Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” Starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine

Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in
Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in "Suspicion"

After reviewing his work in 1941, it’s tempting to assume Alfred Hitchcock was having a year of mixed feelings about his marriage. He kicked things off in January by releasing his only straight comedy, the pleasant but underwhelming Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Unrelated to the recent action vehicle starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Hitchcock’s film was about a married couple (Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) discovering they were never legally married. Shenanigans ensue. He then closed out the year with Suspicion, in which Lina (Joan Fontaine) suspects her new husband, Johnnie (Cary Grant), is plotting her murder. Perhaps in 1942 he and his wife Alma Reville finally went to couples counseling, because he then got back on track with another classic man-on-the-run thriller, Saboteur.

Of course, with what we know of how the studio system functioned, this is probably just a coincidence. Hitchcock only made Mr. and Mrs. Smith as a favor to Lombard, and Suspicion was written partially by his wife; if anything, maybe the film’s themes tell us more about Reville’s feelings than Hitchcock’s. The latter film is perhaps most famous for its neutered ending, but there’s more happening in the marital dynamics preceding those infamous final beats.

The main tension in their marriage is one that most couples will have at some point—money troubles. In the very first scene, wherein Lina and Johnnie meet, he asks to borrow some money to upgrade his train ticket from third to first class. Her parents are well off; he wants affluence but doesn’t want to work, and so, the two are constantly sparring over their lifestyle. It’s these arguments that lead to Lina’s initial suspicions about Johnnie’s intentions—did he marry her just for money? Or worse—will he kill her solely for the life insurance?

Hitchcock is especially good at warping Grant’s sensational charm into something a lot more sinister. Even in the early scenes, wherein murder isn’t a concern, Johnnie’s ignoring of Lina’s anxiety about money comes off as especially selfish. Viewers still believe Johnnie might love her, but notice that he loves picking the right racehorse and paying off his gambling debts even more. Fontaine won an Oscar for her role, and though she’s quite good, it is in many ways a rehashing of her work in Rebecca. Indeed, many saw her win at the time as more for her work in the previous Hitchcock film (she lost that year to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle).

Suspicion milk glass shot

There are other memorable elements to the film, perhaps the most iconic being the famous shot where Johnnie brings Lina a glass of milk that may or may not be poisoned. Hitchcock told François Truffaut that “I put a light inside the glass because I wanted it to be luminous. Cary Grant’s walking up the stairs and everyone’s attention had to be focused on that glass.”1 There’s also Franz Waxman’s excellent score, which plays with variations on Johann  Strauss’s waltz “Wiener Blut” throughout, including in the aforementioned scene.

However Suspicion is probably best known today for its twist ending—or rather, the unsatisfying one forced on Hitchcock. After all the buildup around Grant having maybe murdered Lina’s father, his best friend, with her potentially next on the list, we discover she was wrong about everything. In fact, Johnnie had been planning to kill himself over his debts. It’s a fairly saccharine ending that is at least, to the credit of all involved, executed as well as it likely could be. Grant, in particular, tapped into an especially effective sense of vulnerability. To Truffaut Hitchcock lays out the ending he wanted, from the novel:

Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine and Alfred Hitchcock on the set of "Suspicion"
Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine and Alfred Hitchcock on the set of “Suspicion”

“Well, I’m not too pleased with the way Suspicion ends. I had something else in mind. The scene I wanted, but it was never shot, was for Cary Grant to bring her a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and Joan Fontaine has just finished a letter to her mother: ‘Dear mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer. Though I’d rather die, I think Society should be protected from him.’ Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to mother for me, dear?’ She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops the letter in.”2

Although we’re deprived of that great ending, Suspicion still has the effective buildup, which shouldn’t count for nothing. This scenario—especially with that ending—could be especially dull, but Hitchcock manages to craft some consistently suspenseful and exciting sequences throughout. Nigel Bruce brings some delightful comic relief to the film, but aside from him, Grant and Fontaine carry the movie near entirely on their own. It may be lower-tier Hitchcock, but Suspicion still has more than enough going on to make it worth watching.

Where to Watch

Buy it on Blu-ray / DVD / the TCM Hitchcock Collection DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

For More on Suspicion

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Read Jack Sullivan’s take on Franz Waxman’s score

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Truffaut, Francois, Hitchcock (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), p. 103.
2. Truffaut 1985, p. 102.