So much has been written about Suspicion, and every Hitchcock film, that it is hard to know what to say about it. The one thing that comes to mind is that it sets itself apart from other films of the ’40s as an early successful example of subjective filmmaking. In the ’60s, Roman Polanski would experiment with subjective filmmaking by having Catherine Deneuve appear in every scene Repulsion (1965), and capturing Mia Farrow in practically each frame of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and telling the stories completely from their perspective. With Suspicion, Hitchcock was experimenting in this direction more than two decades earlier. It is recorded that the director did not like the title Suspicion, which he found lurid, but the studio forced it on him. Hitchcock preferred the title Johnnie, which would have made this a character study of Cary Grant’s character, a directionless playboy with few ambitions other than marrying into a rich family. However, this is a story told almost entirely from the perspective of Joan Fontaine’s character, Lina, who is swept off her feet by Johnnie and promptly marries him, only to begin suspecting that he wants to kill her for her inheritance.
Throughout his career Hitchcock delighted in setting up a narrative structure or establishing sympathies with a certain character, only to turn around and break his own rules. An example of this can be found in Rear Window (1954), when James Stewart’s character, who is the prism through which all of the information in the film is filtered, falls asleep and the audience, but not Stewart, sees the suspected killer carry his suitcase out into the night. This is an intentional exception to the narrative perspective, which give the audience additional information in a ploy to heighten suspense. The exceptions in Suspicion in are few and early. The opening scene, one of the most famous in cinema history, begins in complete darkness, as Johnnie bumps into Lina’s leg in a train compartment darkened by passing through a tunnel. Thus the film begins with the very beginning of their relationship, with Johnnie, who has his back turned to Lina, coming into her sight for the first time. When Johnnie arrives unexpectedly to take Lina to church, she runs to get her hat and coat, and Johnnie, and the audience, see that Lina has clipped a photo of Johnnie from her newspaper and put it into her book, letting us and Johnnie know that Lina is interested in him, though she remains blissfully unaware of the fact. This puts Johnnie at an advantage as he tries to heighten her interest by playing hard to get. One of the most famous sequences in the film comes around one hour in, as Lina, Johnnie, and Johnnie’s old friend Beaky are playing a Scrabble-like game called “Anagrams.” While Beaky searches for the letters he needs to make “murderer,” Lina imagines that her husband is plotting to kill his friend and business partner in order to claim his assets, and Hitchcock shows us exactly what she is thinking in an exaggerated process shot showing Beaky flailing his arms and screaming while on an obviously separate piece of film, the side of a cliff zipped by. Realism was not what Hitchcock was after here, but rather the impression the shot made on viewers as a way to convey Lina’s state of mind.
Hitchcock also does an interesting experiment with expressionistic lighting in this film in order to reflect Lina’s mental state. The house, which is so brightly lit when the newlyweds first enter it, gradually becomes a trap for Lina. Later, the moody lighting casts the shadows of the stairway railings, suggesting Lina is trapped behind bars.
Unfortunately, this masterful film is deeply marred by an awkward, almost nonsensical ending, which the studio, fearing ruining Cary Grant’s screen persona by having him play a real murderer, forced on Hitchcock. It turns out that all of Lina’s suspicions were unfounded, and they go to live happily ever after, despite the fact that Johnnie is at best a thief and a liar. Hitchcock’s planned ending involved Lina allowing the man she loved so dearly to kill here, followed by a guilty but carefree Johnnie whistling as he mailed a letter Lina had written to her mother which would surely convict him. Hitchcock’s cameo in the film shows the director dropping an envelope in a letterbox in the village, indicating that perhaps he was still entertaining the idea of his own ending during filming. Of course, we can only imagine how much better the film would have been had Hitchcock been allowed to make this ending.