Darkness, doubt and the art of compromise: Rebecca McCallum continues her Hitchcock’s Women series with another deep dive into a tale of gender and intrigue…
Suspicion offers a portrait of one of Hitchcock’s most unlikely couples. Lina (Joan Fontaine) is bookish, prim and respectable. By contrast, her love interest Johnnie (Cary Grant) is a Casanova with a penchant for gambling. The pair cross paths in the confines of a train carriage, share a whirlwind romance and are hastily married. Soon however, the perfect façade of newly wedded bliss falls away when Lina learns that Johnnie is unemployed and has borrowed to pay for both their extravagant honeymoon and luxurious new home.
With shadows already cast over their relationship, Johnnie continually furnishes his wife with reasons to doubt him, culminating with Lina herself being convinced that he has murderous intentions. Hitchcock wields his power once more in what is often seen as a companion piece to Rebecca (1940). By placing us so firmly within Lina’s psychological experience, he ensures that we too fall foul to Johnnie’s charm while simultaneously developing a deep mistrust of his character. Based on the novel Before the Fact (1932) by Frances Iles, Hitchcock was compelled by the production code to deviate from the original ending which confirms Johnnie as a murderer. Instead, due to being prevented from casting Hollywood star Cary Grant in the role of a villain, the focus of the film is on Lina’s hysteria and paranoia.
Perhaps the strongest motif of Suspicion is Hitchcock’s use of light and dark to create tension and release. The film in fact opens in darkness while we hear the voice of Johnnie, before transitioning to a fully lit train carriage. This choice links to the notion of what is seen versus what is concealed, what is true and what is found to be a lie that will come to plague Lina. We first see her in the train carriage opposite Johnnie, buttoned up in a thick suit that conceals her silhouette. On her feet she wears not the usual Hitchcockian court shoe, but brogues that are (like the buttoned-up suit) laced up, representative of her unavailability. A hat and glasses ensure that her hair and much of her face are also obscured: in essence there is a mystery to her that invites both curiosity and desire.
The couple next collide outdoors while Johnnie is flocked by women: here Lina bursts into the scene handling an almost untameable horse, a hint towards the hope for balance and harmony in her future relationship with Johnnie. This masculine appearance also carries with it strong connotations of sexuality, power and control. Literally standing out from the crowd, Lina towers above him and is idealised through the archetypal Hitchcockian portrait shot. It is worth noting that her costumes are dowdy and masculine before her marriage to Johnnie (with the exception of one scene where she is shown in a riding suit, confirming that Johnnie still needs controlling). This signifies how, once betrothed to him, she sheds her former ‘spinsterish’ identity for a glamourous and high fashion wardrobe.
Shortly after, the pair are reintroduced again at Lina’s house where he discovers she has been carrying a torch for him ever since their initial meeting, as evidenced in her retaining a press cutting of him. Their love affair begins as a whirlwind as he holds her tight whilst out walking on a heath. This restrictiveness is too much for Lina who asks to be let go while patting herself down in a fluster. At this point, still uptight and uncertain of him, she notes that she does not compare to the girls of the society pages, but seizes on the opportunity to tells him forwardly that given the chance she could ‘get the bit between my teeth’. Such a statement suggests how Lina perceives that she can tame Johnnie’s wildness and control such an outwardly chaotic man: in fact it may be the wildness itself which she finds so deeply attractive.
When Johnnie walks her home and they arrange to meet again later that day, she boldly tells her parents of her new acquaintance. Lina’s love interest is presented as unrespectable as her father General McLaidlaw (Cedric Hardwicke) describes him as ‘wild’ over a lunchtime discussion. As such, before their love is even formed, Lina must battle preconceptions about Johnnie which extend beyond her family unit and out into her wider social circle. On the surface at least these beliefs appear to be correct, with Johnnie representing debauchery and a lack of respectability with his gambling habits, debt, unemployment and leading her away from church for a walk in the countryside. Regrettably, in what will come to be a reoccurring pattern in their relationship, Johnnie lets Lina down by calling to cancel their second date, and she is sent into a tailspin.
Knowing What She Wants: The Woman as Pursuer
While there is a reserved and bookish side to Lina, she also subverts the traditional (at least for the 1940s) female role in their courtship. In contrast to Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964) where the female forms the object of male obsession before being captured, here Lina becomes the pursuer. After their brief encounter in the early scenes of the film, Johnnie comes to occupy all of Lina’s thoughts. Once he cancels their plans and disappears she is clearly devasted but promptly embarks upon a chase. She continues to follow him in society magazines (the social media of the day), enquires at the post office if there has been any mail from him and even goes so far as to look him up in the telephone directory before placing an unsuccessful call. For The Hunt Ball, an event she declines to attend up until the last minute when she receives a telegram from Johnnie advising he will be there, Lina casts off a long, black, traditional gown in favour of an extravagant and flamboyant frilled off the shoulder dress. In doing so, she is rejecting the darkness and embracing the light, an important motif throughout the film. As she waits for Johnnie to arrive, her father and his companion remark upon how they hardly recognise her – for Lina, the transformation has begun.
At the ball, Johnnie and Lina dance to the Viennese Blood Waltz and she is totally swept off her feet in a heavenly romance. He soon whisks her away from the party and she is thrilled by such spontaneity, the likes of which she has never been able to indulge in before. She also expresses a wish to be kissed and acknowledges herself as ‘different’ to other women before declaring her love for him. When she makes this declaration it appears to embolden her, as though invigorated through love and the possibility of a life where she can enjoy more autonomy. When they stop in at her family home for a drink, Johnnie remarks upon how calm she is whilst he himself is shaking. Finding strength and empowerment in identifying what she desires and seeking it out she notes how ‘I’ve rather surprised myself. I think for the first time I know what I want’.
A Charming Suspect: Defence and Disappointment
The dark possibilities of eloping with Johnnie to be married and leaving her parents behind is soon transformed into a moment of euphoria. Upon arrival at their new homestead, Lina is overjoyed at the no expenses spared approach which even extends to the hiring of personal maid Ethel (Heather Angel). Delighted but unable to comprehend how Johnnie has raised the funds, Lina grows unsettled when he evades her questions. Instead, he cunningly distracts his wife with the memory of the peak of their romance by playing the Vienna Blood Waltz and dancing with her. He may be suspect, but Johnnie is undeniably charming. This diversion is only temporary however, and within moments the magic is shattered as she discovers he is consumed by debt with no prospects of a job. She calls him ‘a baby’, an astute observation, and asks with forward and direct confidence ‘you wouldn’t actually want to live on your wife’s allowance would you?’ To her joy, he reveals to her that he has secured a job with his cousin, Captain Melbeck (Leo G. Carroll).
Soon after Lina is introduced to Beaky (Nigel Bruce), an old friend of Johnnie’s who discloses to her almost immediately that her husband has not given up gambling as he promised. A pair of ornate antique chairs, gifted to the couple by Lina’s father, have also mysteriously gone missing. Beaky declares how spinning lies – or ‘cutting up’ as he calls it – is what makes Johnnie Johnnie. However the chairs are Lina’s family heirloom and, in removing them without discussing this with her first, Johnnie betrays her deeply. In response, she is nobly understanding – despite being clearly heartbroken – as she declares ‘oh if they’re gone then they’re gone.’ She even goes to great lengths to defend her husband when Beaky attempts to dispute Johnnie’s story about selling the chairs, although the cut-away to her face (a device often used by Hitchcock) tells us that suspicion is already germinating. Whilst out on a walk, her optimism is quashed as she spots the chairs in the window of a pawn shop and she is forced to conclude that Johnnie has been lying to her all this time.
Just as her anger rises and she is on the cusp of confronting him, Johnnie makes this impossible for Lina by returning to the house jubilant and loaded with gifts. It transpires that he has used the money from the sale of the chairs to continue his gambling habit. Lina is mortified at this, but just as she is about to break he reveals that he has bought the chairs back, offering her the receipt; darkness has made way for light again and he redeems himself. He toasts to the last bet he will ever make, but given her current knowledge Lina stands in firm doubt of this. In this moment Hitchcock – a master of aligning audiences with his characters’ internal thoughts – invites us to suspect and ponder over Johnnie’s behaviour in tandem with Lina.
This promise, it turns out, does not count for much as Lina soon discovers from an acquaintance in the village that has spotted him at the racetrack. She handles this revelation with grace and coolness, but cannot fight the urge her to look in on Johnnie at his workplace. Upon arrival, she learns from his employer Captain Melbeck, that not only has her husband been dismissed following the misplacing of money found during an audit but that this took place six weeks ago, representing another betrayal. In the wake of this news Lina is left feeling humiliated, ashamed and confused which leads to her writing a letter confirming that she is leaving him. However she is unable to bring herself to deliver the letter and (like Judy Barton in Vertigo) she rips it up into pieces, her true thoughts remaining a secret. At this moment Johnnie enters, proclaiming ‘so you’ve heard’, in reference not to his unemployment (as Lina assumes) but to the death of her father which has just been confirmed by telegram. In this time of grief she is cut short from discussing the letter as Johnnie comforts her, offering warm reassurance.
Rebecca will return soon with Part II of her analysis of Lina Asygarth in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941).