When Francis Iles wrote the novel Before the Fact, from which Suspicion was drawn, it had a fascinating ending. While the film was in production, Hitchcock must have been aiming toward that same ending since the shooting title of the film remained Before the Fact. The picture was then previewed with several conclusions before one was decided to be best for film audiences, and the film was released as Suspicion, because that is what the story line is about. Originally, the heroine, becoming convinced that her husband, whom she adores, is going to murder her, drinks the poisoned milk he offers her; for even though love has betrayed her, she will not betray that love. Thus, she becomes an accessory before the fact to her own murder.
Such an ending, of course, would be unsatisfactory for the average filmgoer, especially since the star of the film is Cary Grant, who was, by the time he filmed Suspicion, one of the greatest film idols of the time. To portray him as the murderer of his own wife, especially when that wife was played by Joan Fontaine, would have been to invite audience displeasure. Changing the ending, however, meant that the whole theme of the story would have to change. Without the twist of making the husband appear guilty only circumstantially, the theme becomes one in which the obligation of mutual trust in any love affair is mandatory: a wife must not suspect her husband of the worst when she loves him because her love is then not complete. The ending switch involves so many moral turns that it puzzled many a film writer; one critic reported that a large percentage of trade reviewers must still be sitting in the projection room after the previous day's showing, waiting for the story to end.
Suspicion is an intriguing film and one of Hitchcock's best; it is beautifully made and perfectly played, Joan Fontaine as the loving heroine Lina MeLaidlaw, a wife forced to doubt her husband, won her an Academy Award as Best Actress. It was a well-remembered year, especially since she was in competition with her own sister, Olivia de Havilland, who was nominated for Hold Back the Dawn. Fontaine had been one of the nominees the previous year for Rebecca, her first big role, but she had lost the Oscar to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle. Some maintained that she won for Suspicion the following year because she should have won the year before; but Fontaine handles her role in Suspicion with remarkable sensitivity and assurance. Her victory was an honest one in an Oscar race for Best Actress that was even closer than before, for her competition involved not only her sister, but also Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Barbara Stanwyck.
The role of Lina McLaidlaw is not unlike that of the nameless heroine of Rebecca (1940). Lina is a shy, self-effacing, repressed English girl, the daughter of a retired general (Cedric Hardwicke) and his respectable wife (Dame May Whitty). Nothing exciting or adventurous has ever happened to her, and she is almost resigned to ending her days as an unwanted spinster with a sheltered existence. Then she encounters Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant), a lovable scoundrel, and is swept head over heels into romance. She cannot believe that Johnnie returns her love, but when he woos her boldly and asks her to marry him, she blindly consents, knowing little about him and turning a deaf ear to her parents' disapproval of him.
In order to prove his love, Johnnie takes a job when he learns that his wife's monthly income is not sufficient to support them both, but he bets on the races with his earnings and is soon driven to stealing from his employer to pay his gambling debts. Gradually, the evidence against him builds. He is exposed as a liar and a thief, charming but completely irresponsible, and little by little Lina begins to suspect him of the worst.
Johnny has a drinking buddy, a jovial, well-meaning friend named Beaky (Nigel Bruce). One night, as. Lina plays anagrams with them, her thoughts are clouded by her gathering suspicions about Johnnie. As her thoughts drift from the men's conversation, she rearranges the letters on the blocks before her, and they spell out the word "murder." Immediately she leaps to the conclusion that Johnnie intends to kill Beaky. Soon after, Beaky is found dead, and, in Lina's mind, circumstances point to Johnnie as the killer. The suspense and sense of dread builds slowly but inevitably.
When Lina learns that her husband could benefit by her death, and when she is driven ill to her bed and he waits on her, she is more certain than ever that he intends to kill her. He brings her the fateful glass of milk to aid her in sleeping, and the suspense Hitchcock achieves during this sequence is maddening. Will she remain silent and drink the milk? Does she subconsciously desire to be the willing victim of her husband's villainy? Will she plan an accident and upset the glass, at least postponing the moment of death? Or is the whole pattern of suspicion a false one, a web that she herself has spun in her mind? Could it be that Johnnie is utterly innocent, a victim of circumstances?
In the film's last reel, Hitchcock proves himself to be the ultimate master of suspense. He builds on every clue, every plot turn. In the final confession scene, he is dependent upon Cary Grant's skill as an actor, just as he was dependent on Laurence Olivier's in the confession he made to Joan Fontaine in Rebecca.
Hitchcock has been accused of making the same picture over and over again, and, in effect, this may be true. However, it must be remembered that there are only so many elements to be used in building a suspense story pictorially. The central character must either run away from damaging evidence, or he must blindly run toward it. He is either in danger himself, or he is creating danger for another. Ultimately, it is Hitchcock's penchant for minor detailing in the development of each film that persuades the audience that this time the situation is truly different, and there is always that certain Hitchcock twist whith could make it seem so.
Actually, it is only when one examines the full Hitchcock catalogue that one realizes how very different each Hitchcock film is from the others. The best ones are those which fall, in part, into the gothic romance class: Rebecca, Suspicion, Notorious (1946), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960). Yet, all have only one characteristic in common: the suspense is gained by honest cinematography, with the camera used as a reflection of the mind of the audience. Hitchcock knows his use of the camera well, and he always tells his tale with it. This is true even when he presents his most un-Hitchcocklike story: The Wrong Man (1957), based upon a true story of a miscarriage of justice, in which the wrong man has been accused circumstantially of a crime, and is found guilty. In all his films, Hitchcock's sense of humor always takes an impudent turn; drollery, audacity, and mockery are integral parts of his method. In addition, no one knows better than he how to achieve the most from a stunning moment of shock, or even horror.
Since he favored such stunning blondes as Madeleine Carroll and Grace Kelly as heroines, Hitchcock has been accused of prejudice in favor of the stylish but icy blonde. Yet in some of his best accomplishments, nonblond heroines such as Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman have been warm, compassionate, and moving. Cary Grant is considered the definitive Hitchcock hero; he effectively plays against adventure and melodrama with a becoming tongue-in-cheek disbelief of what is happening to him in such films as Notorious, North by Northwest (1959), and To Catch a Thief (1955), in addition to Suspicion. But Hitchcock has been as compatible with other actors quite unlike Cary Grant. James Stewart, for example, responded to the Hitchcock spell in such films as Rear Window (1954), the remake of The Man Who Knew
Too Much (1955), and Vertigo, a rare masterpiece for both Hitchcock and Stewart.
Suspicion, however, was the real challenge, and early proving ground for Hitchcock: Selznick had brought him to Hollywood from England, and his first picture in'Hollywood, Rebecca, was an overwhelming success. His next two films, Foreign Correspondent (1940) and the unlikely Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), had almost been enough to brand him as a one-time success in this country. But Suspicion proved his talent anew, and from this film forward he has seldom erred; no other director has been so consistently successful. He has been admired and imitated, but he remains uniquely Hitchcock, "master of suspense." He has made films his primary interest in life, and Suspicion is an important title in any list of his work.