Suspicion has always fascinating me. Containing what may possibly be the worst tacked-on ending I have ever seen, it nevertheless always seems just a breath away from brilliance. I must confess that my interest in this film also stems from a general fascination with the “spineless” roles of Joan Fontaine, which, despite my love of celebratory strong female actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, I find makes for interesting variety.
Situated in an English village, Suspicion has the setting of a cozy English murder mystery. There is even an author residing there who writes cozy murder stories, but Hitchcock gives the cozy setting a suspense twist rather than a mysterious one. The suspense is quite simple: is Johnnie planning on killing his wife? His wife certainly thinks so and Hitchcock builds suspense magnificently, right up to that moment when Johnnie walks up the stairs with a glowing glass of milk in his hands. Could it be poisoned?
Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) is thecarefully brought up and intellectual daughter of General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and Mrs. McLaidlaw (Dame May Whitty). But she meets playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) on a train and he awakens something new in her. He is exciting and spontaneous and sexually alive and she becomes completely enamored of him, determined to have him even if her parents don’t approve.
But as soon as they marry, it becomes obvious that Johnnie is just no good. He has no money, no desire to get a job, bets at the races and assumes that Lina will have much more money from her parents than she does have. She thinks he’s a child and believes that she can help him – the classic love-of-a-good-woman-can-reform-a-man delusion. He does get work, but is fired for theft and does not tell her anything about it. And as Lina realizes that Johnnie is a chronic liar, suddenly his protestations of love and assertion that marrying her is the only thing he never regretted doing begins to sound a little hollow.
Which opens the way for mistrust and suspicion. It starts with Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce), Johnnie’s friend, who Johnnie talks into financing a plan of Johnnie’s to buy some land and build on it. Now that Lina knows that Johnnie stole money and has been given a little time to pay it back before he is prosecuted and sent to prison, Lina begins to suspect that Johnnie intends to kill Beaky. And when Beaky dies under mysterious circumstances, she thinks Johnnie wants to kill her so he can collect on her life insurance, pay back what he stole and avoid jail time.
There have been two theories about the ending. One is that Hitchcock always intended to use the ending that was in the book (Before the Fact by Frances Iles) where Johnnie gives Lina a glass of milk containing poison. Almost relieved to finally have the suspense broken and know for certain that Johnnie wants to kill her and loving him too much to want to go on, she drinks the milk after writing a letter to her mother explaining what happened. The last scene in the film would have been of Johnnie sending the letter. Alfred Hitchcock himself said this was his original intention and many people have noted the importance of letters and stamps in the film. The theory is that the Hays Code wouldn’t let the film end with what would essentially have been Lina’s suicide and that the studio didn’t want Cary Grant to be a murder, thus forcing Hitchcock to come up with something else.
However, Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto argues that there is no evidence that Hitchcock ever intended to film this ending and that instead his intention was to make a film about the neuroses of a woman imagining that her husband is trying to kill her. But if that is the case, then it seems like Hitchcock failed. There appears to me to be nothing illogical or neurotic about Lina. In fact, her reasoning strikes me as being perfectly logical and it is only after some time living with Johnnie and his lies that her imagination begins to run riot. Johnnie is an amoral man, a petty thief, insensitive when his friend almost chokes to death, lying at every turn. It makes sense to me that this sort of man would be capable of murder if he thought it would keep him out of jail.
And no matter what Hitchcock intended, the ending is completely illogical and deflating. Suddenly, the film suggests, it was all in her head and her suspicions were unfounded and she was simply being hysterical (completely glossing over how much reason he gave for her suspicions) and should have stood by her man all along. Johnnie is apparently a reformed man and the reason he was pestering the local mystery author about an undetectable poison is because he was thinking of committing suicide. But if so, why undetectable poison? Wouldn’t arsenic do just as well? And I cannot believe that they would happily drive off to face the future together as if nothing was really wrong with him.
No, the only way it makes sense to me is that Johnnie is really a killer and Cary Grant certainly plays Johnnie like a killer. There is an edge to his performance, even his protestations of love at the beginning of the film sound a bit pat and devoid of the sincerity you find in some of his other roles, like in The Philadelphia Story, where it is very obvious that he does love and cherish Katharine Hepburn’s character. His pet name for Lina is, of all things, Monkeyface, and he is often condescending in his manner. The only other way the film could have made sense is to acknowledge at the end that Johnnie’s behavior caused the suspicions in the first place and embrace the fact that Johnnie is worthless and doesn’t love her and have Lina realize this, even if he doesn’t kill her.
But I’ve always found that I enjoy the movie best when I mentally throw out the real ending and insert the one Hitchcock claimed he wanted, with Lina drinking the milk and Johnnie sending the letter. It’s more satisfying, up until I reach the real ending (at which point, I rant and rave a little). This way, everything makes sense and the movie becomes a fantastic suspense film and exploration of lies and fear and paranoia, beautifully acted and inexorably leading to the murder that seems inevitable even as you are hoping it’s not.
Once again, I think that Joan Fontaine’s character of Lina McLaidlaw is somewhat misunderstood, like her role in Jane Eyre, almost always compared to her role in Rebecca. But as in Jane Eyre, she’s actually surprisingly different. Lina is not, as she is often called, timid or repressed. In her own social sphere (she is from a more elite background than Johnnie) she is perfectly at her ease and what I would call sexually un-awakened. It is specifically Johnnie who makes her initially ill at ease and most woman who are not experienced with men like Johnnie would be. She is forthright, direct in what she says and initially believes that Johnnie is as direct and honest as she is. She is also a bit of a rebel. She only really decides she wants Johnnie after she hears her father say that she is the spinsterish type and will never marry. Her father thinks she is intellectual and doesn’t need to marry.
Which brings me to another observation. Lina seems to be both bookish and intelligent (also exhibited by her need for reading glasses, a classic Hitchcock indication that a character is smart), but there is no outlet for that and even after she marries Johnnie, she doesn’t seem to have anything to do except hang around the house. This perhaps contributes to how completely she wrapps her entire life around Johnnie and is so determined to forgive him and retain his love. In fact, she reminds me slightly of another self-destructive Hitchcock leading Lady: Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy from Vertigo, who is also so desperately in love that she allows another man to dominate her.
But what is interesting is how an intelligent woman could trap herself in a situation like this, as opposed to someone who really is just plain dumb. It’s willful self-deception, which makes it all the more disturbing, but also all the more real. As an interesting aside, it struck me that Johnnie is really not a very good crook. Beaky always knows when he’s lying, he’s caught stealing, he gets caught out in lies repeatedly and if we pretend that he’s really trying to kill her, he’s not being very subtle because she’s totally on to him. He’s always gotten by on charm, it seems, rather than any real criminal ability.