Sunday, July 31, 2016


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The title of this 1941 Alfred Hitchcock mystery is a significant one. Observations may arouse the suspicion that someone has committed a crime, but suspecting, in and of itself, is not knowing. Not knowing something to a certainty allows for the exploration of the theme of surface reality versus hidden truth. When applied to a story, this theme generates apprehension, as the audience waivers, as does its surrogate main character, between deciding who is guilty and who is innocent. Hitchcock’s movies often center on exterior appearance versus interior reality, and its related theme of guilt versus innocence.

The director has an ideal actor for his purposes in Cary Grant playing Johnnie Ayesgarth. In a terrific performance, Grant is dizzying as he alternates between looking dashingly likeable and dangerously sinister. The fact that he is so physically appealing only makes Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine, Best Actress for this role, the only acting Oscar awarded for a Hitchcock film), and the audience, susceptible to allowing those good looks conceal some ugliness lurking below the surface. His wit just enhances his attractiveness, but scrutiny of his lines reveals some of his true character. When a photographer asks if he would provide a bit more of a smile, Johnnie says, “not at this hour of the morning,” which tells us that exuding so much charm takes a toll. He says to Lina, “You’re the first woman who I ever met that said yes when she meant yes.” This statement on the surface is a humorous jab at the female sex, but it also shows that Johnnie is no stranger to understanding deception. 

Hitchcock places the opening credits over drawings of a safe bucolic scene. But, they are illustrations, something not real, the veracity of their pleasantness can be questioned. He then ironically contrasts this view with Johnnie speaking in the dark as the train that carries him and Lina goes through a tunnel. The fact that we can’t see him lends mystery as to who he really is. Hitchcock likes using the sexual innuendo of the train and tunnel, since he employs it again at the end of North by Northwest (another Cary Grant vehicle laden with false outer appearances). The opening has another Freudian reference when Johnnie talks about cigars as we see that Lina is reading a psychology book, which implies that she knows something about people’s personalities, and which may explain her doubts about Johnnie later. But, the train also throws people together, sometimes creating strange couplings, as it does here and in another Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train.
We witness Johnnie’s conniving ways immediately as he says that he bought a first class ticket, but the railway line mistakenly gave him a third class one. He takes, without permission from a person he has just met, one of Lina’s stamps to make up the difference for the cost. It turns out that he is journeying to the same peaceful countryside setting seen in the opening drawing in which Lina lives with her parents. Johnnie goes to a fox hunt. Could it be that we are being told to look out for red herrings, since that is what was used at these hunts to lead the hounds astray? Johnnie finagles time alone with Lina by getting her neighbors to go with him to her home by saying they will all go to church services together. Religious rituals are not really what is on Johnnie’s mind. He steals time alone with Lina at a remote spot. Hitchcock then gives us a masterful scene. He shoots it from a distance, emphasizing the inability to see detail, and it appears that Johnnie is grabbing Lina, maybe taking advantage of her, and she is struggling. He says that her reaction was as if she thought he was trying to kill her, an ominous remark considering her later suspicions. Lina seems to have the same feeling that he is acting in a threatening manner, but Johnnie says he is trying to reach around her to fix her hair. So, we have been manipulated by the director to suspect Johnnie’s benign exterior, but his behavior here is innocent consistent with his pleasant appearance.
However, Johnnie is not the only one whose appearance is deceiving. Lina comes off all prim and proper. She dresses conservatively. After their walk together, she says goodbye to Johnnie. She then overhears her parents talking about a rumor concerning Johnnie getting thrown out of a club for cheating. They then say they have nothing to worry about her falling for him, because Lina makes a good spinster. Johnnie comes up behind her, and she turns and kisses him. She doesn’t like the role of a repressed virgin and is actually attracted to the “bad boy.” She is supposed to see him again, but then is bitterly disappointed when he breaks their date, and says he has to go away. By now, Lina is obsessed with him, and is devastated that she can’t get in touch with Johnnie. She feels ill, and won’t go to a party. But, her symptoms disappear when she receives a message that Johnnie will be there and wants to see her. He wasn’t even invited to the ball, and crashes it, like he did when he rode in first class on the train. He cashes in on his charm, using it as his ticket to gain entrance where others not so suave would be denied access. When they meet he says that he stayed away because he was scared about how much he cared for her. She professes her love. And now, in a candid move, in front of a painting of her father, he admits that he really isn’t such a nice guy. But, his playful honesty in front of the portrait makes him even more attractive. Lina now also becomes deceptive as she elopes, keeping her parents in that same dark we experienced in the tunnel.
The couple go on a whirlwind honeymoon through Europe and come home to a luxurious house manned with servants. Lina, apparently in denial about her new husband, is taken aback when she learns that Johnnie paid for the trip and lodgings with borrowed money. He is broke, and says that she’ll probably come into an inheritance to eventually pay off bills, but why not enjoy life now. He even suggests asking her father for some funds. She is outraged by this proposal, but also is savvy enough to know that his looks and charm could have garnered him a wealthier bride. She accuses him of being a child, which is quite accurate, since he just thinks about what he wants in the moment without worrying about the cost of satisfying those desires.

The story gives Lina, and us, emotional whiplash as Johnnie veers sometimes toward sweetness and generosity and then turns toward coldness and selfishness. He says he has a job offer and she believes he is working. But she finds out from his best friend, Beaky (Nigel Bruce), that he hasn’t been at work for a while, was going to the horse races, and sold the two museum quality chairs that her father gave them, and which she loved, so he could gamble. Just when she feels crushed by his actions, he comes in with gifts for everyone, including a fur coat for the maid, after winning big on a long shot at the races. She is thrilled that he is able to buy back the chairs and her love flourishes again. They drink a toast to his good luck, but he warns Beaky that he can’t handle brandy. His friend has a coughing fit, and Johnnie looks cold discussing his friend’s reaction to the alcoholic beverage. Is it concern or is he plotting? Hitchcock wants us to be unsure, since uncertainty keeps us interested in the story. But, the film also makes a statement about how difficult it is to be certain about people, and thus this perception shows how precarious life can be.
Lina’s doubts concerning her husband resurface when she discovers that again he has not been working for several weeks. She visits his place of employment and discovers from Johnnie’s employer, Captain Melbeck (Leo G. Carroll) that there was an audit of one of Johnnie’s accounts, and money was missing. She packs her bags, writes a goodbye note, but can’t bear to leave him. She rips it up. She does let him know she found out that he lost his job, and he is deceptive again when he conceals the fact that he must pay back the missing funds.

He now presents a project to turn a rocky coastal area into a resort, and forms a corporation with Beaky because his friend has substantial funds to provide for its development. Beaky is quite naïve and goes along with the project. Lina, now aware of her spouse’s scheming ways, warns Beaky of the pitfalls in such a risky investment. Johnnie overhears her and becomes quite nasty about not wanting her to interfere in his business matters. The next day he surprises her in the garden, and her cliché statement that he frightened her takes on added meaning in the context of the movie. But, he now goes from Hyde to Jekyll again as he says that he is not going to drag Beaky into the land development plan. But, he then wants to take Beaky out to the cliffs to show him how it isn’t a good idea. Lina, now not knowing what her husband’s motivations are, envisions Johnnie throwing his friend off the precipice in order to collect from the corporation they have established. Again, she is relieved when she sees them back at the house after their trip. Beaky even says that his friend stopped his car from going over the edge, thus saving Beaky’s life (a foreshadowing of the end of the movie). When it comes to Johnnie, the viewer must feel like Lind Blair’s spinning head in The Exorcist.
Before Beaky goes to Paris, where his securities are held, to cancel their deal, the two decide to go to London for a night on the town. Lina is then visited by the police who inform her that Beaky died in Paris after drinking brandy with an Englishman who ordered large portions of the drink. They want to know where Johnnie is, being British and a friend of the deceased. When Johnnie arrives home he says he heard about Beaky, but he didn’t go to Paris with him. Lina finds out that he was trying to borrow against her life insurance policy but proceeds were only payable upon her death, and that Johnnie said he needed more time to pay back Melbeck. Since she now suspects him in Beaky’s death, she is afraid for her life.
We have learned that Johnnie is interested in murder mysteries, and is friends with a local mystery writer, Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee). Lena visits her to ask about her knowledge concerning her books’ topics and learns that Johnnie borrowed a book in which a person dies from ingesting too much brandy. Later the couple are at a dinner party where the writer and a local medical examiner are present. The latter two discuss murder by poisoning and Johnnie pushes for the name of a concoction that is untraceable. That evening, Lina tells her husband she wants him to sleep in another room. He becomes very upset about his being thrown out of their bedroom. She is very upset and wakes up with the writer at her bedside. Johnnie seems caring again, and he called Isobel to comfort her. In their conversation, the writer admits that she told Johnnie about a recently discovered way of poisoning someone without leaving any evidence. That evening we have a shot of Johnnie climbing the stairs ominously in shadows, bringing Lina a glass of milk, which she does not drink, fearing that it contains the untraceable poison.

The next day she packs and says she wants to visit her mother. Johnnie insists on driving her to her mother’s house. He speeds up the car as it skirts the edge of the road along a steep cliff. Her door opens, and again it is difficult to determine his actions, as it was when he was reaching to fix her hair earlier. Is he pushing her out of the car or is he reaching to bring her back in? It turns out that, just as with Beaky, he was trying to save her. Lina now realizes that she, and of course the audience, has not seen the whole picture. Our suspicions did not allow us to see how much in despair her husband was about not being able to pay back the money to Melbeck. He was desperate to please the woman he loved, and so saddened that she was turning away from him that he contemplated killing himself with the poison. She wants them to return home and start over. He says that it’s too late, that he is not good for her. But, the film ends with his turning the car around and placing his arm around Lina.
The mystery writer at one point says, “I always think of my murderers as my heroes.” I would think this ambiguous line appealed to Hitchcock. Aren’t we attracted to the “bad boy” just as is Lina? Didn’t Billy Joel sing that the sinners were much more fun than the saints? Aren’t we intrigued by Norman Bates, the sweet looking young man who is really a psychotic killer with a tortured past? Don’t we want the car carrying the body to not hesitate as it sinks in the muddy pond, as we almost root for Bates to cover up the crime? Here we have someone who appears to be innocent, but who is really deceptive and manipulative. However, we must resist overreacting in our disappointment so as to not to judge him too harshly because as it turns out he is not guilty of murderous intent. Johnnie is an attractive individual with a shiny smile that conceals a dark side. But maybe, like Lina, we see something of ourselves in the wrongdoer. Maybe that is why it should be difficult to cast that stone.

The next film is Michael Clayton.

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