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Silver Screen Streak List #26: 01. Suspicion (1941)

Silver Screen Streak List #26: 01. Suspicion (1941)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by dorrk
25 May 2024

Alfred Hitchcock followed his only Best Picture-winner, Rebecca (1940), by double-dipping into the subject matter of marital anxiety, with Joan Fontaine starring, again, as a woman who develops deep concerns only after a whirlwind courtship is cemented in the bonds of matrimony. Suspicion (1941), however, is a much more awkward effort that struggles with its broad tone and saddles co-star Cary Grant with one of the most loathsome romantic leads of the era.

Lina (Fontaine) seems content in her spinsterish life until a shiftless playboy (Grant) begins to pursue her, aggressively. It's only after they marry that Lina begins to countenance his many character deficits — like his lack of work ethic and his appetite for gambling. It isn't long before she suspects that he may resort to diabolic means to cover his debts and maintain his preferred lifestyle.

This is potentially good subject matter for Hitchcock — and not the first nor last time he broaches its themes — so it's a little bewildering how clumsily he handles it. The problem might be the casting of Grant at the peak of his star power. His character, Johnnie, is thoroughly despicable, from his smallest gestures to his smug embrace of his greatest flaws — as if Grant was entrusted with mitigating Johnnie's shortcomings through charisma alone, absolving the screenwriters of the responsibility of forging a workable path through this moral jungle. Unfortunately, Grant's charm exaggerates these characteristics and makes him more detestable, and Lina is weakened by not being able to see through him earlier.

It also seems like Hitchcock — or the studio — became squeamish about Johnnie's relentless perfidy and opted to depict it as broadly comical to lessen its severity. This approach is confusing in a narrative which is rooted in the emotional authenticity of Lina's mortal suspicions; it's almost like the director is gaslighting his main character — which wouldn't be out of place from what we know of Hitchcock's conflicted relationship with his female characters and performers — and it undercuts the movie's integrity. If Hitchcock had been aware that his direction was the meta-equivalent of a man dismissing a woman's fears, it might have worked, but it doesn't evince that formal self-awareness, and as a result its wild tonal swings just aren't believable within the narrative.

Suspicion is also, essentially, a series of blunt narrative cheats that are wholly aimed at producing an unsatisfying ending. There is probably a more clever way of sowing doubt in both actions and perceptions without leaning so clearly in one direction or the other, but this is Hitchcock taking big careless swings rather than deft intentional movements, and leaving himself with nowhere to go when it's time to wrap it up. He would handle a similar subject much better a few years later in Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, and she is good, despite fighting against the tonal tide throughout. She just barely salvages this miscue, along with the crack production team of cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr., art director Van Nest Polglase and set decorator Darrell Silvera, who make it always worth-watching despite itself.

Silver Screen Streak List #26: 01. Suspicion (1941)

SILVER SCREEN STREAK #26: Psychological Thrillers

Suspicion (1941), Ranked

The first entry in Patrick Gray's list, Psychological ThrillersSuspicion (1941) gets in just on the right side of my lukewarm reaction, with a conflicted rank of #2917 (53.20%) on my Flickchart. This does not earn any FREE PASSES for the Second Round. Next up: Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (2011).