Thursday, April 24, 2008

Suspicion and the British Style

Alfred Hitchcock can be a difficult director to write about, because his name, themes and favorite obsessions are always larger than the individual films that make up his body of work. As with any large body of work, there are stronger and weaker works. "Suspicion", a 1941 suspense thriller starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, is a film that is easy to classify in that latter category. But, despite it's flaws, I would rank it closer to the former.

The plot revolves around a charming cad, Johnny, played by Cary Grant. He ends up getting married to young and innocent Joan Fontaine, but soon, mysterious things begin happening that give her a very bad feeling about him. Soon, she even becomes convinced that he is plotting to murder her for her inheritance, which she has ended up forfeiting as her father doesn't approve of Johnny.

What is remarkable about the film is not the plot, nor the performances, but the sheer style that Hitchcock brings to every frame. He was still working very much in what I see as his "British" style. There is a calm, almost lyrical pace to the film even in its more intense moments. He is still using his performers more as "types" than as real characters, which seemed to be the traditional approach in his British work. We see the remnants of his "British" stylistic sensibility in a number of his early films, certainly "Rebecca", most clearly in "Foreign Correspondent", and to a lesser degree in "Suspicion". The one exception may be "Mr. and Mrs. Smith", a thoroughly American screwball comedy that Hitchcock (supposedly) directed as a favor to Carole Lombard. However, this film, along with "The Trouble with Harry", perhaps gets closer than any other of his American films to what he was trying to do all along in Britain, which was to make comedies. Hitchcock's sense of humor is above all what marks his "British" style. I would argue that it was with "Saboteur" and "Shadow of a Doubt" in 1942 and 1943, respectively, that Hitchcock really moved fully into an "American style".

The ending of "Suspicion" also recalls the ending of Hitchcock's "The Lodger", in that the obviously guilty man is suddenly announced not to be the killer after all, not for any logical connection to the events that have preceded it in the plot, but because the studio felt that the public just didn't want to see lovable Cary Grant (like Ivor Novello in the earlier film) as a killer. This is the kind of studio-era interference out of which the auteur theory was born, because although such a forced ending could have ruined the film, Hitchcock makes it work, somehow, despite our senses telling us of the obvious incongruity of the ending compared with what has gone before.

"Suspicion" is a solid Hitchcock film, not one of his very best, but containing many of his favorite elements and handled with a clear style that enhances what would have been a fairly routine picture in other hands.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Oh, I love "Suspicion". Especially the milk-scene, only Hitchcock could have done that. I agree with you on what you say about the movie, that the plot is not the most important aspect of the film, the style is.