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Suspicion (film)

Suspicion (1941) is a romantic psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine as a married couple. It also stars Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, Isabel Jeans and Heather Angel.

It is based on Francis Iles' 1932 novel Before the Fact.

The novel: Outline of the plot

Before the Fact is the story of Lina, a "born victim". She is raised in the country in the early decades of the 20th century and, at 28, she is still a virgin and in danger of becoming an old spinster. She finds country life with her parents rather boring, and only lives for strangers that might be passing through or that have been invited by someone living in or near their village. When the novel opens, such a stranger has just arrived: 27 year-old Johnnie Aysgarth, from an impoverished family who are, as she is told, "of rotten stock". General McLaidlaw, Lina's father, is opposed to the marriage, and everyone seems to know that all that Johnnie is after is Lina's money.

In spite of these difficulties, Lina and Johnnie get married after only a short engagement. They go to Paris on their honeymoon, where they stay at the best hotels and dine at the best restaurants, and, on their return, move into an eight-bedroom house in London. Only six weeks later, Johnnie, who is jobless, admits to his wife that they have been living on borrowed money and that it has run out. Gradually, unwillingly, Lina takes charge of the couple's finances and suggests that Johnnie get a regular job. They leave the expensive house and move to the country in a part of Dorset where they do not know anybody. Reluctantly, Johnnie takes a job as the steward of a large estate of a Captain Melbeck.

As time goes by, Lina gradually learns that Johnnie is a crook. Apart from being a compulsive liar, he turns out to be a thief, a forger, an embezzler, an adulterer, and eventually, a murderer.

However, Lina's death will be Johnnie's first "real" murder. He goes to great lengths to conceive an undetectable murder. When Isobel Sedbusk, the author of detective stories, happens to spend the summer in their village, he associates with her and, on the pretext of discussing material for her new book, elicits a new method of murder from her: swallowing an alkali commonly used, but never suspected of being poisonous, and which leaves no trace in the human body for a post-mortem to find. At the very end of the novel, Lina, who really seems to have gone mad, catches the flu. She has been waiting for her husband to try to murder her for months now. When he brings her a drink, she swallows it deliberately, knowing that it is a poisonous cocktail. Johnny is going to get away with it ("People did die of influenza."), which is what Lina, so much in love with her husband, hopes will happen.

The West/Ingster Screenplay

In November 1939, Nathanael West was hired as a screenwriter by RKO Radio Pictures, where he collaborated with Boris Ingster on a film adaptation of the novel. The two men wrote the screenplay in seven weeks, with West focusing on characterization and dialogue as Ingster worked on the narrative structure. When RKO assigned Before the Fact to Hitchcock, he already had his own, substantially different, screenplay, credited to Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, and Alma Reville. (Harrison was Hitchcock's personal assistant, and Reville was Hitchcock's wife.) West and Ingster's screenplay was abandoned and never produced. The text of this screenplay can be found in the Library of America's edition of West's collected works.

The Hitchcock movie

In places, the screenplay of Suspicion faithfully follows the plot of the novel. There are, however, a number of major differences between the novel and its film version. For example, all references to Johnnie Aysgarth's infidelity were removed. In the first days of Johnnie's "courtship", while the couple are driving through the countryside in Lina's car ("Have you ever been kissed in a car?"), she asks him how many women he has had. Johnnie gives a humorous rather than a really evasive answer: He says that once, when he could not go to sleep, he started counting them, just like sheep jumping over a hedge, and he fell asleep at number 73. However, this, even back in the early 1940s, was accepted, or at least tolerated, male behaviour, especially of a man who was considered a playboy. Much is left open for the cinema-goer to decide: Did he actually sleep with any, some, or all of them? Or did he only kiss them? The crime of adultery, on the other hand, is altogether left out in the plot of the film: Lina's best friend does not appear at all, and Ella, their maid, certainly does not have an illegitimate son by Johnnie: Sex is not an issue.

Suspicion is one of the famous examples where, in the process of rewriting the novel for the big screen, the plot was tampered with to an extent that Iles's original intention was completely reversed. As William L. De Andrea states in his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994), Suspicion "was supposed to be the study of a murder as seen through the eyes of the eventual victim. However, because Cary Grant was to be the killer and Joan Fontaine the person killed, the studio — RKO — decreed a different ending, which Hitchcock supplied and then spent the rest of his life complaining about."

Hitchcock was quoted as saying that he was forced to alter the ending of the movie. He wanted an ending similar to the climax of the novel, but the studio, more concerned with Cary Grant's "heroic" image, insisted that it be changed. Writer Donald Spoto, in his biography of Hitchcock The Dark Side Of Genius, disputes Hitchcock's claim to have been overruled on the film's ending. Spoto claims that the first RKO treatment and memos between Hitchcock and the studio show that Hitchcock emphatically desired to make a film about a woman's fantasy life.

As in the novel, General McLaidlaw opposes his daughter's marriage to Johnnie Aysgarth. In both versions, Johnnie freely admits that he would not mind the General's death because he expects Lina to inherit quite a substantial fortune, which would solve their (i.e. his) financial problems. The book, however, is much darker, with Johnnie egging on the General to exert himself to the point where he collapses and dies. In the film, General McLaidlaw's death is only reported, and Johnnie is not involved at all. Again, Johnnie's criminal record remains incomplete.

There are several scenes in the film which create suspense and sow doubt as to Johnnie's intentions. At the end of the film, Johnnie is driving his wife at breakneck speed to her mother's. Suddenly, the door of their car flies open, and Lina is in danger of falling out and down the cliffs. Johnnie reaches towards her; is he trying to throw her out? It turns out that he saves her life, that he was just trying to close the door (which opened all by itself, or did it? Why did he not stop the car instead? Why was he driving so fast in the first place?). This scene, which takes place after her (final) illness, does not exist in the book.

The biggest difference is the ending: In Iles' novel, Johnnie serves his sick wife a drink which she knows is poisoned. Nevertheless she gulps it down. In the film, it can be seen untouched on the following morning. Instead, she expresses a wish to go back to her mother's. Johnnie insists on driving her and the highly unbelievable scene on the cliff road follows. When the car finally comes to a standstill, Johnnie persuaded Lina to return home: The final image, without words, is of their car turning around. What remains is Lina's (and the viewer's) constant fear that Johnnie might still be a killer. Another ending was considered but not used: in that ending, Lina is writing a letter to her mother stating that she fears Johnnie is going to poison her, at which point he walks in with the milk. She finishes the letter, seals and stamps an envelope, asks Johnnie to mail the letter, then drinks the milk. The final shot would have shown him leaving the house and dropping the letter which incriminates him into a mailbox.

As far as film language is concerned, a musical leitmotif is introduced in Suspicion. Whenever Lina is happy with Johnny - starting with a ball organised by General McLaidlaw -, we hear Johann Strauß´s waltz "Wiener Blut" in its original, light-hearted version. At one point, when she is suspicious of her husband, we hear a threatening, low-key version of the waltz, metamorphosing into the full and happy version after the suspense has been lifted. At another, Johnny is whistling the waltz. At yet another, while Johnny is serving the - obviously poisoned - drink of milk, a sad version of "Wiener Blut" is played again.

A visual threat - something that could not be done on the printed page either - is inserted when Lina suspects her husband of preparing to kill Beaky Thwaite: On the night before, at the Aysgarths' home, they play anagrams, and suddenly Beaky has the word 'Murder' on the table in front of him. Seeing the word, Lina imagines the cliffs Johnny and Beaky told her they would be going to on the next morning, and faints elegantly.

Featured cast

Actor Role
Joan Fontaine Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth
Cary Grant Johnnie Aysgarth
Cedric Hardwicke General McLaidlaw (as Sir Cedric Hardwicke)
Nigel Bruce Gordon Cochrane 'Beaky' Thwaite
Dame May Whitty Mrs. Martha McLaidlaw
Isabel Jeans Mrs. Newsham
Heather Angel Ethel (Maid)
Auriol Lee Isobel Sedbusk
Reginald Sheffield Reggie Wetherby
Leo G. Carroll Captain George Melbeck


The movie was adapted into a one-hour episode of CBS radio's Academy Award Theater with Cary Grant and Ann Todd.


  • Alfred Hitchcock cameo: Hitchcock's cameo is a signature occurrence in most of his films. In Suspicion he can be seen (45 minutes into the film) mailing a letter at the village postbox.


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