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Suspicion:  The Trouble with Johnnie

October 2018

I suspect Suspicion committed artistic fraud, not through a happy Hollywood ending, but through erratic character motivations that ruin this 1941 film for me. The vastly altered non-murderous ending, whether it was foreseen or not by Director Hitchcock, retroactively mangled the psychological drivers of the main characters.

With a truly good story, any of several outcomes must be contemplated for the hero/heroine, villain/villainess without dramatically altering the development of those characters. Thus, the entire story line, not merely the ending, was problematic from the start for Suspicion.

The ending of a story must be very clear to the Writer from the very beginning of telling the tale. Auteur Alfred Hitchcock most likely knew of the mandatory Hollywood-ending. He therefore artistically needed to adjust the motivations of his characters in accordance with that ending. This work he chose to not do. And in not doing so, Auteur Hitchcock neglected to give this cinematic œuvre what Tolstoy described as a focus: “some place where all the rays meet or from which they issue.” 

That spotlight in Suspicion was not the glowing glass of milk!

Unfortunately for Hitchcock, and for the audience, this Hollywood flick lacked the unifying perspective that this masterful director drew for just about every other film that he concocted on his story-boards.

A fiction writer must be able to posit her villain in a heavenly ending as easily as placing him in hell, and not be forced to significantly change the characteristics of the character. The skillful writer instead slants the inclination of the protagonist — toward good or toward evil.

This balancing act is a conundrum that I’d insufficiently worked out during my initial creation (or invention) of Guillaume de Vallon in THE DAWN: lack of credible motivation.

I suspect the lack of credible motivation for the major players in Suspicion mars the film in ways that are now overlooked due to extravagant praise for its artistic elements. And the praise is profusely warranted. This black-and-white feature by RKO displays:

lustrous cinematography; double-entendre dialogue that must have pleased Cary Grant (and “Hitch”) to no end; wardrobing suitable only for the people who own the horses and the stable; set designs that can only exist in Hollywood of the Golden Era; and the filming location of Big Sur, California that magically mimics the glimmering, but potentially ghastly, chalky coastline of Sussex, Southern England.

The visual elements of any motion picture do not, however, tell the whole story.

For me, as a novelist, the hop-scotching motivations of the two primary characters, Lina McLaidlaw, the “victim” played with intense understatement by Joan Fontaine; and Johnnie Aysgarth, the charming rogue who can’t tell the truth even when he is telling the truth, a role almost over-acted by Cary Grant — that unevenness of those quintessential aspects of any plot line drives me to distraction.

These two characters waltz throughout the movie, but it is really a two-step they are doing. A waltz has more flow, an even flow, and a graceful movement, especially the Strauss waltz to which they ostensibly dance. Their two-step involves going in the same direction onto the same foot; the other foot closes the dance step. With Lina and Johnnie, they enact a monotonous rhythm in this cat-and-mouse game, indicating that director Hitchcock was being ham-stringed (by the Studio) about the fateful ending.

Because Suspicion lacks the single “vision,” or single point of view, the lens is sometimes seen through the mildly paranoid eyes of Lina; at other times the action is viewed through the more diabolical eyes of Johnnie. The audience cannot precisely ascertain which vision is accurate, and this viewer, in particular, is not sure that this resulting uncertainty was intentional on the part of Hitchcock.

The shifts in focus become confusing to watch; and even though the splendidly solid cast of supporting characters lend their stability of viewpoint, the tension remains. That tension might be termed “suspicion” but it lacks the depth and dimension of true outright suspicion.

As Lina myopically perceives a portion of the real Johnnie, he shifts to one side so that she has to re-focus her reading glasses, but never quite enough to see reality with pure clarity. This imbalance could have been fiendishly exploited with sheer delight by Hitchcock if he’d been granted the artistic freedom to allow the story to proceed logically from its boldly high-strung, on-edge beginning. Since that coherent flow did not occur, the superb acting of Fontaine and Grant compensates for a warped plot line.

The major gaffe with this screenplay began with the “experimental” novel by Anthony Berkeley who, for perhaps suspicious reasons, wrote the book as Francis Iles (and “île” means island in French). The writing was not quite a matter of GIGO but the screenwriters, Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, and the ever-steady Alma Reville, must have had a dilly of a time rendering believability and continuity to a story that basically is about a woman who knows her husband is going to kill her and yet she does not escape her fate!

Is Lina suicidal?

Does she use Johnnie as the weapon against herself?

Is Johnnie the more sympathetic character?

Although these two “individuals” are using each other, I find Lina the more reprehensible character, in moral terms. Replete with class, courtesy and conscience, she basically buys herself a husband. Johnnie Aysgarth, the darkly alluring card-cheater of nebulous family background, is frankly and smilingly a blackguard of notorious repute. He is, though, less of a user than Lina McLaidlaw, an only child who jumps into his arms (and presumably their nuptial bed) after she is labeled: spinster.

Johnnie is merely a handsome, well-dressed rogue sponging off of other handsome, well-dressed rogues flush with money in the 1920s of an England that abounded with aristocrats and estate owners riding to hounds. Lina, not the best card-shark, attempts to bluff her aging, over-protective parents with a con job of a marriage that fools no one. She betrays loving people. Johnnie betrays no one because no one loves him. That’s the trouble with Johnnie!

By the end of this movie, I highly doubt that the character of Johnnie Aynsgarth would have caused harm to himself, but, at the same time, I also highly doubt that he had enough motivational moxie to do harm to anyone else. His buffet-ticket would have been over, and he liked a lavish buffet and a sweetly opulent tea time. He depended almost slavishly upon image. Barristers (lawyers), constables, handcuffs and other hindrances would have given him the willies.

The more likely scenario for good ole’ Johnnie would have been to have married a wealthy widow who was about to kick off, inherit her money, and live the high life until World War II put an end to that luxury. This theme is highlighted to the hilt by Hitchcock in Shadow of a Doubt in 1943. This movie might have been Johnnie-cuts-loose in Santa Rosa, California. The waltz there is the Merry Widow Waltz.

There had occurred a lengthy search for the most apt title of this movie. Such a naming quandary is symptomatic of a lack of focus of the plot, as well as of the characters (who provide plot). My hunch, or suspicion, is that Alfred Hitchcock, who was first intrigued with this story from the experimental novel, sensed the lack of a pure focal point to this fiction.

The fuzziness impairs the plot, but this director was nonetheless able to create an aesthetic tour de force, a noir-ish film of textural magnificence through his mastery of camera techniques and thematic motifs that he would later use in future films, especially the ones with Cary Grant. The sumptuous visual artistry of Suspicion was also produced through the talents of technical experts: Cinematographer Harry Stradling, Film Editor William Hamilton, and Art Director Van Nest Polglase.

Suspicion remains an experimental movie, derived from an experimental novel. Hitchcock wanted to name this creation: Johnnie. His film, The Trouble with Harry, came later, but The Trouble with Johnnie is, indeed, this film. I have trouble believing it is really all about . . . Suspicion.