possible dangerous forces. 

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps, one of Hitchcock’s early romance thrillers

Some of the films placed a couple in danger from an external threat, often by accident. Several were spy thrillers like the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and 1956. In this case the couple can only survive by fighting together to overcome the external threat. There is romance and thrills (and often spectacular action). The other scenario sees a relationship which faces a danger from ‘within’ when, although the couple may be in love, one or both of them become suspicious about the other and a psychological struggle between the two ensues. In some cases there are both dangers, so in North By Northwest (1959) Cary Grant is pulled into a spy story by accident and finds himself attracted to Eva Marie Saint, who may be one of the spies, but is also possibly ‘turned’ by Grant’s charm and sex appeal.

Hollywood in the 1940s was a distinctive filmmaking environment for a director like Hitchcock. The ‘studio system’ was in full operation and one of its features was the ‘self-regulation’ practised by the studios by means of the Production Code, sometimes referred to by the name of its founder Will Hays and sometimes by its principal administrator Joseph Breen. It’s ironic perhaps that some of the most salacious stories, often so-called ‘hardboiled novels’, were bought by the studios which then had to find ways of making the scripts acceptable to the Breen Office. The code was enforced from 1934 until the late 1950s with a  requirement for traditional values and protection of moral standards, largely based on the teachings of the Catholic church in the US. This was not likely to appeal to Hitchcock, who, although he had a Catholic  background himself, loved to explore personal morality and enjoyed nothing more than focusing on the excitement and danger of sexual relationships.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in Marnie

As is well known, Hitchcock tended to cast certain kinds of female stars in his films. The ‘ice blonde’ would be one such type, most famously represented by Grace Kelly. Hitchcock would argue that these characters were ice on the surface but hot beneath. He tried to cast elegant actors he could ‘bring down’ rather than the opposite (i.e. those of humbler origins) who he might ‘lift up’– which he said never worked. Towards the end of his career he would be criticised for his treatment of Tippi Hedren in particular when she appeared as the lead in The Birds (1962) and Marnie (1964), both films which featured challenging roles for a young and inexperienced actor. Marnie is in some ways a mirror image of Suspicion. How would Hitchcock fare in the contemporary environment of #MeToo? It might be possible to argue that the two films that Joan Fontaine made with Hitchcock and which made her a star, Rebecca and Suspicion, are both narratives in which a young bride (Fontaine was 22/23 when she made the films) is faced with an older, sexually attractive and arguably potentially sinister man, whose actions towards her are abusive.

‘Gaslighting’

This term has come to mean the long process by which a powerful man psychologically undermines the confidence, the beliefs and in extreme cases the will to live of a woman, possibly as part of a sexual powerplay or for financial gain if he can control her money in some way. Either way it is clearly abuse. The term comes from the play Gas Light (1938) by Patrick Hamilton which was successfully adapted for the cinema, first in the UK as Gaslight (1940), directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. Set in 1880s London, the first thing a new bride notices is the flickering gas light. She is unaware of her husband’s activities in which he secretly searches the closed rooms at the top of the house (where previously a young woman was murdered) which causes the gas pressure to drop. The flickering light and the strange noises from above become part of a nightmare that the husband creates while assuring his wife that she is imagining things. (There is a detective who is suspicious of the husband.) The film was remade in Hollywood in 1944 by George Cukor with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Ms Bergman won the Oscar for her performance.

Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight (US 1944)

It’s not difficult to see why the term is used now but a little caution is needed in understanding the context of the 1940s. These films would then have been thought of as melodramas. Often they might have featured the major female stars of the period (Ingrid Bergman followed Gaslight with her two Hitchcock films). There were, arguably more roles and more ‘meaty’ roles for female stars in this period and in addition they often were able to use properties written by women (Daphne du Maurier in the case of Rebecca). Hitchcock was supported on all his films by his wife Alma Reville who acted first as editor and then as writer or ‘story consultant’ throughout his career. Hitchcock also employed Joan Harrison, first as his secretary in 1933 and then increasingly in a role complementary to that of Alma. Harrison travelled with the Hitchcocks to America in 1939 and her expertise was recognised by MGM who hired her as a screenwriter in 1941. She was an Oxford graduate who had also studied at the Sorbonne and in 1943 became a producer at Universal and one of the few women to hold contract producer roles in the studio era. Both Joan and Alma contributed to the script of Suspicion.

The female audience for Hollywood productions was also a major factor in the kinds of films made in the 1940s. This was the era of the ‘woman’s picture’, films built around stars such as Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. Films were often adapted from novels such as Stella Dallas by Olive Higgins Prouty which was a major hit for Stanwyck in 1937 (with both earlier and later versions in 1925 and 1990). Film audiences have changed in their composition over time. The 1940s saw a greater proportion of women, particularly between 1942 and 1945. What kinds of films did these audiences (sometimes women in groups) want to see? We know that in the UK, James Mason became a star in the wartime period. In retrospect it seems a shame that Hitchcock did not use Mason until North by Northwest in 1959. Mason’s attraction for audiences in the 1940s was partly down to his roles that might be described as ‘gaslighting’, e.g. in The Man in Grey (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (1944), They Were Sisters (1945) and The Seventh Veil (1945).

In 2020 a new adaptation of Rebecca received mixed reviews but a fair amount of interest. There are complex reasons why audiences seem to prefer certain types of films at certain times and that will be one of our questions about Suspicion – both in terms of what was actually presented on screen and what ‘might have been’.

‘Englishness’ on screen in America in 1941

Suspicion is odd in the sense that it presents an adaptation of a British novel, by a British filmmaker with a nearly 100% British cast, produced on a Hollywood sound stage. The film also represents a very ‘English’ vision of an upper middle-class rural society. The significance of this is that in 1940/41 (the film opened in the US in November 1941), Hollywood and large swathes of US public opinion were determinedly ‘neutral’ about the war, partly because of the strong German communities in Chicago and other parts of the country.

The British casting was possible because of the large Hollywood community of British actors, although some of them had already returned to the UK to enlist. Others were attempting to find ways to contribute to the war effort while still working in the US. Hitchcock himself was already in touch with the UK Ministry of Information about ways in which he could support the war effort. This angered Selznick since he felt he was paying Hitchcock’s wages.

Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)

Joan was the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland who had already become a Hollywood star through her roles opposite Errol Flynn for Warner Bros. To avoid confusion, Joan took one of her mother’s names when she began a contract at RKO in 1935. When she was cast in Rebecca she had already appeared in several films, including some leading roles, but not in films that had much prestige or box office success. Selznick put her under contract after the success of Rebecca and, like Hitchcock, she found herself being ‘loaned’ to RKO. (This was a lucrative move by Selznick since the fee paid by RKO was much greater than the salaries he paid out to Fontaine and Hitchcock.)

Joan Fontaine with Laurence Olivier in Rebecca

The young Fontaine perhaps regretted her decision to sign for Selznick. She found herself suspended by Selznick when she refused some of the roles he suggested for her and she was caught between the manipulations of Hitchcock and the controlling influence of Selznick. Between them they did contribute to her success in Rebecca and Suspicion, but it wasn’t easy for her. Fontaine also found it difficult to build a rapport with Grant who is reported to have found her ‘unprofessional’. One difference between Fontaine and both Grant and Hitchcock is that she had no other work between Rebecca and Suspicion while in the same time period, Grant and Hitchcock were working on at least two other titles.

It’s worth noting that Fontaine made comments about Hitchcock that have been repeated by other female stars and about other directors (e.g. John Ford) along the lines that they sometimes felt bullied or manipulated by their male directors but that they felt that this sometimes deliberate harsh treatment did make them better actors. The #MeToo issue can be found in the production itself as well as in the script.

Fontaine was very beautiful in her early twenties and she received a third Oscar nomination in 1943 for The Constant Nymph. She was popular with audiences in the early 1940s but perhaps feared being trapped in the same kinds of ‘romantic melodrama’ roles. In her later films Fontaine was cast in a wider range of parts. Her biggest critical success was for her own company Rampart Pictures in Letter to an Unknown Woman (US 1948). In that film she begins as a teenager and ends as an older woman. As she got older she gradually moved into more theatre and TV work and given she began very young as a studio contractee, she didn’t make as many films as might be expected over her long career.

Cary Grant (1904-1986)  

Cary Grant was an established A list star by 1941. He had learned to play against a number of sometimes older and ‘strong’ female stars such as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell. In most of these roles, Grant was at worst cast as a ‘cad’. He wasn’t a ‘villain’. Compared to Fontaine, he  was vastly experienced and had worked with directors such as Cukor, Stevens and Hawks. He hadn’t worked with Hitchcock and one of the possible issues watching Suspicion is the urge to think about his three later roles for Hitchcock. He  had actually worked once on a film with Joan Fontaine but she had only a relatively minor role in Gunga Din (1939).  

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday

Suspicion (US 1941)

(SPOILERS: This discusses some of the plot so you may prefer to read this section after watching the film.)

Suspicion was adapted from the 1932 English novel Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley Cox (under the pen name ‘Francis Iles’). Rights to the novel were purchased by RKO in 1935 but the studio could not formulate a production proposal until Hitchcock discovered the possibility on his arrival. The novel has been described as a ‘psychological suspense novel’ and the same author’s previous novel Malice Aforethought, was described by one reviewer as “possibly the best shocker ever written”. Since ‘suspense’ and ‘shocker’ are key terms in the Hitchcock universe, it’s not surprising that he was attracted to the property.

RKO productions at this point were usually budgeted lower than productions at the other major studios and there are no spectacular Hitchcock action sequences in this film. In some ways, it resembles Hitchcock’s British pictures. Apart from the California coast standing in for East Sussex, most of the film was shot on the studio lot. Focus thus shifts to some of the sets, especially the house that Johnnie buys for Lina.

Although Joan Fontaine had dual UK-US nationality,  she had not lived in the UK and Selznick was concerned about her ‘English accent’ (which seems to me very good most of the time). Cary Grant had arrived in New York from Bristol in 1920 aged 16. The other writer involved on the screenplay, Samson Raphaelson, was selected by Hitchcock possibly because after working with Lubitsch he might be able to bring a lightness to the dialogue. Otherwise the screenplay was the work of Alma and Joan Harrison. The cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. was American but had worked in France and in the  UK, including on Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and also on Mr and Mrs Smith (1941), Hitchcock’s previous film at RKO. Much of the rest of the crew were RKO contractees, including Van Nest Polglase as Art Director. Franz Waxman the film’s music composer had been praised for his score for Rebecca. RKO’s nominal producer on the shoot, Harry Edington is not included in the credits titles. Hitchcock appeared to have a relatively free hand.

Their first meeting . . .

The film begins with the meeting of the two central characters on the train from Waterloo – a familiar Hitchcock setting – and uses a familiar device to make Lina look ‘mousey’. She wears a hat and coat, a buttoned-up cardigan, ’sensible’ lace-up brogues and gloves. She’s wearing reading glasses and perusing a book on child psychology. It’s not as dowdy a presentation as Bette Davis is given at the start of Now Voyager (1942) before her ‘makeover’ and the glasses can’t disguise her pretty eyes, but this first ‘look’ at Lina gives Johnnie the opportunity on their next meeting to loosen her hair as part of his long-term goal of seducing her. This second meeting, alone at the top of a low hill, does seem to set up a metaphor of ‘falling in love’ for Lina and possibly preparing her for a different kind of ‘fall’ by Johnnie. “What did you think I was trying to do, kill you?” Johnnie asks as they struggle in the wind and that hat and coat from the train are literally blown away. As well as loosening her hair (a familiar sexual symbol), Johnnie makes fun of her through his creation of a pigtail and also his first use of “monkey face” as an ‘endearment’. This single scene continues with some remarkably provocative dialogue, ending with Lina’s implication that Johnnie’s behaviour (and her own response to it) might cause her father to have a stroke.

Johnnie makes fun of Lina’s hair and calls her ‘monkey face’.

We might consider a comparison between Suspicion and Marnie (1964). The two women are linked by their relationship with their horse. Marnie loves her horse ‘Forio’ as a substitute or a displacement of her sexual desire. Lina suggests to Johnnie that if she got her bit between his teeth she would have trouble handling him. Both women are in a difficult psychological position via the confident, ‘strong’ men who seem eager to gain control over them. Marnie’s condition seems much more serious, but Lina is the one whose lover might be aiming to kill her.

The narrative proceeds apace with Lina falling more deeply in love even as she begins to discover that Johnnie has no money and is expecting her to  inherit from her father. The death of Lina’s father is a key moment in both psychoanalytical terms and in the narrative development. Are we worried now because Lina is going to be both more dependent on Johnnie and perhaps more frightened about what Johnnie might do? The reading of the will and the drive along the cliffs are markers for later events. The narrative introduces a secondary character whose role seems to be to further confuse Lina’s understanding of Johnnie and what she knows about him. This is ‘Beaky’, an old ‘chum’ played by Nigel Bruce who specialised in character parts as a bumbling aristocrat or military type – best known for playing Dr. Watson in the Hollywood Sherlock Holmes films. Can Lina trust Beaky, who seems incapable of deception? Bruce became a popular supporting actor for audiences in this period. 

Beaky with Johnnie and Lina

One narrative strand that develops in the film is the sense that Lina has to act like a detective, discovering what Johnnie is up to. At the same time ‘detective fiction’ becomes part of the plotting. When Lina comes out of the bookshop (did you spot Hitchcock at the postbox?) and meets Mrs Newsham, she learns about Johnnie at the racetrack. In turn, Mrs Newsham notices the detective novels Lina has bought for Johnnie. Later we will meet Isobel Sedbusk, the crime writer who Johnnie has been quizzing about poisons. Isobel Sedbusk explains to Lina that the ‘murderer’ in her novels is actually her hero and this is also Hitchcock’s own view as he expressed in talking about the film and its ending. 

Lina plays detective looking for a crime book that Johnnie borrowed from Isobel

Hitchcock the showman talked about his ideas at length in interviews and in pieces he wrote. In one piece for the New York Times in 1957, Hitchcock wrote about ‘English Murders’ (See Gottlieb, 1995: 133). He suggests that ‘real English murders’ are very dark and very few films are based on them because the murderer is not a character audiences can identify with or as the film trade puts it, carry the vital element of the ‘rooting interest’. This is what in Suspicion made Hitchcock decide that the idea of Johnnie as a murderer had to be a figment of Lina’s imagination. This is odd because of course, the script was based on a novel, not a real case. More likely, one might think, that pressure was put on Hitchcock because Cary Grant’s star image, though it could cope with ‘suspicions’, could not be damaged by the suggestion that he was a cold-blooded killer. (Note that in 1960, with Psycho, Hitchcock did use a real serial killer as the inspiration for his ‘shocking’ film at a time when the Production Code was beginning to break down and the director could become more daring.)

There are many different views about the ending and why Hitchcock chose the fantasy option. Hitchcock himself tells another story about how RKO executives asked him to cut out any of the darker moments featuring Grant, “but the resulting cut only lasted 55 minutes”. This story also refers to Hitchcock’s working method which matched John Ford’s idea of ‘editing in the camera’. Hitchcock storyboarded many scenes and only shot the footage he knew he would use. This infuriated producers like Selznick who expected directors to provide wide shots and alternatives for each set-up so that films could be recut at a later stage. This was impossible in the case of both Hitchcock and Ford.

An interesting observation came from the French critic Jean-André Fischi. He argues that Hitchcock’s films are often ‘about’ how film narratives work – as if the film is a kind of contract with the audience in which the director agrees to show the audience ‘how it is done’.  In the case of Suspicion, Fischi argues, the ending is such a let-down (‘Oh yes, you were wrong’) that it forces us to think back over all the clues and instead of dispelling doubts, the ending creates a new sense of disquiet. (see Roud ed.1980: 506) 

Reception

Suspicion is certainly less well-regarded by critics and film scholars than the most well-known Hitchcock titles, but this isn’t reflected in the industry or audience response to the film.

Sight and Sound’s American correspondent, Herman G. Weinberg reported:  

“Hitchcock has not been able to re-capture that first fine careless rapture he had in England and his new film, Suspicion, which might at the very least have been not worse than Rebecca as an excursion into the macabre, emerged as a diluted version of an interesting psychological story, which added up to nothing but ennui at the end.” (Spring 1942).

By contrast, here’s what an American trade paper reported for its readership of independent cinema exhibitors: 

“Brilliantly directed and acted with skill by a group of expert performers, this drama  should prove thrilling fare for adults, particularly of the class trade. Even though the story is unpleasant, and the character played by Cary Grant unsympathetic, so interesting is the plot development that one’s attention is held to the end. The credit for this is owed to a great extent to Alfred Hitchcock, who again shows his mastery at directing thrillers.The closing scenes, in which the heroine, thinking that her husband is about to kill her, tries to jump from a speeding car, are so tensely exciting that one is left trembling at the conclusion. (Harrison’s Reports, September 1941)

And here are some comments from US newspaper reviewers:

“Certain to move and amuse you as much as it makes your hair stand on end.” (New York Herald Tribune)

“A distinctly superior picture.” (New York Post)

“A masterpiece in disturbing emotionally draining drama. Adult, astounding, pulling knowingly on its psychological undertones.” (Chicago Herald-American)

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, one of the most influential critics of the period suggests it is not Hitchcock’s best because the script doesn’t offer the director much to work with but:

“Still he has managed to bring through a tense and exciting tale, a psychological thriller which is packed with lively suspense.”

It is clear that in the US, Hitchcock ’s films are expected to do best in urban, up market cinemas. Even so, Suspicion attracted big enough audiences to be deemed a hit by the trade press. (Most of his films were hits – Hitchcock was ‘hot’ in Hollywood in the early 1940s.)

Unfortunately it is more difficult to discover what UK audiences made of the film. Monthly Film Bulletin’s ‘D.E.B.’ – reviewers were then only known by their initials – offers a generally supportive review praising Fontaine and Grant and “smooth direction” which “adds largely to the mounting excitement”.

It’s worth noting that at this time interest in psychology and psychiatry was much greater in the US than in the UK. It is also worth remembering that audiences in the UK in December 1941-January 1942 had very different moods because of the war. Americans were still getting used to the idea that they were at war which came a few weeks after the film opened. In the UK this was a very bad period with the fighting still going against the UK – though the fact that the Americans were now allies was a welcome change.

In terms of current writing about the film, I recommend the two internet sources below by Alison Light (1996, online by October 2020) discussing Rebecca and current debates about gaslighting and Kristen Lopez’s 2016 review of Suspicion:

“As the audience worries about Johnnie’s intentions it’s impossible to act against him. The Cary Grant persona is in full effect and it’s why the film works so well when it’s setting him up as the villain, and it’s also why the film’s ending is such a crushing disappointment. Not only does it completely belittle Lina’s intelligence, but it also requires extreme jumps in logic to make sense.

This beautifully produced psychological suspense thriller may have more gendered notions of psychology than are timely for today, but to watch Grant flirt with villainy is beyond delicious!”

References

Gottlieb, Sidney (ed) (1995) Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Berkely: University of California Press

Light, Alison (1996) ‘Love to death: Hitchcock, du Maurier and Rebecca, Sight and Sound, May

Lopez, Kristen (2016) Review of Suspicion on https://ticklishbiz.com/2016/07/06/suspicion-1941/

Roud, Richard (ed) (1980) ‘Alfred Hitchcock II’ by Jean-André Fischi, in Cinema a Critical Dictionary Vol 1, London: Martin Secker and Warburg

Spoto, Donald (1983) The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, London: William Collins

Roy Stafford   17/11/20  

2 comments

  1. John David Hall

    Not having watched ‘Suspicion’ before I did watch it last night following ‘The RKO Story’ on Beeb4, and was grateful for the heads up on the preposterous ending which served to make Lina (and the audience) look like a hysterical fool. The RKO episode touched on film noir among other things, stories in which a growing sense of unease was generally reflected in a very dark denouement. This film was an anti-film noir in which a hopeful conclusion was somehow plucked out of thin air.

    Like

    • Roy Stafford

      It isn’t an ‘anti’ film noir simply because no one used the term film noir in 1941. The earliest claims for films like Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) weren’t made until later. But it’s still a fair point. Later Hitchcocks would be claimed as noirs and the breakthrough in terms of the Breen Office perhaps came when Paramount felt able to make Double Indemnity in 1943 despite its story content. The other point is the suggestion of a Freudian reading of Suspicion which ties in with Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and the American interest in psychoanalysis. ‘Psychological thrillers’ may well be included in the broad range of films that received the ‘noir‘ treatment later in the 1940s.

      Like

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