Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville, based upon the Novel “Before the Fact” by Francis Iles
Starring Joan Fonatain, Cary Grant and Nigel Bruce
Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood in the late-1930’s, after more than a decade of success in British films, determined to find new worlds to conquer. The move had been contemplated for years, held up by a variety of factors, not the least of which was no studio wanted to pay top dollar for the most successful director of British films, because who the hell watched British films?
Eventually David Selznick did pay the price Hitch’s price, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse for Hitchcock. A blessing because it finally brought him to Hollywood. A curse because the financial terms of the deal bordered on punitive and almost from the start Hitch was determined to get out of it. Of course, since he worked for David Selznick, and his agent was Myron Selznick – David’s brother – this would be a tricky maneuver.
Nevertheless, while the deal may have been financially difficult, it was also artistically difficult, as Selznick was notorious for nitpicking the scripts under his watch and was much more a ‘hands-on’ producer than Hitch could stand.
Despite their clashes, the arrangement proved fruitful, with Hitchcock’s first few films in America, either under Selznick’s watch, or on loan-out jobs that still felt Selznick’s influence, all meet with financial, and some degree of Oscar, success:
- His first film in America, Rebecca (1940) won Best Picture
- His second, Foreign Correspondent (1940) was also nominated for Best Picture, pitting his first two films against one another for Oscars’ top prize
- His third, Suspicion (1941) was also nominated for Best Picture and won Best Actress for Joan Fontaine
- Shortly he would add a Best Picture nod for Spellbound (1945)
- And to top it off, Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director for Rebecca, Spellbound and Lifeboat (1945)
In short, Hitchcock’s time with would find him enjoying his greatest Oscar success, even as the films of this era seem hardly the work of the director of Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds. Yes, they may share some common themes, but his early Hollywood films mostly seem the work of a different director altogether.
What’s it about?
Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) is a bookish, early-stages old-maid type, who inexplicably catches the eye of charming, dashing Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). After a short, improbable courtship, they elope. It is only after marriage she realizes he’s not the wealthy playboy he presents himself to be, but it a shiftless-gambler, thief, and liar. And, maybe also a murderer who has designs on Lina’s inheritance.
The Good and The Bad?
The good part of this movie is Cary Grant – and he’s not just good, he’s sublime. Fontaine may have won the Oscar, but her performance underwhelms and outright annoys, while Grant is the true revelation. Known to excel at charm and light comedy, he uses those skills to good effect, showing just how thin a line exists between charming and menacing, and he is masterful in toeing the line between the two. So superb is he that it isn’t until the final moments of the film that we finally learn his truth. Of any part of the movie, he is the thing not to be missed.
Just as enjoyable, though in not nearly as complicated a performance, is Nigel Bruce as Grant’s good-natured friend. Sure, he plays the role mostly as comic relief, but he still manages to bring a hint of pathos. And though the performance seems a lark, Bruce’s characterization is important, because with it his death wouldn’t be as affecting when it comes.
So, these were the good, which means just about everything else about the film is the bad. But not just bad – horseshit.
The direction is uninspired, lacking the visual wit and invention Hitch brought to later films. Hell, the film doesn’t just lack visual wit – it lacks wit pretty much altogether.
More, given Hitchcock’s reputation as a master of tension and suspense, it’s shocking how he mismanaged those elements are, leaving the film sloppy, uninspired and tedious.
The love story is a joke, and completely rushed – you expect a certain lack of realism at the movies, and expect love stories to feel phony. But there is a difference between phony and absurd.
Moreover, the characters, and their motivations, make no sense – particularly Fontaine’s. The way she oscillates between agency and passivity is maddening. Consider that her character spends a big chunk of the film essentially investigating the shittiness, and criminality, of her husband, eventually convincing herself he might not just be a bad hombre, but actually might be a murderer out to kill her. But, do you think she runs off to protect herself? Nope. She just goes from brittle to not giving a damn like everything has changed, even if it hasn’t.
In all, it’s a poor effort from Hitchcock.
Better Than Best?
The winner of Best Picture 1941 was How Green Was My Valley, a John Ford film about coal miners in England, and one I thoroughly disliked. But, since I also disliked Suspicion, it’s tough to say which again is better or worse than the other – it’s enough to know that if I had to choose which one to watch, I’d choose neither.
Of course, this discussion is easy to have, because even as one of those films might’ve been better than the other, neither were better than the film which should have won Best Picture, Citizen Kane.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 And one fraught with ethical dangers.
 It’s impressive Hitchcock had two films in the race, but one must remember that 1940 saw 10 Best Picture nominees. And Hitchcock’s achievement pales a bit when you realize two other directors also put two films into that Best Picture race: John Ford with The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath, and Sam Wood with Kitty Foyle and Our Town.
 Which is too bad, because she’s fantastic in a very similar role in Rebecca.