Saturday, April 30, 2011

Strangers in Love

I could not have asked for a better venue to view Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Knowing the American Film Institute is conducting a year-long retrospective of Hitchcock films, I traveled up to the AFI theater just outside Washington, D.C. and basked beneath its gilded ceiling. It is a beautiful facility. The old-time music piped through the sound-system and the grandiose, yesteryear style of the décor in the place make it perfect for the old black and whites.

So far was my experience from the usual megaplex, shopping mall variety that accompanies movie-going these days, I probably would have enjoyed anything projected on the screen in front of me that night. Fortunately, I did not have to struggle to find brilliance in some forgotten B-movie. Suspicion made for excellent Friday fare, even if I knew little about the movie before staking my entire night on its quality.

In this, I do not think I am alone. I am increasingly aware that there are quite a lot of Hitchcock films nobody seems to know anything about.

Partly, this is because the little boy who was afraid of the dark and then grew up into a rotund master of thrillers made 53 films. Hitchcock’s career spanned nearly six decades, and in that time, transitioned from silent films to “talkies” and from black and white images to color. And while it would be foolish to claim his legendary filmography contains unearthed “gems,” (because doesn’t everyone know about Hitchcock?), I do think it is safe to say his later work eclipsed many of his earlier, more character-driven pieces in terms of notoriety.

Suspicion fits nicely into the underappreciated cart.

Released in 1941, the film is shot in black and white and has virtually no special effects. The plot shuns external threats – such as giant robots or other people with firearms – in favor of following the odd courtship and even more bizarre marriage between Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. Grant is depicted as a lazy heel that shuns work and is forever borrowing money to maintain his lavish lifestyle, while Fontaine is an icy and overtly neurotic woman who was destined to become a spinster had she not met her eventual husband.

An unlikely couple meets on a train
Taken together, the two have little in common, beyond the fact they are attracted to one another and oddly balance out each other’s eccentricities. The essential drama in the picture revolves around whether or not it is possible for the couple to truly know their partner. Grant and Fontaine’s courtship is accidental and it quickly resolves itself in marriage before either they or the audience quite understand the gravity of what is occurring.

For the rest of the film, Grant attempts to conform to what he erroneously believes his wife wants while she neurotically obsesses about whether her husband is a criminal interested in killing her for her share of the family inheritance. Along the way, we learn that Grant is both a liar and a thief, but by the end of the picture, we are no closer to understanding the full truth about his intentions than his suspicious – and potentially disturbed – wife.

Part of this brilliant ambiguity lies in the film’s problematic production.

Hitchcock famously complained about how producer David O. Selznick meddled with Suspicion to Francois Truffaut. Essentially, Selznick forced Hitch to scrap an ending in which Grant was in fact a murderer and his wife bizarrely allows herself to be killed. Selznick believed nobody would buy an actor as debonair and charming Grant was a murderer – and he was right. The original ending, which stuck closer to the source material contained in the novel Before the Fact, bombed with test audiences, and thus Hitchcock’s exploration of the charming sociopath never materialized.

For the record, Truffaut also pointed out to Hitchcock that he was wrong about the ending, arguing that the film’s compromised screenplay is better than the novel because it is “less farfetched” and allows for far more “subtler nuances in the characterizations.” However, none of the three luminaries anticipated the response the 2011 audience I was a part of experienced.

Put simply, as the lights came up in the AFI Theater, none of us knew what to make of the movie’s conclusion, and the general consensus I overhead was that the film’s ending was intentionally ambiguous: That is, like Fontaine’s character, the audience is put in the position of choosing whether the self-confessed liar – Cary Grant – was telling the truth about whether he really was capable of murder. This, of course, is not what the filmmakers intended.

A doting husband with a milk? Or a murderer with Poison?
In terms of the script and its intentions, Grant is telling the truth at the end of the picture. He is not a murderer, and his wife’s suspicion is just that – suspicion. Per this reading of the film, Fontaine is a horribly neurotic character, plucked straight from the Victorian stories Hitchcock devoured as a child. Like the disturbed and unreliable female narrator in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Fontaine becomes unhinged by her own imagination and a complete lack of self-confidence. Unable to cope with and respond to reality as it actually is (her husband is a liar and a thief), she creates a much more horrible one (her husband is a murderer out to get her).

She does this, in part, because she is incapable of responding to the more prosaic truth. Overtly demure and largely passive, she functions in the film as a kind of female version of Hamlet, in that she is unable to process new information she learns about Grant and then act decisively. As is the case with the Danish Prince, this builds a palpable frustration among the audience, many of whom quietly yearn for her to cast out her wayward husband. However, such a positive act is clearly beyond Fontaine, who throughout the film acts only reactively. Indeed, she is uninterested in Grant’s courtship until she overhears her parents speculating that she will become a spinster. In response, she immediately kisses Grant, and within the next half hour of film, elopes and marries him.

The problem with viewing Fontaine’s subsequent suspicions as inaccurate is that the audience is given so much reason to believe her feelings are correct. Grant is revealed to be a fairly awful husband, as he is immature, possesses no work ethnic and at times seems unconcerned with his wife’s feelings. Worse still, Fontaine learns he is a perpetual liar, capable of cheating to acquire more money.

But does all this make him a murderer?

As the film progresses, the circumstantial evidence against Grant mounts, but at the same time, Fontaine’s reliability increasingly deteriorates. In one crucial scene, while she is playing a word game that resembles Scrabble, her subconscious directs her fingers to spell out the word “murder” in the presence of her husband and his best friend. From there, her mind easily leaps to a dream/fantasy of Grant pushing his friend from a nearby cliff. When it is subsequently revealed Grant did not kill his friend, Fontaine is overjoyed – but her suspicions return almost immediately with a new and more elaborate scheme (her own poisoning).

All of this is clearer to the audience upon the film’s completion.

During the movie's gradual progress (choosing a waltz as its theme is no accident), the audience is entirely in Fontaine’s sway and we believe what she believes, which is precisely what Hitch intended. That she is wrong at the picture’s conclusion makes us all her unwilling confederates. This is clever, but I think it obscures a deeper, and perhaps more disturbing, commentary on the two protagonists.

Throughout the film, the couple’s love for each other continually blinds them. The end result is that Hitchcock seems to be saying that no matter how much time two people spend together and no matter how close they become, they will never fully understand the inner psychological workings of the other person, even if they are man and wife. 

Will he or won't he?
How else can we explain that a woman could believe her husband is a murderer when everyone else around her does not?

This, I believe, is the overall theme one can take away from a film that teases the audience with delightful confusion and unimagined surprises: In matters of the mind, we largely remain strangers to one another, no matter how much in love we are. In that regard, the question about Grant’s true nature is as much as a litmus test for the audience memebers as anything else. Either you believe a woman could be that wrong about her husband or she knows him better than anyone else does. The choice is yours…

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