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Performing Beauty And Charm In Suspicion At 80
Gabriela Almeida , December 9th, 2021 15:41

Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion might have turned 80 this year, but remains as relevant as ever regarding star image and the danger of male beauty and charm, finds Gabriela Almeida

Like most opening credits during the 40s, those of Suspicion — with cursive, feminine lettering and a secluded countryside backdrop drawn in thin, subtle lines and curvatures — were communicative. While the background remains static, Franz Waxman’s romantic orchestral music swells and wanes, bearing the promise of highs and lows followed by never-ending happiness. The clues are all there: we are looking at a woman’s picture, and the audience has signed a contract. We know this will end with lovers. But then, there’s a precipitous drop: the screen abruptly turns black, and we find ourselves in the dark, much like we will be for the rest of the film’s length and, perhaps, afterwards.

Let’s fast forward for a minute: it’s impossible to write about Suspicion without first considering its ending and the following anecdote. Alfred Hitchcock, when confronted with audience scepticism and their dislike for his film’s abrupt resolution – in which Johnnie (Cary Grant) and Lina (Joan Fontaine) return to each other’s arms after Lina has “incorrectly” assumed that Johnnie wanted to murder her – revealed that he had, in fact, planned a rather different ending, one closer to the book the film was adapted from, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s 1932 Before the Fact. In the book, Johnnie murders his wife by poisoning her milk. According to Hitchcock, RKO had been reluctant to go ahead with this: who wanted Cary Grant to be a murderer? Who would believe it? Critics including Donald Spoto, Mark Miller, and Ken Mogg (who dedicates an entire website to his research on this), however, suspected otherwise, citing numerous script drafts, audience previews, and memos in which Hitchcock confirms the opposite: he had made precisely what he had wanted to make, and it was a film about a woman’s childish delusions. In the end, very little was found that corroborated Hitchcock’s initial statement about RKO’s involvement, and, for better or for worse, the ending was absolved by many viewers of its initial ambiguity. Now, 80 years after its release, Suspicion simply low-tier Hitchcock.

This ambiguity, Lina’s inconclusiveness about Johnnie’s behavior is what the film allows for the majority of its duration, and so it’s no surprise audiences found the ending slapdash, their union contrived. For the likes of Miller and Mogg, though, even if the ending’s abruptness collapses the narrative, the matter is more straightforward: Suspicion is Rear Window’s prototype, Hitchcock’s early experiment of characters with overactive imaginations and sexual frigidity, obsessives made fools of through perception. Lina is ridiculous, a naïve, domineering closeted romantic with an overabundance of fantasies fed by women’s novels. And Johnnie, of course, is innocent.

Suspicion belongs to the subgenre of “paranoid woman’s films,” a subset of Gothic romances in which women suspect their husbands of wanting to murder them. In these narratives, it's feminine perception that’s marked as distinctly flawed. It’s notable, though, that women’s experiences are rarely dismissed as completely foolish here, particularly within patriarchal contexts where a woman’s “freedom” was dubious after marriage and gender relations consisted of psychological power plays. Men in these films are always elusive, out of reach, uncomfortable with being seen for what they might be, and they all hold a not-so-secret potential for violence. In Hitchcock’s Rebecca, for example, though the protagonist’s husband Max had no desire to kill her he had killed his previous wife, the titular Rebecca, while in Suspicion Johnnie moves as soon as he’s about to be photographed. Following this lineage, there are indeed moments in Suspicion that could be interpreted as mocking Lina’s romantic imagination, but to discredit the film as belonging solely within the realm of the irrational is to blind oneself to its careful construction – particularly Cary Grant’s place within it.

Hitchcock, a famous observer of subjectivity, doesn’t really preach a particular truth. Whether Lina’s suspicions are unfounded or not, they are not entirely off the mark. As Johnnie’s irresponsible lies accumulate and compound with Lina’s insecurity about her timid character – not the type Johnnie usually preferred – and large inheritance, everything makes Johnnie look more and more like a possible murderer: he steals from his job and lies about being fired; he takes out insurance; his preferred reading material are detective stories about undetectable poisons; his rich friend, Beaky, dies mysteriously after the two decide to start a business together. To make matters worse, his deceptions are often followed by gifts. After he sells her father’s chairs – wedding gifts with both historical and emotional value for Lina – he purchases expensive gifts with stolen money to appease her – it’s no surprise Lina believes he will kill her.

Unlike many critics allege, Lina’s suspicion speaks more to a feeling of powerlessness than any possibility of control, to a sense of loss in the face of a barrage of betrayals. From this side, Cary Grant’s appeal is undeniable, and Grant’s Johnnie is charismatic and funny, a fashionable construction of white masculinity through voice, clothes, and manners, seductive enough to blanket his long list of faults. He wears the best-tailored suits despite his poverty, and his hair is always perfectly coiled. After all, it’s his picture – his beauty – Lina hangs on to after their initial meeting, a messy encounter where he disrespects her by asking for money. It’s a recycled charm, though, a reliance on Grant’s recognizability that hopes audiences will remember what they’ve always loved about him. His attitude when asking Lina for a kiss evokes his playful haughtiness as C.K. Dexter, Katharine Hepburn’s ex-husband in The Philadelphia Story. Suspicion both highlights Grant’s star status and depends on it, but it also unearths its disturbing underside, landing on a darker, more affected version of Grant’s romantic heroes, one where he’s far more domineering and less ascetic. But even here his beauty and charm are indisputable.

Cary Grant’s – or Archie Leach, as he was born – lower-class background as an acrobat in England was well-documented. But by the time he made Suspicion, that fact had almost been entirely erased from public memory, and Grant had already become the American action man and comedic romantic hero par excellence. In post-war America, the British Grant came to define the ideal modern American man, a kind of extraordinary masculinity that allows wit, self-deprecating humour, sartorial sensibility without definable class, and an element of unknowability. But the star persona was just that – so naturally, his biographers paint a different picture, one of a closet bisexual cross-dresser who loved LSD and treated the women in his life with disdain, with the exception of his daughter. Many of the details of Grant’s life were readily available for perusal when he was alive, but they didn’t make much of a dent in audience perception.

In his seminal 1986 book on star theory, Heavenly Bodies, Richard Dryer states that a star’s image is inherently unstable, always sliding between the realms of film performance, gossip, fan imagination, and fantasy. But there’s something particularly uneasy about the idea of moving the scale when it comes to Grant, if only because his easy wit and good looks were landmarks throughout his lengthy career, even after he turned 50. There has always been something elusive about him, a malleable nature that Hitchcock recognized and molded in his favor during their time together. The latter half of North by Northwest, for example, which follows Grant’s character taking on someone else’s identity, is not entirely unlike the actor’s own life. He, by his own admission, “spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” In To Catch a Thief, Grant is, at once, a thief and the film’s dubious hero. And in Notorious, he plays a spy whose success rests on his ability to hide his identity. But there was also a startling honesty – or perceived honesty – to his elusiveness. Unlike other celebrities, he never claimed to be Cary Grant the movie star. Until the end, he maintained Grant was a pure invention, a practice he got good at rather than a real person. “Even I want to be Cary Grant,” he said more than once.

It’s a statement other stars have made before, but not one devoid of weight. The character mirrors the star, and in Suspicion if Grant performs, then so does Johnnie. Perhaps Grant, always shrouded in charm, appears more accessible with honesty, but with Johnnie the performance is too visible, the fabrication of Cary Grant too tangible. Johnnie admits something similar to Lina early on, telling her: “I’m honest because, with you, I think it’s the best way to get results.” Would Grant be loved half as much without his apparent humility and deference? I don’t know, but it’s Lina who excuses Johnnie’s behavior—mainly that he was ashamed of his misdeeds—once she’s made to believe she’s imagined his misbehavior. He merely confirms.

The acceptance of the film’s resolution, then, owes itself to something thornier and much more upsetting: an unwillingness to question the value and morality attributed to charm and beauty. For the Greeks, a beautiful body directly entailed a beautiful mind, and the idiomatic phrase kaloskagathos brought the two worlds together – and that notion still persists. Johnnie can be a liar and a “great chap” in the same sentence, his lies excusable when labeled idiosyncrasies, and Lina’s very real fears can be dismissed in the same process.

Hitchcock’s best characters lack resolution, lingering instead in liminal spaces, cars at yellow lights between stop and go. They’re puzzle boxes that can be filled in at will. There’s something at the edge of awareness when his pictures fade to black, the what if of them, from James Stewart’s obsessive and destructive gaze to the murderous ending that could have existed outside the Hayes Code in Strangers on a Train. Notorious exposes Grant’s sadistic side as he punishes Bergman’s Alicia for her sexual promiscuity only to end up with her. And in Suspicion, a last-minute course-correction or mutability of method doesn’t guarantee his innocence; its genius is similar to Notorious but extends beyond it, plunging fully into ambiguity. Suspicion is a hotbed of suspicion, where resolution is irresolution and only serves to breed further suspicion. But if we were to look at Johnnie’s picture now, 80 years later, what would we see and who would we listen to?