The Woman Who Knew Too Little in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”

Released 75 years ago, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), his fourth film to be made in the United States, was a departure from his previous films. Unlike The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), or The Lady Vanishes (1938), Suspicion eschews the globetrotting and spying that made those films so exhilarating. It’s an intimate affair, a chamber drama (or chamber suspense film) primarily led by Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, only occasionally breached by other supporting actors. Hitchcock had rarely worked on such a minimal scale before; even in Rebecca (1940); the mansion Manderlay was practically its own character. The isolation of Grant and Fontaine’s marriage is suffocating and without precedent in Hitchcock’s filmography. Though flawed due to Production Code restrictions, Suspicion remains one of Hitchcock’s most fascinating experiments.

Joan Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, a woman presumably more interested in books than men (a woman wearing glasses in a film from the 1940s is never very interested in men). While on a train, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) joins her in her first class compartment, only to be confronted about his third class ticket by a steward. Lina assumes he must be a bum – until she sees his picture in a magazine and realizes he’s a high society playboy. The scene expertly sets up Johnnie’s central conflict: he’s grown accustomed to the luxuries that accompany wealth, but has none of the wealth necessary to sustain them.

Johnnie and Lina’s courtship is swift and seemingly romantic. Cary Grant, perhaps the most charming actor of all time, leaves no scene without at least one dimpled smile. Even Lina’s crass nickname, “Monkeyface,” sounds affectionate when he uses it. But the film also alerts us that all may not be right with Johnnie. When he first embraces Lina on a picturesque cliff, it looks more like he’s about to shove her off than hug her. . .

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