Monday, April 11, 2016

SUSPICION: Blu-ray (RKO 1941) Warner Archive Collection

Even by 1941, Alfred Hitchcock had already begun to grow restless with making films in Hollywood. His mood had soured considerably under an ironclad contract with David O. Selznick.  In his native England, Hitchcock had been considered nothing less than an auteur – long before the term was effectively coined, affording him a certain level of autonomy to make his movies his way. Hollywood functioned on a principle of ‘art by committee’, however, and Selznick’s version of it more autocratic than most. Hitchcock might have taken notice the facade to enter Selznick International had been built in the colonial plantation style; a deceptively leisure atmosphere of groom gardens and pristine manor halls that belied the chaotic workaday atmosphere on the other side of its gleaming white walls.  The ‘official’ story has always been Hitchcock was lured across the Atlantic by Selznick with the promise to make a pictorial account of the ‘Titanic’ disaster (a commitment Selznick at least endeavored – briefly – to fulfill, buying a full-sized ship as a ‘prop’ before abandoning the project altogether as he was preparing to put finishing touches on his opus magnum, Gone With The Wind). Hitchcock’s impatience to make a picture in Hollywood – any picture – was repeatedly dashed against the immovable berg that was David O. Selznick. Worse, Hitchcock quickly discovered he had little say about the creative decisions being made on his behalf; Selznick’s chronic interventions, visits to the set, and, litany of eloquent demands in the form of memos on how to ‘improve’ upon his genius, doing more to stagnate than promote it. Even so, Hitchcock likely would have come to America anyway with the onslaught of WWII; Hitler’s blitz putting a period to film production in the U.K. Now, desperately unhappy, Hitchcock’s ego equally suffered the insults from being auctioned off to the highest bidder; Selznick involved in ‘package deals’ putting together scripts, directors and stars, then selling everything wholesale to a rival studio for a nominal fee.
Suspicion (1941) marked Hitchcock’s third loan out in as many years; his second to RKO; reuniting the master of suspense with Joan Fontaine, the actress who had recently garnered considerable praise and an Oscar-nomination for her work in Hitchcock’s North American debut – Rebecca (1940); the only Hitchcock movie to ever win Best Picture. Alas, that statuette did not go to Hitchcock, but rather to Selznick – a glaring reminder for Hitch’ of his lopsided arrangement with the fastidious David.  Hitchcock, who at Selznick’s command, had initially bristled at ‘settling’ for Fontaine in the part of the nameless second Mrs. DeWinter, nevertheless grew to admire her talent. Indeed, hindsight being 20/20, it is glaringly apparent Fontaine ought to have taken home the statuette as 1940’s Best Actress, rather than 1941’s; the role of Lina McLaidlaw in Suspicion very Rebecca-esque in tone and quality and, by direct comparison, inferior to the part she played first – and better - in its predecessor.
Suspicion is a flawed movie on several levels, its incubation a patchwork of Francis Iles’ original 1932 novel, Before the Fact, on which it is reportedly based; Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville keeping pace with the Production Code’s demands as they proceeded to significantly alter the novel’s ending. Hitchcock’s enduring association with Cary Grant, whom he would come to regard as his go-to leading man, began on Suspicion. Yet, Hitchcock could not fail to see how Grant’s built-in persona and star power were perhaps working against Hitch’s own aspirations for the part. Grant is Johnnie Aysgarth; a con artist and a ne’er do well, who latches onto a handsome, though terribly green girl from a wealthy house, hoping to capitalize on her dowry to set himself up as a respectable gentleman. The plan, of course, backfires when their elopement is met with abject disappointment by the girl’s parents (Dame May Whitty and Sir Cedric Hardwicke), particularly, Lina’s father, Gen. McLaidlaw, who, having wisely pegged Johnny as a fortune hunter, disowns her outright to prevent an abuse of the family’s wealth and later, compounds this insult, by bequeathing to his daughter a pair of antique chairs and portrait of himself to hang in their living room – chronic reminders of the wealth of privilege Johnnie can never possess.
In the novel, Aysgarth recognizes he has boxed himself into a corner; trapped in a loveless marriage to this wallflower he can barely stand, and, thereafter entering into a plot to slowly poison his new bride to collect on a high-priced insurance policy made out in her name. Alas, this plan too is foiled as Lina, realizing what a fool she has been, but still unable to surrender her genuine love for Johnnie, allows him this murder most fowl, but not before writing a confession to her mother, both of her feelings and the crime. Dripping with kismet, she asks her husband to mail this incriminating correspondence before drinking the lethally tainted glass Johnnie has brought to her bedchamber as a nightcap. Unaware of what the letter contains, the novel concludes with a blissful Aysgarth dropping it into the slot of his local post office box, quite unaware he has just sealed his own fate. Too bad, none of these entanglements would be allowed into the movie; Joseph Breen, then head of Hollywood’s code of self-governing censorship, insisting a murderer could not go unpunished even if the implication remained justice would eventually be served.  Besides, the debonair Cary Grant could not be taken seriously as a killer…or could he?
Grant is in rare form as Aysgarth. Interestingly, it was in Hitchcock’s movies in general – and this one in particular – that Cary Grant ably illustrated a far darker side to his masculine beauty never even hinted at – much less explored – throughout the rest of his illustrious movie career. Outside of the milieu of a Hitchcock suspense/thriller, Cary Grant remained that Teflon-coated paragon, the suave and sophisticated bon vivant; elegant, with an oft’ deliciously glib and good-humored charm; the epitome of Hollywood’s iconic leading man.  Grant was, of course, all of these things in life, and yet, knowing what we do of his humble and rather harsh beginnings in life; his wounded sense of pride hidden beneath an unflappably dapper façade, it is the anti-heroic traits that seem to possess and take over his performances in Hitchcock’s thrillers. Grant’s Johnnie is, to put it mildly, a bastard; full of himself and secure in the knowledge he is cock of the walk; a greedy deceiver, caught in deceptions from which only the act of murder can provide him with the inevitable escape.
On the surface, and, at least at the beginning of Suspicion, Johnnie Aysgarth’s bold squiring of Lina McLaidlaw positively reeks of the old Cary Grant charisma; especially, the moment when we first glimpse Aysgarth atop an isolated and windy hill, rather violently wrestling with his somewhat frantic and thoroughly frightened paramour; the frenzy suddenly diffused by Grant’s bizarrely magnetic insistence Johnnie is only amusing himself at Lina’s terrific expense; placating her anxiety by rearranging her hair into a ridiculous nub. And how easily Joan Fontaine’s naïve and shrinking violet falls for this ploy; allowing herself to be forcibly ushered around the dance floor a short while later in defiance of her father’s wishes, and, just as easily hurried away into a waiting car for a midnight rendezvous and elopement to break the General’s already withering heart. No, Grant’s Johnnie is a courtly bully; a verbal – if not physical abuser – as he goads and threatens his submissive wife to mind her own business while they ascend the stairs of their fashionable Georgian-styled country house.
In Suspicion’s second act, we get confirmation of who and what the real Johnnie Aysgarth is; the mood decidedly more ill-omened with the introduction of congenial Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce); an old colleague who suffers from a rare hereditary and life-threatening allergy to brandy. In Frances Iles’ novel, Thwaite is very much a con on Johnnie’s level and less of a friend. Hitchcock’s decision to cast the affable Nigel Bruce in the part is inspired. Bruce, who achieved everlasting fame as the chronically befuddled Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, herein, gives us another variation of that upper crust sidekick; only this time, in a very lopsided friendship. Through Hitchcock’s brilliantly conceived game of Scrabble, we learn in tandem with Lina the likely fate awaiting Beaky Thwaite; how Johnnie is to do away with his ‘old friend’ (by pushing him off a cliff) once he has managed to secure the necessary moneys for a bogus land development deal. The game, solitarily played by Lina as she half-listens in on the conversation her husband is having with Beaky, climaxes with the haunting realization the letters at her disposable can only spell one word - ‘murder’.
Studio memos do not denote clearly when Hitchcock knew his hopes to shoot an end closely paralleling the novel were derailed, but his ambitions to reveal Grant’s alter-ego as a cold-blooded killer remained on high alert right up until the penultimate ‘car ride’; even then, Hitchcock presenting this terrifying moment from Lina’s mistrustful, but as it turns out, thoroughly misguided POV; juxtaposition shots of a wild-eyed Johnnie with the passenger side of his car veering dangerously close to the edge of a very steep ravine unprotected by guardrails; Lina’s door abruptly – and rather unaccountably – flying open as Johnnie, seemingly reaches to push his wife to her death.  At the last possible moment, both Hitchcock and Grant put on the brakes – literally and figuratively; Grant revealing Suspicion’s Achilles heel and biggest con of all: his Johnnie has only been toying – rather cruelly – with his wife’s overactive imagination and our own preconceptions about his moral character. He neither desires to be rid of Lina, nor has he been systematically plotting her demise ever since the reading of the General’s Will that deprived him of her luxurious fortune.
This ill-timed second to last contrition of Johnnie Aysgarth is a veritable slap in the face for anyone invested in the plot, anticipating no good coming from any ‘romance’ predicated on greed, misdirection and sham. Yet, as Johnny turns his roadster around to head for home at a far more reasonably clip, with Lina lazily resting her head upon his shoulder, she, presumably drained from that expenditure of fear and anxiety, the audience – unlike our perpetually forgiving heroine – remains at a distance and quite unable to breathe their own collective sigh of relief.  Forgiveness in the movies is a queer commodity. In the theater, an audience can forgive a star most anything, since after the curtain is brought down on the performance there is usually a call to reestablish the persons over the characters played within the context of the play. On screen, actors get no such reprieve; the line between character and star effectively blurred to a degree entirely dependent on his or her ability to draw the audience in and convince them of their flaws and foibles. Alas, Grant is far more convincing in Suspicion when he echoes the hallmarks of a malicious deceiver; the arresting calm of his suave good humor barely a mask to sheath the richness of Johnnie’s moral depravity lurking very close to the surface. The finale to Suspicion was hardly to Hitchcock’s liking. In fact, he would repeatedly express a profound dismay at not being able to shoot the novel finale with ‘minor’ if equally as grizzly, embellishments.            
Even before Hitchcock had come on board, screenwriter, Nathanael West, collaborating with Boris Ingster, had taken Frances Ilses’ novel to task. In just under seven weeks West, focusing on characterization and dialogue, and Ingster, toiling on the movie’s narrative structure, had a fairly faithful adaptation in script form to present to the Breen Office. But then Hitchcock was hired to direct it, electing to bring Raphaelson, Harrison, and his wife, Alma in to do rewrites. Their screenplay bore little – if any - earthly resemblance to the never produced West/Ingster contribution.  For obvious reasons, Johnnie Aysgarth’s ongoing marital infidelities with his wife’s ‘best friend’ could not be shown, nor even implied; ditto for the illegitimate child he supposedly sired with their upstairs maid, Ethel. The presumption Johnnie is a very gay dog, lacking in virtually every scruple known to man, is dispensed in a playful line of dialogue rattled off with atypical Cary Grant finesse, about Johnnie having ‘kissed’ hundreds of women. As in the novel, General McLaidlaw opposes his daughter's marriage. In the novel, Johnnie verbal goading of the General with the promise to steal away with his daughter, knowing the General is in ill health, results in hastening his fatal heart attack. In the film, this moment is replaced by mere insinuations made by Johnnie being better off if the old man suddenly died. Too bad wishing doesn’t make it so. And thus, Johnnie once again escapes concrete incrimination for his sins.
Even without Breen’s intervention on the project the powers that be at RKO had already decided Cary Grant was far too valuable an asset to sacrifice on the altar of any Hitchcock thriller; even one promising to be his greatest achievement to date. Grant’s star power aside, the studio wisely deduced ‘murder most foul’ could only be succinctly implied rather than graphically illustrated. Thus, a submersed battery-operated lightbulb inside a glass of milk – to add an ill-omened illumination – is about as threatening as Johnnie’s ‘intentions’ toward Lina get. Hitchcock is obviously inspired by German expressionism in this beautifully composed sequence; his cinematographer, Harry Stradling Sr. framing Grant’s Johnnie as he ascends the winding stairs of the darkened townhouse, a stark web-like shadow cast from the lead pane glass windows across the walls; the camera patiently advancing for a close-up of this eerily glowing liquid.
The blunting of Hitchcock’s masterpiece begins with the supremely executed moment, and ends with the now ridiculously tacked on ‘mistaken impressions’ of a mousy wife whose overactive imagination has run amuck.  Had things worked out in Hitchcock’s favor, Suspicion ought to have played out as a fascinating character study of murder as seen through the eyes of its victim. Alas, preserving Grant’s already cultivated ‘heroic’ screen persona ultimately sacrifices the movie’s potency as a thriller in totem instead. And Hitchcock, unwilling to break with his original plan until this very end, irrevocably wounds Grant’s performance even further, as there seems to be no balance or even subtly to Johnnie’s ‘conversion’ from presumed disreputable scamp and schemer into a lovingly mistaken spouse who adores and endeavors to prevent his wife’s perilous leap from a moving vehicle.
Suspicion opens with the ‘cute meet’ aboard a train between irresponsible playboy, Johnnie Aysgarth and spinsterish, Lina McLaidlaw. He has seemingly ‘mislaid’ his ticket. In actually, Johnnie has virtually no money to pay for it. Slick and glib to a fault, Johnnie lures Lina into advancing him the money for his fare. She finds him impertinent – momentarily, that is, until she discovers his picture in the society column. Perhaps, Johnnie really is of her class. A short while later, Johnnie encourages his latest mark, Mrs. Barham (Violet Shelton) and her two eligible daughters, Jessie (Carol Curtis-Brown) and Alice (Faith Brooks) to invite Lina to accompany them to church. But Johnnie has ulterior motives, mysteriously whisking Lina away before she can enter the chapel; the two discovered on a hilltop, engaged in a violent tussle that ends when Johnnie suggests he only wanted to get to know Lina better. She engages him in some witty banter but remains provincial and reserved. After all, Johnnie has no job and no income. He habitually exists on the patronage of rich families, an enigmatic squire for their amiable daughters. Returning home, Lina overhears her father and mother lamenting the fact she is a wallflower and likely to remain so for the rest of her romantically uninspiring days. Wounded and staunchly determined to prove them wrong, Lina throws herself at Johnnie’s head – literally – engaging him in a passionate kiss.
After a period of absence in which Lina falls into a deep depression, Johnnie sends her a telegram – a ruse, actually, about being away on business in London. His return on the eve of a grand party given by the General at his club is cause for elation – at least, for Lina, but decided frustrates the General, who cannot abide Johnnie’s empty and virtue-less charm for a second. Nevertheless, Johnnie is welcomed into their social gathering by an ebullient Lina and flock of her eligible maiden friends. The night, however, belongs to Lina, whom Johnnie wastes no time in isolating; hurrying her into his waiting car, and finally, back to the Laidlaw’s manor where he proposes an immediate elopement. Fueled by her rapturous love for Johnnie, but also torn in her devotion to her parents, Lina makes the painful decision to secretly running off with Johnnie. The two are married at an out of the way vicarage. Lina talks Johnnie into getting a job with his cousin; estate agent, Captain Melbeck (Leo G. Carroll). For a time, all seems perfectly serene – despite the estrangement from her parents. A short while later, Lina is introduced to Johnnie’s happy-go-lucky friend, Beaky Thwaite, who informs her Johnnie has not been hard at work these many months but actually playing the ponies – rather badly, in fact – piling up a slew of racing debts. Lina also realizes Johnnie has sold the two museum piece chairs given them by the General as a belated reconciliation/wedding present to maintain their lavish lifestyle. But the biggest blow of all comes when Melbeck tells Lina he has had to fire Johnnie after catching him embezzling funds from his estate management firm. Melbeck agrees not to press charges if the money is repaid in a timely manner.
Lina is mortified, but Beaky remains unruffled, perhaps, even mildly amused. After all, this is vintage Johnnie Aysgarth - the elegant con. Lina continues to believe Johnnie is doing all of these terrible things secretly to maintain her happiness.  Nevertheless, as time and circumstances wear on, Johnnie’s lies begin to wear on Lina’s good nature. While Johnnie is out, Lina attempts to muster the necessary resolve to write him a letter of farewell. Alas, she loves Johnnie far too much to abandon him now. Upon her father’s death, Lina can clearly see Johnnie is disappointed no inheritance is forthcoming, save a self-portrait bequeathed in the General’s will.  Having burned many bridges, Johnnie now cajoles Beaky into financing a speculative land development deal. Beaky suffers from a hereditary allergy to brandy and nearly suffocates to death on their terrace while discussing the prospects. A short while later Beaky agrees to accompany Johnnie to London – then Paris – to finalize the particulars of their newly formed venture. But Lina begins to fear for even Beaky’s safety; a game of Scrabble, in which she puts together the letters that suddenly spell ‘murder’, cause her to faint. Not long thereafter, news reaches Lina via Scotland Yard’s Inspector Hodgson (Lumsden Hare) that Beaky Thwaite has mysteriously died in Paris. Johnnie insists he left Beaky in London to cover the last length of their journey alone while he attended to loose ends. Lina now begins to suspect Johnnie is responsible for Beaky’s murder.
Furthermore, Lina speculates Johnnie is plotting to off her as well, merely to cash in on a sizable life insurance policy. Her fears are exacerbated during a party at the home of mutual friend, mystery authoress, Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee); their casual discussion morphing into a tangibly portentous debate on how to commit the perfect murder using virtually untraceable poisons. Always in search of ways to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the production code, Hitchcock embellishes this intellectual debate with an air of lesbianism; the mannish party guest, Phyllis Swinghurst (Nondas Metcalf), frequently referred to as ‘Phil’ by the hostess, flanked on the other side by her rather effete egghead of a brother, Bertram (Gavin Gordon). That evening, Johnnie brings Lina a glass of warm milk as a nightcap, presumably, to calm her nerves. She is too afraid to drink it, however, and later informs Johnnie she needs a few days rest at her mother’s to settle down and reconsider their marriage. Johnny is incensed, seemingly for no good reason. But he elects to drive Lina to her mother’s, taking a perilous backroad in his Lagonda LG35 convertible. Recklessly speeding, Lina’s anxiety gets the better of her. She screams; her passenger door flung open near a steep precipice; Johnnie’s hands leaving the steering wheel to either push her out or save her from plummeting to her death?
In the penultimate reveal, Johnnie comforts his wife with an uncharacteristic and highly improbable confession; he was planning suicide after dropping her off. Only now Johnnie seems to have come around; matured, in fact. He is determined to face his responsibilities – even if he has to go to jail for embezzlement. He did not accompany Beaky to Paris but, in fact, was desperately trying to borrow against Lina’s life insurance policy in Liverpool at the time of Beaky’s death in order to pay Melbeck back. Lina takes Johnny’s confession at face value. He loves her and has never had anything except her best interests at heart. Secure in his contrition, Lina elects to go home with Johnnie instead.
If not for this far too neat and tidy finale, Suspicion might have survived as one of Hitchcock’s most gripping thrillers. Undeniably, it possesses some exquisite moments of suspense; the sudden vanishing act committed by Lina and Johnnie on their way to church; the aforementioned glowing glass of milk and Scrabble game to foreshadow what ought to have been Lina’s astutely surmised premonition regarding Beaky’s fate; these are moments imbued with Hitchcock’s verve and flair for ‘pure cinema’. While Joan Fontaine’s performance is hardly Oscar-worthy, in fact, paling considerably to her superior turn in Rebecca, it nevertheless remains credible and compelling. The Oscar snub must therefore go to Cary Grant, not even nominated for his deliciously devious Johnnie Aysgarth. There are two great tragedies in life – not getting what you want, and getting what you want. Grant wanted to be a movie star. By 1941, his status as a bona fide leading man to some extent tainted his reputation with the critics who thought him a featherweight talent at best; undeniably good to look at, but too much ‘the personality’ to ever entirely disappear into a part. I disagree. The diversity of Grant’s formidable array of talents, his genius to convey a suave sophistication with an underlay of dark misgivings, are readily on display in Suspicion; later, even more deeply probed in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946); then, somewhat distilled in To Catch a Thief (1955), before being entirely watered down for Hitchcock’s most escapist male fantasy – North By Northwest (1959). Viewed today, Suspicion is decidedly second-tier Hitchcock, which is better than almost first-tier anybody else. The ending continues to disappoint, but the particulars throughout the story hold up, as do the vignettes that continue to sparkle with Hitchcock’s verve for suspenseful black humor. 
Suspicion gets its North American debut via the Warner Archive (WAC) and wow, it is quite the improvement on the IVC release presently being peddled in Japan in a region free offering no less. Where the IVC edition marginally improved on image tightness, clarity and grain structure, this WAC release takes a quantum stride forward in virtually all of the aforementioned categories and is, without question, the preferred Blu-ray. We are seeing detail here never before unearthed on home video in any format; herring bone and other fabrics looking so genuine at times, they seem almost tangible to the touch. Suspicion exhibits a flawless 1080p rendering surely not to disappoint. I could not be more pleased. You are going to love – LOVE – this disc. It’s that simple.  Warner’s DTS audio bests the IVC PCM by eradicating the subtle hiss and pops amplified on the aforementioned release. Better still, Warner has blessed us with the same featurette that accompanied their ole DVD release, along with the original theatrical trailer.  Bottom line: a must own disc to add to your shelves of a fairly solid second-tier Hitchcock masterpiece. Very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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