Preconceived notions abound when it comes to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Even in his prime, most viewers would walk in expecting certain things; a murder, a beautiful blonde of varying trustworthiness, and some bit of psychology (even if it was pop psychology at best). Certainly those themes reveal themselves in much of his work, but I think that sells him short. Among other attributes, he was a master of changing tone—both within a film and between films—as well as playing with genre conventions, some of which he fostered or created. The cleverness of Hitchcock is that he is clearly aware of this. As he said, “I’m a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.”
Suspicion is a perfect example of this awareness and his flouting of expectations. This work is especially impressive given the reported battles between Hitchcock and the studio over the ending of the film. Despite reportedly losing that battle, the end product ranks in the upper echelon of his work. His casting of Cary Grant, in some ways, makes this film a different animal and points the finger at the audience. Grant, star of heroic films like Gunga Din and crowd pleasing comedies like The Philadelphia Story, is an inspired choice as essentially the villain of the piece (or is he?). The journey he takes the audience on forcing our own suspicions on this lovable cad leaves us in shock at the climax of the film in the best of ways. But the greatness of Suspicion, and it is great, is not the focus today.
Casting is but one of the choices that changes Suspicion for the better. Hitchcock delivered another surprise in the sexuality and gender roles of this film. Suspicion is strangely progressive. The female protagonist is nowhere near the Hitchcock standard. Instead of a damaged male protagonist being introduced to the possibly dangerous romantic lead, this film follows Lina (Joan Fontaine) from the opening frame to the credits. This enables implicit trust in her, as we are on this journey with her. Her introduction, as the classic spinster, complete with glasses, endears the audience to her immediately. If anything, Johnnie Aysgarth is the femme fatale, or whatever the male equivalent would be named. I am not here to say that it is a feminist masterpiece. But it might be the closest that a director in the 1940’s would get, and certainly as close as Hitchcock dared.
The introduction of Johnnie is one in which he immediately charms our heroine. But more than that, her gaze is, although shy, one of desire. This occurs both in their physical interaction and in her viewing of his photo in the newspaper. There, she sees him as not only an object of desire, but also as someone of her station. She is in no way predatory, but Lina is clearly interested. After this meet-cute, which would feel at home in just about any romantic comedy, Johnnie reappears in the world of the upper crust of society. He is, as expected, surrounded by young, available women. These women are neither smart nor the focus of his attention. They merely serve the purpose of reintroducing the romantic leads. So, Suspicion isn’t perfect in its gender politics. These women are a source of mockery and derision and are not complete characters in the strictest sense. They may remind audiences of standard ditzy female characters, such as the three blondes in the animated Beauty and the Beast. This problem aside, they do serve the purpose of supporting a rooting interest in our couple. And although Johnnie may not be trustworthy (because who is that charming?), love is a definite possibility.
Speaking of that love, let’s examine the wooing of Lina a bit more closely. After convincing Lina to attend church, he whisks her away at the last minute to spend some time with her alone. From a class perspective, this may lead us to not trust him, as he takes her away from the group and the responsibilities that are expected of her. Johnnie, certainly not a gentleman, bars her way to church and brings her to a secluded hillside. There, he makes physical contact with no permission and she reacts in a panic. He asks if she thought he was going to kill her, thus planting the seed of that thought in our minds, as well. After accusing her of believing that he was going to kiss her, he proceeds to goofily rearrange her hair. This borderline silly, but romantic moment in punctuated by sexually charged metaphors. She compares him to her horse at his behest, saying “If I ever got the bit between your teeth, I’d have no trouble in handling you at all.” The importance of her speaking this line tells us about her character. In many films of the time, the man tended to be the aggressor. It is more balanced here. Johnnie is certainly actively pushing for romantic attention, but Lina holds her ground. Despite her meek outward appearance in public, she knows what she wants from Johnnie. This is punctuated by the ending of the scene. He repeatedly leans in for a kiss, but whenever she turns away, he respects that implied boundary. As Lina returns to church (this imagery is not particularly subtle), it seems that this romance may be at an end. However, in overhearing her family’s judgment of her spinster status, she finally acts. Lina returns to him and wrapping her arm around his neck, kisses him. So, within the first ten minutes of the film, we find that Lina knows what she wants, but it also affected by other’s judgment of her.
As the whirlwind romance continues, the idea of Johnnie as a male femme fatale solidifies. She is consistently chasing him, despite his lack of classical wooing. Lina only agrees to attend a ball because she believes he will attend. She admits her love for him and he responds by admitting his fear of falling in love with her. This dichotomy of emotion, her joy registering on and lighting her face, and his growing concern that she is getting too close, provides another mystery and yet more suspicion. The closest that Johnnie gets to tradition is to propose marriage in front of a painting of her father. The glib proposal is carried off by the charming delivery of Cary Grant, but is still strikingly odd as she accepts. Soon after their quick marriage, they return to a garish house (including a live-in housekeeper). This happiness is short-lived, as Lina discovers, bit by bit, the true facts of Johnnie’s life, including gambling, living beyond his means, and even hoping that her father will die and leave them a fortune, solving all of his problems. Despite his obvious flaws, Johnnie is always able to convince her that he cares and to get back in her good graces. In the one instance in which he cannot, fate intervenes in the form of the death of a family member. Lina tears up her goodbye note (another Hitchcock trope) and they take a second chance on one another. Suspicion is filled with moments that feel slightly unnatural due to the gender switching. A dinner party sequence in which Johnnie discusses how he might get away with murder is strange in this way. Not only does he freely admit to these thoughts but pinpoints poison as his weapon of choice. Poison, usually portrayed as a woman’s weapon, is a shocking choice for this man who is attempting to live a life of means. Of course, given the reveal of the mystery, these choices all make complete sense.
Suspicion is a strange film, even within Hitchcock’s impressive filmography. It mixes tone and genre, bouncing from romance to comedy to drama and back to romance again. It is a fine example of a director who is a master of the craft, creating a mystery and a message film, despite its difficulty in being produced. The subtle unexpected gender interplay is one of the many pieces which keep the audience guessing almost literally until the final frame. This is certainly a fair distance away from films like Vertigo and The Birds, in which it can be argued that his female characters are treated poorly. Even in reality, Hitchcock had some questionable quotations, including “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” This attitude and his history on film cause Suspicion to stand out as particularly progressive when it comes to gender. The film deals not only with gender but other heavy topics deftly, and this makes it eminently re-watchable and on par with his very best.
Featured Image: RKO Radio Pictures Inc.