SUSPICION - DVD review

...a middle-tier Hitchcock product, not really as suspenseful as it should be and never as romantic or humorous as it could be.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Part of Hitchcock's genius is that he could make motion pictures where something so benign as a glass of milk could turn into a dark and sinister threat.

"Suspicion," from 1941, is just such an Alfred Hitchcock picture, beautiful people in a beautiful setting suddenly and quite alarmingly becoming malign and menacing. It is what the director was known for and what he usually delivered.

One of the most salient features of "Suspicion" is that it begins as what appears to be a light romantic comedy and then gradually becomes a typical Hitchcockian noir mystery, full of diabolical possibilities. The transition, however, is both an advantage and a liability. The advantage is to have Hitchcock at his wry best; the liability is that the shift from purely romantic humor to serious thriller is quite a big leap, gradual or not, to go down easily with an audience.

Then, there are the stars. They are actors with whom Hitchcock had worked with before or would work with again, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, and Nigel Bruce. Hitchcock is said to have chosen Grant because he wanted someone in the lead role who could be romantic, comedic, and serious at the same time, and the director felt Grant possessed all three qualities. People today tend to underestimate Grant's breadth of talent; as we'll see, the man almost pulls it off. It was Grant's first film with Hitch, and the star would go on to make other films with him, "Notorious," "To Catch a Thief," and "North By Northwest." Fontaine, on the other hand, had co-starred in Hitchcock's "Rebecca" the year before, and the director liked her style, her portrayal of strength and vulnerability. Nigel Bruce had also been in "Rebecca" and was a perennial favorite at playing the bumbling best friend.

Here's the setup: Grant plays a charming socialite rogue, Johnnie Aysgarth, a near-do-well playboy bachelor with not a penny to his name, who romances a supposedly wealthy, upstanding, but somewhat stolid young lady, Lina McLaidlaw, played by Fontaine. She determines to marry him despite or perhaps because of his roguish charm; and he marries her for...what? Love? Or money?

It is only after the honeymoon that Johnnie reveals to Lina that he's dead broke, and the thought of going to work for a living horrifies him. As the story progresses, Lina begins to grow more suspicious about Johnnie's intentions. She discovers he's a liar, a gambler, a con artist, and a conniver. Could he also be a potential murderer? She does have a large insurance policy, and....

The problem for the audience is accepting the possibility that Cary Grant, the always delightful big-time movie star, could ever, in a hundred years, actually play a murderer. But Hitchcock counts on that misgiving, too, knowing the audience will not be willing to accept a murderous Grant but leaving them every moment to wonder if Hitch really would pull the big switch. So, is the loveable, larcenous Grant character really capable of the dirty deed? Early on while Johnnie and Lina are playfully tussling near a cliff, Lina pulls away sharply, and Johnnie asks, "What did you think I was trying to do, kill you?" It's one of our first hints of things to come, one of the first seeds of doubt.

Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood to make "Rebecca" in 1940, but his heart was still in England, setting both "Rebecca" and "Suspicion" there. And not only England, but an idealized English countryside where everyone lives in a manor house with butlers and cooks and maids, and everyone rides to hounds, attends fancy dress balls, drives Rolls Royces, and uses phrases like "I say, old man," "old boy," "old chap," "old bean." I suspect Hitchcock liked the Agatha Christie-type drawing-room murder mystery more than he let on, and in "Suspicion" there is even a lady mystery writer as a secondary character.

Interestingly, too, Hitchcock was always testing the limits of the motion-picture code, the censorship laws of the day, in "Suspicion" having the unmarried, female mystery writer show up for dinner with the Aysgarths one evening with a female companion who wears a mannish haircut and is dressed in the suit and tie of a man. No mention is ever made of who this companion is or why she is even in the film; she has no part in the plot, but it's clearly hinted she may be the mystery writer's lover. She was apparently in the original novel, "Before the Fact," by Francis Iles, and using her in the movie appears to have been Hitchcock's way of seeing how much he could get away with. He got away with it, all right, just as he got away with putting a toilet in "Psycho." Up until "Psycho" in 1960, you know, American movies had never shown a toilet before; ironically, the censors had little trouble allowing the violence in "Psycho" but objected to the toilet. Hitchcock left it in, and no one said anything more.

Anyway, "Suspicion" is something of a middle-tier Hitchcock product, not really as suspenseful as it should be and never as romantic or humorous as it could be. But it does show off the range of Cary Grant's acting ability, allowing him in several scenes to create a character quite a bit more frightening than we had ever seen him before. Even middle-of-the-road Hitchcock can be intriguing.

Video:
Film historian Robert Osborne mentions in the movie's accompanying documentary that one of the few values of Ted Turner's misguided attempt to colorize black-and-white movies some years ago was that in order to do so, he had to first clean up the original print. "Suspicion" was one of those films that underwent colorization and, thus, whose B&W print was initially touched up by the Warner Bros. engineers. As a result, we have here a very good black-and-white copy of the movie, with little or no sign of age, good definition, good detail, and reasonably good black-and-white contrasts. A check of the bit rate indicates that WB transferred the 1.33:1-ratio film to disc with as little compression as possible, further facilitating a good outcome. Of course, it does not appear to be a frame-by-frame restoration, so there is some slight fading from time to time, and not every scene is as sharp as we'd probably like. But it's close enough and a pleasure to watch.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital reproduction of the film's 1.0 monaural soundtrack has two major assets: It's quiet, free of background noise, and it's smooth. Franz Waxman's musical score comes across unobtrusively, dialogue is easy to understand, and there is little of the hardness or nasality that sometimes accompanies old audio tracks. This is not to say the sound can compete with modern surround sonics, being deficient in dynamics and frequency range as well in the number of channels of information conveyed; but it is very easy to listen to, nevertheless.

Extras:
The primary bonus item on the disc is a new, 2004, making-of documentary, "Before the Fact: Suspicious Hitchcock." It is twenty-one minutes long, and in it a number of Hitchcock authorities comment on the director's craftsmanship in the film, among them Bill Krohn, author of "Hitchcock at Work"; film historians Richard Schickel and Robert Osborne; director and author Peter Bogdanovich; Hitch's daughter Pat; music historian Christopher Husted, and others. As usual with these things, a lot of information is packed into a short amount of space, making the documentary well worthwhile. In addition, there are thirty-one scene selections; a theatrical trailer, which shows us what the film might have looked like without the touching up; English as only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. No chapter insert came with my disc.

Parting Thoughts:
"Suspicion" was not one of Hitchcock's greatest accomplishments, but there is no doubt it is an entertaining piece of work. The characters are engaging; the pacing, though somewhat lightweight by Hitchcock standards, is involving; the Franz Waxman music is appropriate and never intrusive or annoying; and the plot is pure Hitchcock, a combination of humor, charm, and...well...suspicions. It's Hitchcock light, perhaps, but it will keep you guessing and second-guessing to the last minute.

Warner Bros. have made "Suspicion" available individually or in a big boxed set, "The Hitchcock Signature Collection," which also contains "Strangers on a Train," "The Wrong Man," "Stage Fright," "Dial M for Murder," "I Confess," "Foreign Correspondent," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," and "North By Northwest."

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
6
Extras
4
Film Value
7