Just a little over a week back, I was paying tribute to a cinema personality who played a major role in defining Hindi film music in the 1950s and 60s: Roshan. 1917 was the year Roshan was born, and in the same year, also in Asia (in Tokyo), a few months later, was born a girl who was to go on to become one of the most prominent stars of British cinema as well as Hollywood. Joan Fontaine, award-winning actress, sister to Olivia de Havilland, licensed pilot, Cordon Bleu chef, rider, champion balloonist, licensed interior designer—and scorer of 160 on an infant IQ test.
Most importantly, though, a fine very actress, and one who starred in some memorable films, in memorable roles: Rebecca, Suspicion, Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe, This Above All… her characters were often, in keeping with Ms Fontaine’s features, women of genteel fragility. Sometimes, that fragility teetered over the edge into terror (Mrs de Winter’s character in Rebecca is a fine example of this) before pulling herself together and showing the steel in her.
Rebecca I have already reviewed on this blog, but to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of an actress I have liked since I was quite young, I decided to review another Joan Fontaine film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Like Rebecca, this one too is about a naïve young woman who ends up married to a man who is perhaps not all he had seemed to be at first glance. Joan Fontaine’s portrayal of Lina McLaidlaw won her her only Academy Award for Best Actress.
The film begins on a train, where Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) literally bumps into Lina. Lina is sitting all by herself, reading a book, when Aysgarth gets into the carriage and asks if he may sit there too: he’s spent the previous night in a carriage with someone who smoked cigars incessantly, and is in dire need of fresh air.
Lina, who seems rather reserved, says little, but tells Aysgarth he may sit. Aysgarth makes himself very comfortable indeed. When the ticket checker comes around some time later, it’s to discover that Aysgarth has a third class ticket. This is first class. Aysgarth will have to pay the difference. Aysgarth calmly admits he doesn’t have that much money on him, and then proceeds to—without batting an eyelid—borrow it from Lina. Lina is so bewildered by his presumption that she even gives it up to him.
They settle back into their respective seats, and Lina, leafing through a newspaper, comes across a photo of Aysgarth himself, posing at a hunt.
… and it is at a hunt that he sees her again a few days later. Lina is too busy trying to control her horse, but Aysgarth, who’s chatting with some women, notices her and asks about her. He’s told that Lina is an heiress, but so terribly shy. Despite that warning, Aysgarth persists: he wants to be introduced to her.
The opportunity to be introduced to Lina comes only later, when Aysgarth prevails upon a trio of ladies to accompany him to Lina’s, to invite her to come with them to church. Lina is a little taken aback to find her old acquaintance of the train turning up at her doorstep. She is however sufficiently intrigued by him to accept the invitation. Aysgarth succeeds, at the gate to the church, in whisking Lina off while the ladies they’re with go along inside.
Lina is somewhat swept away by Aysgarth’s attentions. She can’t seem to quite understand him: he teases her, he prods her hair and twists her (rather silly) little plait about, standing it up on top of her head. He calls her monkeyface, and generally treats her with a mix of playfulness and flirtation that confuses Lina.
When they finally get home, Lina invites Aysgarth to come on in, but before he does so, she happens to hear—through the open window—a conversation between her parents. General McLaidlaw (Cedric Hardwicke) is telling his wife (Dame May Whitty) that Lina seems destined to remain a spinster all her life. Mrs McLaidlaw agrees sadly.
And, outside the house, a hurt and humiliated Lina turns around, kisses Aysgarth on an impulse, and then, shocked by her own boldness, turns and runs inside the house.
The Lina-Aysgarth affair progresses swiftly. General McLaidlaw, unaware how Lina feels about Aysgarth (but aware that she had gone out with him) tells Lina that he’s a wastrel and one to be avoided. Lina does not try to refute this, though she looks uneasy.
Soon after, General McLaidlaw seems to have been proven right, after all: Lina receives a sudden and very hurried call from Aysgarth, who tells her that he has to leave town. He doesn’t say where he’s going or when (and if) he’ll be back, and hangs up before a distraught Lina can even begin to grasp what’s happened. She tries, frantically, to look for him: she searches for him in the telephone directory and calls, but to no avail. No letters arrive for her, and Lina is desperate enough to plead with the postmistress to check if any mail addressed to her has accidentally been put in another postbox…
An invitation arrives for the hunt ball, and Lina, heartsick, tells her mother—just before the McLaidlaws are about to leave for the ball—that she won’t go.
But then a telegram arrives, for Lina. It’s from Aysgarth, and he’ll be at the ball. In a jiffy, Lina is rushing about, picking out her best gown, excited as can be.
Aysgarth, true to form, gatecrashes the hunt ball (he’s not been invited, but pretends to be one of General McLaidlaw’s party).
Before the General knows what’s happening, Aysgarth sweeps past him, gathers Lina into his arms, spins her into the ongoing waltz, and making his way through the crowd, takes her outdoors and into her car. Lina is ecstatic in a breathless, bedazzled way, and in the headiness of the moment, she confesses to Aysgarth that she loves him. After a while (and having admitted that he’s never felt this way about any of the 73-odd women he’s kissed so far), Aysgarth too reciprocates.
Lina knows her father will never approve, so when Aysgarth proposes, she elopes with him. Theirs is the picture-perfect honeymoon: Naples, Venice, Paris… and when they come back to England, Lina is thrilled to find that Aysgarth has bought them a fine house, specially decorated by an accomplished interior designer. An efficient and cheerful maid named Ethel (Heather Angel) is already in place. Everything is perfect.
But, within moments, the first rift in the lute appears. Lina realizes (and Aysgarth admits it, readily enough) that her new husband has borrowed £1,000 to pay for all of this: the honeymoon, the grand house, the maid. Aysgarth seems utterly unperturbed and unable to understand Lina’s distress. He couldn’t possibly have expected Lina, who is so used to affluence, to live in squalor, could he? And this loan will get paid off. It always does.
Aysgarth’s nonchalance and his almost child-like naïveté melts Lina’s heart. She believes sincerely that her husband really cannot see how embarrassing and potentially dangerous this situation is. So she forgives him.
Then, shortly after, a message arrives from General McLaidlaw. He has forgiven his daughter and has decided to send them a gift, which will be arriving soon. Aysgarth speculates: what could it be? Money, almost certainly. That would be very useful indeed…
What arrives, however, is nothing like what Aysgarth expected. A pair of antique chairs! Lina is over the moon, and very touched: these are family heirlooms, and most precious. Aysgarth is bemused and, though he takes care not to show it to his delighted wife, peeved.
A couple of days later, Lina comes home to find a stranger at home. This man (Nigel Bruce) introduces himself as Gordon Thwaite, aka Beaky, and Lina immediately recognizes him even though she’s never met him before: he’s a very old, very dear friend of Aysgarth’s. She greets him warmly, and then—as she glances about the room—realizes that the two antique chairs are missing. Beaky, on finding out the reason for Lina’s anxiety, laughs. This is Aysgarth’s doing. He’s sold off the chairs.
Lina refuses to believe Beaky, but no: the fact of the matter is that Beaky turns out to be right. Aysgarth, coming in shortly after, admits (though after some initial hedging) that he did sell off the chairs. A wealthy American offered him £100 apiece for them. It was a great offer, and the cheque will probably be arriving shortly. What? Lina doesn’t like it?
No, Lina doesn’t like it, and Aysgarth cannot seem to understand why. Oh, he’s sorry, all right, but he can’t really see what the fuss is about.
Soon after, Lina’s faith in Aysgarth is further shaken. She has just met a mystery writer named Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee) whose books Aysgarth is very fond of. Lina is telling Isobel this when her gaze happens to travel to the shop window of a nearby antique furniture shop—and there are the two chairs her husband had told her he’d sold to an American. Lina is furious. He’s lied to her again.
Lina’s anger doesn’t last long, though, because Aysgarth comes home loaded with gifts—for Lina, primarily, but also for Beaky and Ethel, as well as himself. The truth behind this windfall surfaces soon enough: that £200 he’d got for the chairs (which he admits he sold to the shop; he can’t, after all, deny that now that Lina’s seen them) were given to a bookie. Aysgarth bet on a horse, and won £2000. Now isn’t that wonderful?
Aysgarth and Beaky cannot seem to understand why Lina is so upset. Aysgarth pleads with her, in a childishly cajoling way, and helped along by Beaky (who makes funny faces and quacks), succeeds in making Lina finally burst out laughing. She forgives Aysgarth; after all, he loves her so much…
And, after all, he does seem to be turning over a new leaf, doesn’t he? He’s already promised Lina that this is the last time he’ll ever have betted at the races. Plus, he’s got himself a job, working at a real estate agent’s, a firm that’s owned and run by his cousin, a Colonel Melbeck. He’s settling down, the reformed rake.
But is he, really? Because, as Lina discovers shortly after, it seems the leopard really can’t change its spots. And Johnnie Aysgarth’s gambling, or his selling off of Lina’s family heirlooms just in order to gamble, was only the start of it. Aysgarth is guilty of far worse, and may be guilty of even something that Lina, no matter how much she may be willing to forgive her husband, can’t stomach.
Suspicion is probably one of the most controversial of Hitchcock’s films, because of its ending. Much has been said about the alternate ending that was suggested, the preview ending that was decided against, as well as the ending we now finally see in the film, an ending which pretty much upturns the entire film and changes it from an interesting Rebecca-meets-The Shadow of a Doubt to something of a damp squib. It still remains, however, a good example of Hitchcock’s ability to build up, and depict, suspense.
What I liked about this film:
Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant as Lina and Johnnie Aysgarth, respectively. While there are several other characters, these two are the central ones, and they dominate the story. Lina McLaidlaw, from whose perspective the story is shown, is an interestingly three-dimensional character. Shy, yes, perhaps a little reserved, too, and a victim to a diminished sense of her own worth. Not, however, a doormat or as timid as the character Joan Fontaine played in Rebecca. Lina, when push comes to shove, is capable of standing up for herself, even against the man she has loved enough to marry despite her father’s wishes. It doesn’t mean her love for Johnnie changes overnight into hate, or that her love blinds her to all his faults: she is level-headed enough to be able to balance the two and see Johnnie for who he is—good, bad, and (eventually) possibly ugly as well?
And Joan Fontaine pulls it off brilliantly. The gradual change from the giddily in love new bride, to a woman upset and disappointed at discovering her idol has feet of clay, to a cynical woman who discovers one proof after another of just what her husband is capable of… she is very convincing, her acting excellent. And Cary Grant (so what if it was finally decided by the producers that the audiences wouldn’t accept Grant as a criminal) is really good with the sinister, somewhat mysterious air that takes over his more usual charming self.
The cinematography is stunning too. Hitchcock resorts to some fine extreme close-ups, as well as long dwelling on the faces of his characters, catching minor nuances of changing expressions (which is where you get to see just how fine an actress is Joan Fontaine):
And, there’s one scene which is so well filmed, the set so cleverly lit, that this has stayed in my memory since the first time I saw Suspicion, as a teenager.
What I didn’t like:
The ending. When I first watched Suspicion (as I mentioned before, when I was a teenager), I was perfectly happy with the way it ended. That was the way I wanted a Cary Grant film to end.
Now, an older and more mature me sees that the ending doesn’t really fit.
Major spoilers follow.
Yes, logically speaking, perhaps, everything can be seen to fit this ending. Asygarth’s quizzing of Isobel Sedbusk about poisons; his correspondence with the insurance agency regarding payments; his disgust at the fact that his father-in-law leaves Lina a measly sum in his will—all could well mean what the ending reveals: that Johnnie Aysgarth was so deep in debt and so desperate for money that he was willing to do anything, even to end his own life, to achieve it.
The problem is that the expressions don’t match up. All through the film, Grant is obviously working towards portraying a character unscrupulous enough to murder his own wife for the money it will get him. The things he says could be interpreted two ways, I suppose, but the expressions when he is alone, or when Lina’s not watching—they seem to me to reveal the truth, and that truth is an unsavoury one: this is really not a good ’un.
End of spoilers.
Which is why the end seems so tacked on, so uncharacteristic, so hard to believe. So obviously not what Hitchcock had planned. (For a short and insightful article on what the end was supposed to have been and why it was changed, click here).
Despite all of that, though, a good film. And Joan Fontaine is superb. Happy hundredth, Ms Fontaine!