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Cinema Journal (2002) - Before and after the fact: Writing and reading Hitchcock's Suspicion




Worland combines a historical investigation with critical analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion," a film long undervalued because of misinformation about its production history. He provides a documented account of "Suspicion" from novel to screenplay to release, considering issues of script adaptation, censorship, responses of preview audiences, and the promotion of Hitchcock as the movie's third star.


Before and after the fact: Writing and reading Hitchcock's Suspicion

by Rick Worland

This article combines a historical investigation with critical analysis of Suspicion (1941), a film long undervalued because of misinformation about its production history. This essay provides a documented account of Suspicion from novel to screenplay to release, considering issues of script adaptation, censorship, responses of preview audiences, and the promotion of Hitchcock as the movie's third star.

I shall not act in these stories, but will only make appearances, something in the nature of an accessory before and after the fact: To give the title to those of you who can't read, and to tidy up afterwards for those who don't understand the endings.
 — itchcock's introduction to the premier episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, October 1955

Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (RKO, 1941) occupies an unusual place in film analysis. The movie is usually assigned to the second rank of the master's work by auteurist-oriented critics who, noting its unbelievable happy ending, accept Hitchcock's own expressed dissatisfaction with the film, the result of an apparently clear case of studio meddling. Simultaneously, Suspicion is well known in the literature of psychoanalytic film theory for the scene excerpted by Stephen Heath in his influential 1976 essay "Narrative Space" to explicate and critique classical Hollywood style.1 Heath used the scene in which Detective Benson is drawn to stare at an abstract painting hung in the home of Johnnie (Cary Grant) and Lina Aysgarth (Joan Fontaine) to begin an argument about the inextricable links in classical style among screen space, narrative, and the spectator's psychological identification. While Heath presents a closely argued case for his general thesis, textual analysis aligned with historical investigation of the film's production, publicity, and initial reception by 1941 audiences indicates that Suspicion was finally an odd choice on which to base arguments about the "inviolable" norms of classical Hollywood style.

Suspicion is seldom considered except by those who dismiss it or those who concentrate intensely on one brief segment. How then do we account for its initial commercial and critical success (including a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actress win for Joan Fontaine) if the movie is so apparently flawed?

Since the grounds for subsequent critical disinterest in Suspicion largely derive from unexamined assumptions about the circumstances of its production, it seems necessary to investigate that history and to offer a documented account of the film's creation. To do so is the first goal of this essay. The historical analysis draws on primary documents from the Alfred Hitchcock papers and on the files of the Production Code Administration (PCA) to chart the film's scripting, production, and, more important, reception by two preview audiences in June 1941 in the Los Angeles area, both of whom saw a different ending from the one we know today.

As with many Hollywood projects, the movie's production and initial reception were not totally separable in industry practice. The preview audiences, the movie's first public readers, played an important part in its completion. We will survey a collection of surviving preview cards on which those first groups of viewers recorded their reactions to Suspicion for RKO. Generally, they found it lacking, feeling it failed to deliver a conventional and anticipated experience of what we now term classical narrative style. The preview cards offer unique insight into how audiences responded to the movie before the last stages of production and how their responses helped motivate the decision to reshoot the ending.

Hitchcock considered himself an artist, but he was also a commercial filmmaker who measured the success of his work in part in relation to box-office receipts and audience response. As such, we should not be surprised to learn that the sneak preview was employed as an important gauge to determine how to finish a particularly difficult project. Without rejecting the notion of individual authorship entirely, the historical investigation reveals that the emergence of "a Hitchcock film," especially at the height of the studio system, involved skillful manipulation of its standard operations and shrewd application of proven strategies to solicit broad success.2

This essays secondary goal - to consider particular ways of reading Suspicion in light of its textual features both in relation to and apart from aspects of its production history - was inspired by Heath's close analysis of Benson's abstract painting. Although Heath's attentive discussion indicated that the film was potentially much more interesting than the director's own disappointed appraisal suggested, Suspicion remains one of Hitchcock's most undervalued films. It is not my intention to challenge Heath's overall argument, which is actually limited to only certain aspects of the movie. Yet close analysis suggests that, far from marking an anomaly in Hitchcock's career, Suspicion should be placed within the main currents of his best and most characteristic work. It is my hope that this essay will contribute to the reevaluation of the film, a reassessment that is slowly emerging.3

In refining Heath's inquiry into questions of classical narrative as well as investigating the motif of painting and portraiture in 1940s psychological romance films, Judith Mayne avers: "The use of textual analysis to find 'a' subject position that typifies 'the' classical cinema is both futile and pretentious. Rather, individual films - which are always a blend of the typical and the exceptional - offer, through the lens of textual analysis, a series of hypotheses about varieties of spectatorship."4

As I understand Mayne's point, the principle of textual pluralism should guide analysis of this and other Hollywood products. Neither the classical paradigm as a whole nor specific articulations of it can or should be regarded as closed texts that admit only one or two dominant readings. At the end of a complex production process and later critical interpretation, it is now clear that Suspicion indeed provides possibilities for numerous "varieties of spectatorship." Heath used textual analysis to isolate an irregular if provocative moment among other oddities in the film. Auteurist accounts filtered through Hollywood legend and half-truths have provided a more widely circulated if no less circumscribed version of th...

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Rick Worland is an associate professor of cinema and television at Southern Methodist University. His research has focused on popular film and television of the Cold War period and on popular genres including westerns, science fiction, and horror. He has published in Cinema journal, the Journal of Film and Video, the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, and the Journal of Popular Film and Television, among others.

(c) 2002 by the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819

Notes & References

  1. Stephen Heath, "Narrative Space," Screen 17, no. 3 (autumn 1976): 68-112.
  2. Thanks to recent home-video releases of Strangers on a Train (1951) and the restored Vertigo (1958), we can now see the alternate endings that Hitchcock shot for distribution in Britain.
  3. Two of the most perceptive and detailed reconsiderations of Suspicion are Mark Crispin Miller, "Hitchcock's Suspicions and Suspicion," in Boxed In: The Culture of TV (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 241-81, and Richard Allen, "Hitchcock, or the Pleasures of Metaskepticism," in Richard Allen and S. Ishii Gonzales, eds., Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays (London: British Film Institute, 1999), 22137. Miller is perhaps the only critic to regard Suspicion as an unqualified success rather than as a complete or partial failure.
  4. Judith Mayne, "Picturing Spectatorship," in James Phelan and Peter Rabinowitz, eds., Understanding Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994), 140; emphasis added.
  5. Quoted in Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock' (New York: Ballantine, 1983), 255.
  6. Frances Iles, Before the Fact: A Murder Story for Ladies (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1978).
  7. Ibid., 350.
  8. The cable television channels American Movie Classics (AMC) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) have both regularly shown Suspicion for the past several years. Before screening the movie, each channel's avuncular host repeats the story of how the studio refused to compromise Grant's image, thereby spoiling Hitchcock's intentions.
  9. François Truffaut, Hitchcock, rev. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 142. See also Hitchcock's discussion of Suspicion in comparison to The Lodger (1927), 43-44. On Hitchcock's behalf, it should be noted that, in discussing Suspicion in relation to the silent film, he used rather conditional language:
    AH: I ran into the same problem sixteen years later when I made Suspicion.... Cary Grant could not be a murderer.
    FT: Would he have refused?
    AH: No, not necessarily. But the producers would surely have refused.
  10. Hitchcock directed a similar domestic murder plot for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series. In "Back for Christmas," originally aired on CBS on March 4, 1956, the black comic ending turns on the untimely delivery of a letter. It is worth noting that production of this episode was much closer in time to the 1962 interviews with Truffaut than to the shooting of Suspicion.
  11. Joseph I. Breen to J. R. McDonough, January 18, 1940, MPPA/Production Code Administration files, Suspicion folder, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, California. In the early months of 1940, Hitchcock was busy finishing Rebecca and starting preproduction on Foreign Correspondent. He had no contact with RKO until David O. Selznick concluded a two-picture deal for his services in late June. Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius, 241-42. A trade item reported that "first of his assignments will be Mr. and Mrs. Smith, starring Carole Lombard, followed by Before the Fact." "RKO Signs Hitchcock," Motion Picture Herald, July 13, 1940, 23.
  12. Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius, 253-54.
  13. Truffaut made this point in discussion with Hitchcock. Truffaut, Hitchcock, 142.
  14. "Final Script: Before the Fact, December 28, 1940," "Scripts" folder, Suspicion files, Alfred Hitchcock collection, Margaret Herrick Library. The most complete copy of the Suspicion script in the Hitchcock papers contains all the revisions of the screenplay, with notes made during production about which scenes had already been shot as changes were made. The dates of revisions to the draft range from December 28, 1940, through June 14, 1941. Revisions made during shooting appear in colored pages dated, for example, March 6,1941, and April 23,1941. A separate folder is labeled "New Ending." Parts of this original script material, including drafts of the "bedroom confession" ending, are in Dan Auiler, The Hitchcock Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Avon, 1999), 63-92.
  15. In one of these endings, Johnnie runs off to join the R.A.F. and somehow becomes a top pilot. The climax of this notorious contrivance has Lina watching proudly from a control tower as his squadron takes off to battle the Luftwaffe, Johnnie at the controls of a plane painted with the nickname - what else? - "Monkey Face." Clearly, despite significant differences in dialogue and settings (the bedroom confession, the R.A.F. ending, and the final release version), a happy ending was always anticipated and delivered.
  16. "Suspicion," Motion Picture Herald, September 20, 1941, and "Suspicion Can Be Smash Hit with Change in the Ending," Hollywood Reporter, September 18, 1941, n.p., clippings, Suspicion folder, MPPA/Production Code Administration files, Margaret Herrick Library.
  17. Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses (New York: Morrow, 1978), 134.
  18. Joseph I. Breen to Joseph J. Nolan, January 2, 1941, Breen to Nolan, February 3, 1941, and Breen to J. R. McDonough, January 18, 1940, Suspicion folder, MPPA/Production Code Administration files, Margaret Herrick Library.
  19. During the production of Rebecca, Breen admonished Selznick, "It will be essential that there be no suggestion whatever of a perverted relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. If any possible hint of this creeps into this scene we will of course not be able to approve the picture. Specifically, we have in mind Mrs. Danvers' description of Rebecca's physical attributes, her handling of various garments, particularly the nightgown." Obviously, a hint or two of the relationship still crept into the finished film. Joseph I. Breen to David Selznick, September 25, 1939. Rebecca folder, MPPA/Production Code Administration files, Margaret Herrick Library.
  20. Breen to Nolan, February 6, 1941, Suspicion folder, MPPA/Production Code Administration files, Margaret Herrick Library. The characterization of Isobel in the novel is similarly ambiguous: "In spite of the ... masculine cut about her clothes, she was an ardent feminist." Iles, Before the Fact, 293.
  21. "Final Script: Before the Fact." This version of the scene quoted is in the original white pages and is from the first complete draft version of the screenplay. The revision is in blue pages dated February 18, 1941.
  22. Ibid. The British spelling of "colour" implies Reville and Harrison rather than Raphaelson, an American, wrote the scene.
  23. Robin Wood has written at length on the depiction of overt or implicit homosexual characters in Hitchcock's cinema, noting a profound ambivalence in such portrayals throughout the director's oeuvre. See, for example, Wood's discussion of The Lodger, Rope (1948), and Strangers on a Train in Hitchcock's Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).
  24. "Final Script: Before the Fact."
  25. The germ of an idea for business with paintings can be found in the novel along with a similar juxtaposition of realist portraiture with modernist abstraction. Lina enters into a brief affair with a portrait painter named Ronald Kirby. When she first visits his studio, Lina is "relieved to find that the modem influences in them [his paintings] were slight." Iles, Before the Fact, 186.
  26. Stephen Heath, "Narrative Space," in Heath, Questions of Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 23-24. Heath concedes that the bit may have been intended to be humorous: "A `Hitchcock joke'? Perhaps. But a joke that tells in a film that hesitates so finely in its enclosure of space, the terms of its points of view" (23).
  27. Without mentioning Heath, Miller locates a third painting of potential importance, one briefly glimpsed in the Hunt Ball scene as Johnnie is surrounded by adoring women just before he greets Lina and they begin to waltz: "The women [around Johnnie] are without identities, mere faceless adulators who comprise a yearning horde against which Lina's easy victory seems all the more vivid. Their function, in other words, is entirely pictorial, offsetting her resplendent happiness with their collective deprivation: as they mob Aysgarth, they form an adoring circle that actually appears to include a pair of painted figures, two delighted young ladies shown running forward in a large old portrait hanging on the wall at Aysgarth's back." Miller, "Hitchcock's Suspicions and Suspicion," 261.
  28. For a challenge to Heath's reading of Benson's abstract painting as a stylistic anomaly, see David Bordwell, "The Bounds of Difference," in Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 70-84.
  29. Truffaut, Hitchcock, 143. Hitchcock evidently liked this staging so much he used the same basic camera setup and lighting style in Notorious (1946) to begin the sequence in which Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), finally realizing he is married to an American spy, slowly mounts the staircase to inform his intimidating mother.
  30. The "Final Script" contains one additional draft of the bedroom confession scene dated June 14, 1941, the day after the film was first previewed in Pasadena. That a revision is dated after principal photography was wrapped indicates continuing displeasure with the ending and implies that further shooting was anticipated even before the verdict was in from the test audiences.
  31. The preview cards are found in the Suspicion files, "Post-Production" folder, Hitchcock collection, Margaret Herrick Library.
  32. Pasadena respondent #33, who disliked the ending ("Hollywood is supposed to be the city of miracles. Let's see a new ending."), did not provide much useful guidance for Hitchcock and RKO: "It is the typical happy 'Hollywood' ending that is not particularly true to life. I'm getting tired of seeing happy endings. I don't want sad ones either." And speaking of genre questions, respondent #81, who hated the movie entirely, ranted, "Junk the picture. Get a good cowboy story."
  33. Without stating its criteria, the studio rated the cards from the Inglewood screening as follows: excellent: 47; very good: 70; fair: 19; and poor: 8. Suspicion files; "Post-Production" folder, Hitchcock collection, Margaret Herrick Library.
  34. Richard Allen argues that Johnnie's gesture in the released version of "coiling" an arm around Una as the car changes direction and starts back home remains as ambiguous as all other such moments in the film. Allen, "Hitchcock, or the Pleasures of Metaskepticism," 226.
  35. The PCA file for Suspicion contains an unidentified clipping from a brief trade paper item headed "Before the Fact (RKO Radio) Romantic Drama," which presents a plot synopsis that concludes with the R.A.F. ending. I have been unable to identify the exact publication source and date of the article. However, script revisions with the R.A.F. ending are dated April 23, 1941.
  36. John Morris to Hitchcock, September 25, 1941, Breen to Hitchcock, October 4, 1941, and Hitchcock to George Schaefer, August 18, 1941, Suspicion files, "Production" and "Miscellaneous" folders, Hitchcock collection, Margaret Herrick Library. By a quirk of fate appropriate to the vexed circumstances of this movie's production, on May 1, 1941, Breen temporarily quit the PCA to become executive vice president in charge of production at RKO. He was now heading the studio producing the movie he had been policing for nearly two years. Gregory D. Black, The Catholic Crusade against the Movies, 1940-1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 35-36.
  37. "RKO's National Magazine Campaign on Suspicion." The supplement contains copies of the various ads that appeared in national magazines. Suspicion files, "Miscellaneous" folder, Hitchcock collection, Margaret Herrick Library.
  38. Virginia Wright, "Cine Matters," [Los Angeles] Daily News, October 25, 1941, 19.
  39. For an insightful discussion of the studied promotion of Hitchcock's public image across his career, see Robert E. Kapsis, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  40. Diane Waldman, "The Childish, the Insane, and the Ugly: The Representation of Modern Art in Popular Films and Fiction of the Forties," Wide Angle 5, no. 2 (1982): 52-65, and Waldman, "`At Last I Can Tell It to Someone!': Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s," Cinema Journal 23, no. 2 (winter 1983): 29-40.
  41. A better example to support Waldman's thesis as it relates to Hitchcock is the odd but telling episode in Strangers on a Train in which Bruno Anthony's mother (Marian Lorne) presents her painting of "St. Francis" - an expressionistic nightmare that Bruno laughingly claims to see as a perfect portrait of his hated father. Here we know with certainty that the artist is daft and the son psychotic.
  42. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 47.
  43. Then too, the head of RKO through most of Suspicion's gestation was George Schaefer, usually applauded as the enlightened studio executive who let Orson Welles make Citizen Kane (1941).