Suspicion (1941): Hitchcock’s Oscar Winning Thriller, Starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in her Only Oscar-Winning Performance

The disappointingly neat and incongruent ending of Suspicion has led some critics to dismiss the whole movie as compromised and second-rate Hitchcock.  Yet, the movie is so skillfully helmed, so powerful in imagery (not just the glass of milk), so well acted, and so provocative in its thematic explorations that it ranks up there with the master’s good, if not superlative, masterpieces (“Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “Psycho”).

Thematically, “Suspicion” is noteworthy as a critique of two social institutions, middle-class marriage, and spectatorship with its implications about the passivity of moviegoers, perverse voyeurism, and desire to be entertained. The German director Fassbinder has called “Suspicion,” “the most drastic film against the bourgeois institution of marriage I know.”

Based on the novel by Frances Iles (pseudonym for Anthony Berkeley), “Before the Fact,” the screenplay was penned by Samson Raphaelson, Jason Harrison and Alma Reville.  It centers on a young couple, played by Cary Grant in an uncharacteristically menacing performance and Joan Fontaine in an Oscar-winning turn.  The supporting cast is like a roster of the Who’s Who of Hollywood’s English colony, including Dame May Whitty, Sire Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, and Leo G. Carroll.

After a whirlwind courtship, the rich and naïve Lina McLaidlaw marries the poor and irresponsible playboy Johnny Aysgarth.  When Lina suggests that Johnny get a job, he says, “Let’s be realistic. Do you know what the unemployment rate is” Johnny’s response to poverty is different: “If worse comes to worst, I’ll just have to borrow more money.”  In time, the bride begins to suspect that her husband is trying to murder her for her money.

The story is told entirely from Lina’s POV.  The first scene, after an all-black opening, is set on the train and is conveyed with subjectivity that’s maintained through the end.  Thus, “Suspicion” is a movie in which a young immature femme imposes a warped and distorted vision of reality on those around her.  Leading a dull life, nourished by romantic fantasies, she tells Johnny of her dream man. 

It’s impossible to deny the pleasure factor in watching the film, which demonstrates again Hitchcock’s masterful skills in intricately built-up suspense.  The movie contains several powerful images.  When Johnny first tries to kiss Lina, the wind blows the bare branches of the young tree nearby. The camera then cuts to a close-up of a purse quickly snapped shut, representing a Freudian image of sexual repression.

The “poisoning” sequence is the film’s most famous scene.  Mounting the stairs, the framework of the windows casts a huge shadow around him. Hitchcock put a light right inside the glass because he wanted it to be luminous.  As Johnny walks up the stairs, the attention is focused on that glass of milk. 

Her vivid fantasies, amateur psychology and yearning for excitement are reflected in the anagrams during the game-playing, when she changes letters of “mudder” to “murder” and “murderer.”  This association convinces Lina that her husband is planning to kill Beaky, his partner.

Clearly, her faulty vision needs to be corrected.  Lina’s glasses are emphasized in the film’s first part.  When first seen, she’s reading a text on child psychology.  Having been repressed by her parents, she seeks excitement and fantasies about the lives of other people.  Significantly, as Spoto pointed out, Lina removes her glasses at three key moments in the narrative: When Johnny first visits her home, when she sees his picture in a magazine, and when she receives a telegram saying he’ll arrive at the ball.

The source of Lina’s neurosis may be in her childhood.  Lina’s upbringing was over-protected by overly possessive parents.  Her father stipulated that he would bequeath her some money if she marries the “right” man, and afterwards, she inherits her father’s portrait, which dominates their new house, a reminder of the oppressive rule of patriarchy.

As noted earlier, “Suspicion” is a critique of marriage as represented by Lina’s parents’ dull marriage and by her fear of ending just like her mother.  While her mother knits, her father reads, and there’s little communication or interaction between them. Ironically, Lina’s fear of ending herself in such a marriage leads her to a playboy ne’er-do-well and explains her desire for excitement.  Each step along the way just feeds up more her imagination, which often defies sense, facts, and rationality.

He central characters are well constructed. The shy, dowdy daughter of rigid, proper parents, Lina is a prim, tight-lipped woman whose vision is faulty.  She will learn the error of seeing the world through the perspective of textbooks.  Lina’s vision of Johnny illuminates her need for maturation.  She’s weak, attracted to irresponsibility, suspicious but refuses to confide them to anyone.  She interprets all his words and deeds as threats upon her life.

Lina treats men as children or horses, a connotation with symbolic Freudian overtones.  Viewing him as immature, she says: “I’m just beginning to understand you, Johnny, You’re a baby.”  She also associates Johnny with the horse she controls in the next sequence, and the horse metaphor recurs when Johnny bets money on horses (and loses).


In contrast, Johnny Aysgarth is a prodigal, suave playboy, representing glamour freedom of a more reckless life.  Weak, deceitful, irresponsible, childish, he’s a pathological liar.  The scholar Robin Wood has claimed that ideologically, “Suspicion” neither endorses Johnny’s nor Lina’s values or approach to life.  While the text chastises the limitations of Lina’s inhibited, sheltered respectability, it also criticizes Johnny’s playboy’s responsibility.


Hitchcock was not pleased with the coda that was imposed on him, to say the least.  His original idea was for Johnny to bring Lina a glass of milk that’s been poisoned.  Lina had just finished a letter to her mother: “Dear mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer.  Though I’d rather die, I think society should be protected from him.”  Lina says, “Will you mail this letter to mother for me, dear She drinks the milk and dies.  Fade out and fade in on a short note, showing Johnny whistling cheerfully, walking over to the mailbox to drop the letter in.


The scholar Donald Spoto has observed that under studio pressures, Hitchcock was forced to make Cary Grant less villainous than the character was in the book.  By that time, Grant had an established image of a suave leading man, which presented obstacles for any major deviations. The studio decreed that no star of Grant’s magnitude would be allowed to play a murderer.


Thus, the new, fake ending suggests (unconvincingly) indicates that their relationship has been saved, and that Johnny should be able to overcome Lina’s dangerous fantasy life and take charge of building their nearly broken marriage, and restore mutual trust between them.


As played by Grant, there’s a hint of the crazed madman beneath Johnny’s joyous playfulness.  This is the first of several solid Grant appearances in Hitchcock’s movies, which would include “Notorious.” “To Catch a Thief,” and best of all, “North By Northwest.” 


Joan Fontaine, who was earlier cited by the N.Y. Film Critics Circle, won her first and only Best Actress Oscar after having been nominated the year before for another Hitchcock picture, “Rebecca,” opposite Lawrence Olivier.  Fontaine is the only performer (male or female) to win the lead actress in a Hitchcock movie; Ingrid Bergman was nominated in later Hitchcock films, but she did not win in any of them.

Hitchcock Cameo

Hitchcock’s signature cameo is seen midway (47 minutes into the film), mailing a letter at the village postbox (perhaps allusion to his preferred ending).


One of the film’s posters warned the audience: “Each time they kissed, there was the thrill of love…the threat of murder!”

Commercial Appeal:

The film, which cost about $1 million to make, was successful at the box-office, earning over $4 million.



Johnny Aysgarth (Cary Grant)

Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine)

General McLaidlaw (Cedric Hardwicke)

Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce)

Mrs. McLaidlaw (Dame May Whitty)

Mrs. Newsham (Isabel Jeans)

Ethel the Maid (Heather Angel)

Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol)

Reggie Wetherby (Reginald Sheffield)

Captain Melbeck (LeoG. Carroll)


Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Hitchcock and Harry E. Edington
Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, Alma Reville, based on
the 1932 novel, Before the Fact, by Francis Iles
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography: Harry Stradling Sr.
Edited by William Hamilton
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date: November 14, 1941
Running time: 99 minutes
Budget: $1,1 million
Box office: $4.5 million

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