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Monday, September 14, 2009

Can't Like List --- Suspicion

I’ve revisited a couple of pictures lately that I’ve so far never been able to enjoy, thinking maybe this time would be different. One was Where Danger Lives of a recent post, redeemed somewhat by passage of time and my softening attitude toward it. Suspicion, however, is something else. It has the promise of another good Hitchcock from beginnings of a rich new-to America period (preceded by Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent), and for the first time, AH had access to a really major star name in Cary Grant. He claimed never to have wanted the title, but surely Hitchcock would have got round to using it eventually (another seeming natural, Deceit, was a shooting title for Family Plot, but not used by him otherwise). Suspicion remains a frustration for me and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. It attests to Hitchcock’s dependence upon writers, and how hopelessly he’d flounder on occasions when they let him down. I've read often the axiom that you can ruin a good script by poor direction, but that even a brilliant director cannot uplift a bad script. Like it or not, our story driven industry continues to operate on said rule, never so rigid as in 1941 when Hitchcock was obliged to sign his name to the mess that was Suspicion. Here was a writing dilemma gone unresolved. I’ve read that RKO leadership changed during production, the bane of not only Hitchcock, but others like Orson Welles and Val Lewton who toiled there and faced similar interference. There was fuss over Cary Grant being a would-be murderer of wife Joan Fontaine. Hitchcock supposedly wanted him to poison her at the end (and she to knowingly drink it). I’m thinking they all knew better than to imagine such a thing could ever pass. Never mind the Code. I don’t think Grant would have played it. Besides which there’d be a downer finish to wreck whatever boxoffice Suspicion might have had. The ending as it is cheats, but for me, the whole murder set-up seems arbitrary. Nearly an hour passes before we’re asked to consider Grant as potential killer. I wondered why Fontaine didn’t rid herself of him for lying and thievery that makes for Suspicion’s distinctly unappealing first half. She’s a doormat for this cad and the fact he’s Cary Grant doesn’t mitigate it. Maybe Hitchcock was trying to show us how inherently untrustworthy such charmers are. Grant is almost too good enacting a rotter we might suspect lies at the core of his screen persona. It’s one of the riskiest parts the actor ever took, lots more off-putting, I think, than his Devlin in Notorious, which is more generally credited as the darkest of Grant’s Hitchcock gallery. For his Suspicion character to have turned out an unrepentant killer might have left a disagreeable taste audiences would never have forgiven, and more disastrously, could have ended CG’s association with Hitchcock.

Suspicion was a hit. Against a negative cost of $1.1 million, there were domestic rentals of $1.3 million and foreign brought $919,000. Profits amounted to $440,000, an unaccustomed windfall to RKO where triple digit gains were less common than at competing majors. Hitchcock techniques were freshest then and it was exciting to discover novel ways he put over a thrill. Audiences talked about creeps they got when Cary Grant ascended dark stairs with a seemingly radioactive glass of milk, a scene so visually compelling that it didn’t matter whether it paid off or if that milk device ultimately curdled. What patrons remembered too was Joan Fontaine spelling Murder among her puzzle pieces. Both scenes dazzle when standing alone or as highlights in Hitchcock compilations, but neither survive greater scrutiny applied to Suspicion in its entirety. Hitchcock was known to chuck narrative logic in favor of set-pieces he knew would distract us, and generally that worked in stories resilient enough to bear such strain, but Suspicion was from its outset built on sand. In better Hitchcocks, like Rear Window especially, there was a basis for your protagonist suspecting foul play. They didn't let us down at the end by saying there was nothing to his/her fear. If the expected villain turns out to have been a misunderstood red herring, what was the point of watching? So "The Threat Of Murder" promised by Suspicion’s one-sheet proves a non-existent one and a betrayal of viewer expectation sustained over 99 minutes of running time (the cheat not being apparent until the very finish). Lesser filmmakers might fall back on such machination, never (except here) Hitchcock. Still, there are fans that like Suspicion. From the standpoint of movie star glamour Hitchcock manipulated so well, it is irresistible. You look at posters, plus that title, and figure surely it must deliver. I never chanced Suspicion with student groups to whom I ran many other Hitchcocks, for fear they’d turn on the picture, AH, then me. Maybe I assumed too much, was guided to excess by my own prefigured lights, and deprived them of something they’d have enjoyed. That’s always a risk when programming films based on personal preference (but if not guided by your own tastes, then whose?). Every audience is full of surprises, especially at Hitchcock revivals. I’d love to know how Suspicion plays to a modern crowd. Anyone tried it out lately?


Blogger Christopher said...

I've never been too crazy about Grant in this...his character is "suspicious"as to Why Fontaine would want to be around him at all..killer or no..and he calls her monkey face one too many times.

9:54 PM  
Blogger JES said...

I just can't make it through 'Suspicion'. The whole thing just irritates me to no end. The stars really blow it in this one. Joan never really does it for me in any picture she's in (did she always play a doormat?) and Cary just stands around and smiles a lot. I would rather watch Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane in 'Saboteur'...which I personally like.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I guess I like Suspicion a bit more than you (and Christopher and JES) do, John -- but y'know, not so much more that I'm willing to go to bat for it. You're all quite right, it's not very good, and Grant's character is such a scumbag that it simply isn't credible that he'd stop at murder (even if RKO would).

With hindsight, it's tempting to regard Suspicion as an elaborate Hitchockian head-fake for (SPOILER ALERT!) Shadow of a Doubt two years later -- which I regard as one of Hitch's true masterpieces. My uncle told me that the ending of that one came as a seismic shock that yanked the universe out from under him: he was sure there had to be some innocent explanation for all this!

JES's comment and "doormat" question about Joan Fontaine reminds me of something Pauline Kael once wrote about Rebecca: "Laurence Olivier (giving one of his rare poor performances) and Joan Fontaine (giving one of her rare good ones) ... "

9:09 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I remember trying three times to stay up through this on late night TV before ever seeing it the whole way through. Still seems to be a long trip for nothing. Plus, how could anyone want to kill Nigel Bruce?

2:51 PM  
Blogger mhdantholz said...

"...I’d love to know how Suspicion plays to a modern crowd. Anyone tried it out lately?"
Saw it in the theater TWICE/1960s @ The New Yorker [B'way/88th St., NYC] and Theater 80 St. Marks [also NYC]
Works like a charm on the BIG screen: you're constantly off-balance. Cary Grant gives an unusually complex, shaded take on the leading man---here's a guy with secrets. Hard to do, and he never equaled this performance, just for sheer depth.
A lot of ink has been spilled over what *wasn't* filmed, what Hitch wanted, producer interference,etc.
This one *works* in a way NO OTHER Hitchcock does. Even the much-commented-upon "tacked-on" ending works---what will CG do ?? Is he really on the up-&-up? OR...
And I don't care much for Hitch---his rep is hyper-inflated, IMHO.
These comments apply only to a theatrical big-screen viewing.
Cheers !!

1:53 PM  

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