First off, a warning. The following review of the 1941 best picture nominee Suspicion will include spoilers. So, if you haven’t seen the film and you’re obsessive about avoiding major spoilers, then don’t read the review. Simple, no?
Two years ago, I was having lunch with some of my fellow administrative assistants. One of them was talking about how she had watched an “old movie” the previous night. From listening to the vague details that she offered up, I was able to figure out that she had apparently stumbled across TCM for the first time in her life. From listening to her talk, I would not be surprised if she was literally describing the first time she had ever actually seen a black-and-white movie. Needless to say, my first instinct was to correct everything she was saying but I resisted. (For some reason, at that time, I was feeling self-conscious about being perceived as being a know-it-all.) But, as she kept talking, I found it harder and harder to keep quiet. Listening to her talk about old movies was like attending an art history lecture given by someone who had flunked out of a finger painting class. Finally, when the conversation had moved on to someone who we all knew was sleeping with her much older boss, our self-proclaimed old film expert announced that age didn’t matter. “I’d go out with Cary Grant,” she said, “and he’s old.”
Before I could stop myself, I added, “He’s also dead.”
Oh my God, the look of shock on her face! I actually felt really guilty because I could tell that she had apparently taken a lot of happiness from the idea that suave, witty, and handsome Cary Grant was still out there. And can you blame her? In a career that spanned three decades and included several classic dramas and comedies, Cary Grant epitomized charm. Some of his movies may seem dated now but Grant was such a charismatic and natural actor that it’s impossible not to get swept up in his performances.
(Who would be the contemporary Cary Grant? I’ve heard some people compare George Clooney to Grant. And it’s true that Clooney has Grant’s charm but, whereas Grant always came across as very natural, you’re always very aware that George Clooney is giving a performance.)
It was Grant’s charm that made him the perfect choice for the male lead in Suspicion but it was that same charm that made the film so controversial. In Suspicion, Grant plays Johnnie. Johnnie meets, charms, and — after the proverbial whirlwind courtship — marries Lina (Joan Fontaine), a sheltered heiress. It’s only after Lina marries Johnnie that she discovers that he’s broke, unemployed, and addicted to gambling. With everyone from her family to her friends telling her that Johnnie is only interested in her money, Lina starts to worry that Johnnie is plotting to kill her. Lina starts to view all of Johnnie’s actions with suspicion, wondering if there’s an innocent explanation for his occasionally odd behavior or if it’s all more evidence that he’s planning to kill her. When he brings her a glass of milk, Lina has to decide whether or not to risk drinking it…
Suspicion was based on a novel in which Johnnie was a murderer and which ended with Lina voluntarily drinking that poisoned milk. In the film, however, Johnnie is not a murderer. Apparently, it was felt that Grant was so charming and so likable that audiences would never accept him as a murderer. Instead, he’s an embezzler and all of his strange behavior is due to him being ashamed of his past and feeling that he’s not worthy of Lina. Once Lina realizes that Johnnie isn’t trying to kill her, she promises him that she’ll stay with him.
And a lot of people (including director Alfred Hitchcock, who claimed it was forced on him by the film’s producers) have criticized that ending but you know what?
It works. If I had to choose between Joan Fontaine essentially committing suicide or Joan Fontaine promising to love Cary Grant even if Grant goes to prison, I’m going to go with the second choice. Ultimately, Suspicion works because you can imagine being swept off your feet by Grant’s character. But what makes Suspicion enjoyable, to me, is that Johnnie ultimately turns out to be exactly who we were hoping he would be.
Needless to say, Suspicion works as a great double feature with Rebecca. Watch one after the other and have a great night of menace and romance.