Tag Archives: Joan Fontaine

Suspicion (1941) The Ending

downloadSuspicion 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.

Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce

Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce

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.

soupcons_suspicion_1941_portrait_w858And 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.

Suspicion-1941-classic-movies-16283117-2072-2560Once 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.


Posted by on August 11, 2015 in Movies


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Jane Eyre (1943)

jane2I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that no film adaptation can really do justice to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and I’ve seen six of them so far. I think the musical actually comes closest to capturing the character of Jane Eyre, because it allows her to maintain her quiet exterior, yet still express her private thoughts and feelings in song. Which is not to say that I do not enjoy some of the film adaptations, particularly the 2006 BBC miniseries, with Toby Stephen and Ruth Wilson.

And last week I watched director Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Jane Eyre, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles and Margaret O’Brien as Adele, and I thoroughly liked it, despite its imperfections. It’s a gorgeous film, with its black and white photography and use of shadows, the fog and mist, the desolate moor, the moody atmosphere. The emphasis is definitely on the Gothic elements of the story, in a way that no color adaptation could ever achieve. Thornfield Hall is even a forbidding, brooding castle that looks like it would be perfectly at home in a medieval story.

One of the elements of the book that tends to get glossed over in most of the movies is the beginning, when Jane Eyre is a child. It is usually treated as a part of the movie to get through quickly because it’s in the book, but you can tell the filmmakers just want to get to the part where she grows up. But in this film, it is actually used to feed into the motivations of Jane Eyre, and even if those motivations are slightly different from what they are in the book, they are perfectly consistent in the film. Peggy Ann Garner plays Jane as a child, with a terrific blend of rebellion and anger with a touching desire to be loved. When Jane’s unloving aunt (Agnes Moorehead) sends her to a boarding school run by the righteously hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell – the best, most memorable Mr. Brocklehurst I’ve ever seen), Jane meets the first person who ever cares about her, Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). I was struck by the scene of the two children laughing and running near the school with the vast waste of the moor all around them; a lovely visual.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

The movie Jane Eyre is often compared to Rebecca: Gothic story, Gothic house, mysterious leading man, Joan Fontaine stars in both films. They both even begin with a voice-over narration by Fontaine. And when people discuss Jane Eyre, they usually dwell on the similarities between Fontaine’s Jane Eyre and Mrs. de Winter. However, I feel equating all Fontaine’s quiet roles together is like assuming all of Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatales are the same and it obscures real differences in her characterization. Quiet people are not all the same.

Fontaine’s Jane is certainly quiet (though Jane appears quiet to most people until they get to know her), and perhaps less rebellious, but she is not weak. She does what she intends to do and she speaks her mind, something Mrs. de Winter would never have dreamed of doing. She’s just not flashy about it. Her eyes don’t really flash with inner fire, either, but I’m not sure too many cinematic Jane Eyres manage that trick. Interestingly, the film doesn’t try to pretend that Jane Eyre is not pretty (since Joan Fontaine is clearly not plain). At an inn, a man openly admires her and in preparing to marry Mr. Rochester, several other people comment on her looks. Her own assessment of not being as beautiful as Blanche Ingram, though, is not inconsistent with a person who is neither fashionable in manner or in dress and who is used to being called drab. But she’s not a shrinking violet and she’s fairly no-nonsense; she’s just not spunky in the way we visualize heroines today. Mrs. de Winter has an entirely different ethos going on: intimidated, insecure, very young and naive.

Orson Welles is perhaps one of the more unexpected Mr. Rochesters in film. Not conventionally romantic (though Mr. Rochester isn’t supposed to be in the book), he makes for, at times, an intimidating presence, as he towers over Jane. With his fur-lined cloak, striding through his castle with his dog at his heels, he looks like a medieval lord. His Mr. Rochester could very well be dangerous, and yet when he’s not being volcanic and peremptory, his eyes suddenly turn pleading and tender. What threw me is how young he looks (he’s in his late twenties, Mr. Rochester is supposed to be in his late thirties). He’s the youngest Mr. Rochester I’ve ever seen and his face does not match his voice or his presence.

EYRE-JP-3-popupOne weakness of the film is that Welles and Fontaine seem like a slightly odd romantic fit and they don’t quite click. What they both do bring, though, to the film is a palpable desire and longing to be loved, which partially covers their lack of chemistry. That desire to be loved is the theme most prominent in the film, apart from the general Gothic mystery and sense of weird danger.

I did gain a new insight into the book while watching the movie. I always thought it was rather insensitive of Mr. Rochester to pretend to make love to Blanche Ingram and try to make Jane jealous, but I finally understood why (and I should have realized before). He is not sure if she loves him and he’s not really sure if anyone could love him. And he can’t tell because of how calm she is and he’s trying to elicit a reaction, any reaction, from her that would indicate how she feels. That’s why he keeps asking her questions and teasing her about her feelings on leaving Thornfield. In many ways, he’s more insecure than Jane is. She longs for love, but she’s fundamentally comfortable with who she is.

The ending is bit abrupt (I’ve always been slightly disappointing with the movie endings of Jane Eyre), but they don’t make the mistake of trying to rush through the portion where she meets her cousin, St. John Rivers. They wisely remove that entirely, turn her cousin into a Dr. Rivers and do not have him romantically interested in her at all, which keeps the movie fairly taut and consistent and prevents the film from having new characters introduced in the last fifteen minutes. In fact, the entire film is well paced and I liked how they adapted it, purist objections aside. I’ve been becoming more broadminded. Several years ago, I would have ranted about all the differences. Now, I think it is a lovely film that stands quite well on its own.


Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Movies


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Letter From an Unknown Woman (novella) – by Stefan Zweig

downloadThere seems to be something of a Stefan Zweig renaissance underway. I quite incidentally came across several articles about the author and read that the recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a tribute to him. However, I actually discovered Zweig independently of this attention. I was going through a Joan Fontaine movie phase and working my way through her filmography when I came to Letter From an Unknown Woman. It is a beautiful film, released in 1948, and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. I was immediately captivated and wanted to read the original novella that it was based on. I couldn’t have gotten interested at a better time.

Stefan Zweig was an extremely popular author in his day, especially in the United States. He was Austrian and wrote during the 1920s and ’30s, but being Jewish he left Austria during the mid-thirties. He was so distraut at what he saw as the destruction of the world and culture that he knew that in 1942, he and his wife committed a joint suicide. Afterwards, his fame receded and he’s been virtually unknown in America until recently, as his works are being made available in English once more by the Pushkin Press.

And it turns out that the very story I wanted to read, Letter From an Unknown Woman, was translated and published in 2014, just in time for me to read it.

Published originally in 1922, Letter From an Unknown Woman is a tale of obsessive and unrequited love. An unnamed man, an author only identified as R., returns to his home to find a very long letter waiting for him. It is his forty-first birthday and he seems very much at his ease and satisfied with his life when he sits down to read it.

The letter comes from an unnamed woman who tells him the story of her life and how she has always loved him. She begins when she was a child and he first moved into her apartment building. She soon conceives an all-consuming love for him, but her mother remarries and they move away from Vienna. However, she keeps the flame of her love alive and completely shuns life and anyone who would be kind to her, focusing exclusively on him. When eighteen, she returns to Vienna with the goal of meeting him.

When she does meet him, he is intrigued and they have three days together. But despite her utter joy at being with him, there is some disappointment. Having spent all her years away from Vienna thinking only of him, she is hurt to realize that he does not recognize her as the girl who used to be his neighbor.


Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan from the movie

R. leaves after the three days, never to contact her, and she gives birth to a son. She lives by becoming the mistress to a string of wealthy men, who all want to marry her. She declines each time, with the vague idea that she wants to be free for R. Roughly ten years later, she does meet him again, but he mistakes her for a prostitute and pays her after their night together. And he still does not recognize her as either the child or young woman he knew before, though she can tell that his servant remembers her.

After that, her child dies and she contracts the same illness. She writes the letter that is only to be sent after she is dead. When R. reads it, he is vaguely disturbed by the story, but still cannot put a face to his vague memories of the woman.

Unlike the movie, there is really nothing redemptive about the story. It is a tragic, though frustrating, tale of such obsessive love that the unknown woman completely buries her identity in her love for R. At every step, she has the opportunity to move on with her life and she never does. And despite her worship of R., you can tell that he’s a selfish, self-satisfied libertine, not even remotely worth her devotion.

Despite the movie’s many differences from the book – they are given names, the author becomes a pianist, she becomes a wife rather than a mistress – the single biggest difference is that in the movie, her identity and love is finally acknowledged, although too late for her. And that acknowledgement gives her life some meaning and inspires him to find redemption. In the film, he has lived a dissolute life and always avoided responsibility. But at the end, when he has been challenged to a duel, instead of skipping out of town to go on living dissolutely in self-loathing, he finally does remember who she is and faces up to to consequences of his actions, choosing to fight the duel that he will probably lose.

But in the book, he still does not remember her. He finds no redemption – there is no indication that he feels in need of it – and it is as if she never existed. She made herself dependent on him for her identity, so she never has one. It’s so frustrating, because it’s almost like a denial of life. There were so many other people who were willing to acknowledge and love her, but she spurns them all. By the end, even her child dies, and she has nothing left on earth to testify to her existence except her letter.

It’s a novella, so it’s a very quick read. It’s also a very interesting read, despite my frustration with the character, and makes what could be a pathetic character very real in how she thinks and acts. In the Pushkin Press release of Letter From an Unknown Woman, there are three other short stories with it, also dealing with unrequited love. “A Debt Repaid” is almost like the flip side of Letter From an Unknown Woman, in that it shows someone who did have an obsessive love as a child, but who grew out of it and lived a full and happy life, though honoring the person they loved as a child through an act of kindness and sympathy.

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Posted by on January 12, 2015 in Fiction, Literary Thoughts


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