How to Seduce Joan Fontaine, #6400001 of 9,000,000,000

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Call her “Monkeyface” and refer to her ucipital mapilary. Doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does. On the other hand, a warm glass of milk at bedtime sounds like a winner, but it’s best avoided, old bean, best avoided.

This post is AKA ~

THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “SUSPICION” ~

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SUSPICION is a particularly intriguing Hitchcock because the movie is haunted by a mythical ur-text propagated by Hitchcock himself, a story centering on that Fatal Glass of Milk. To quote the Great Man ~

“The scene I wanted, but it was never shot, was for Cary Grant to bring her a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and Joan Fontaine has 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.” Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, “Will you mail this letter to Mother for me, dear?” She drinks the ¬†milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops the letter in.”

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Leaving aside the logic of Fontaine’s suicide (I wonder if a court would convict a man of poisoning his wife if she drank the poison in full knowledge of what she was doing? I expect they would) which is tortuous but sound, and the question of whether Grant ought not to be acting the grieving widower, and whether he might consider that to be whistling about posting his late wife’s correspondence might be rather, well, suspicious, we have a sound ending that would, I think, be better than the one we’ve got, which was cobbled together out of reshoots, stand-ins, swapped-around sequences, and represents Hitch’s most troublesome last act until TOPAZ, decades later.

But the problem wasn’t anything to do with the ending Hitch describes above, taken from Francis Iles’s novel Before the Fact, which as he says he never shot, it was with the original ending filmed, in which Joan drinks the milk, then realises it’s NOT poisoned, goes to confront Cary Grant, and finds him preparing to kill himself, which is why he’d wanted that untraceable poison, which we’re going to hear all about later. By way of some prolix and unbelievable dialogue (Lubitsch’s right-hand man, Samson Raphaelson, wrote the script, but he wasn’t quite at home with this kind of material) Joan talks him round, and we have a quasi-happy ending. But one which preview audiences laughed off the screen until it fluttered, shredded, into the orchestra pit. Read all about this at The MacGuffin, where Bill Krohn has done an amazing job of excavating the full true story, or as much of it as the historical record preserves.

My remaining problem with SUSPICION, which I enjoy a lot but am left frustrated by, is an uncertainty in the handling, as if Hitchcock hadn’t quite abandoned his very first ending. From the opening scene ¬†~ beginning, wittily, as a radio play over black screen, until the train comes out of the dark and we get this John Tenniel composition ~

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John+Tenniel+-+Through+the+Looking+Glass+-+Alice+in+Train

~ which also reminds me of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, and then Cary Grant pays for his first-class upgrade with a stamp, saying “Write home to your mother!” to the conductor ~ and the regular talk of post offices, scenes in post offices ~ and Hitchcock’s cameo, posting a letter ~ a prominently positioned post box in the foreground of one scene ~ the ubiquity of notes and printed matter throughout, as seen in this blog post ~ the specter of the Royal Mail hangs over this film like a pall.

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Also, there’s the phantom of REBECCA, with Fontaine’s character superficially quite similar, and rocky sea cliffs prominent in the story. Also Leo G Carroll popping in for a scene.

After the opening, in which both screenwriter Raphaelson and performer Archie Leach are on top form, delivering a very acceptable romantic comedy, augmented by Hitchcockian touches such as the way Fontain’s purse snaps crisply shut in ECU as she rejects Grant’s advances — a wonderfully smutty sexual reference to her virginal status — the thriller element comes into play, as Fontaine begins to imagine, on no real evidence, that her cash-strapped hubbie is planning the murder, first of his best friend Beaky (Dr. Watson himself, Nigel Bruce), then of herself.

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The game of anagrams where Fontaine leaps to her first false conclusion is masterfully done, a grand old subjective freak-out in the classic silent Hitchcock manner, and this is the point where the idea of Fontaine as a fantasist comes into play most strongly. But Hitch also wants us to take her suspicions seriously, and so Grant behaves in a rather dark and moody manner at various times, in scenes shot in a way that makes it clear this isn’t Fontaine’s imagination. Grant always claimed he played the character as a rogue, not a heel, but several shots distinctly contradict this.

So I find the film increasingly schizoid — Fontaine is clearly over-imaginitive, but Grant is clearly suspicious in his behaviour, in a way that his final explanation doesn’t cover. Fiona finds the “happy” ending a bit sinister, and I’m inclined to agree. The post-production fiddling does show, and a feeling of discomfort remains. As intriguing as the “female Walter Mitty” idea is, I don’t find it wholly successful, and would certainly have preferred the original ending Hitch found in the book.

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Now for some reasonably close analysis of one particular scene…

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7 Responses to “How to Seduce Joan Fontaine, #6400001 of 9,000,000,000”

  1. SPOILERS

    I liked your review a lot especially comparing the first scene to John Tenniel composition.

    I found Suspicion very interesting film. I think one of the difficulties was taking a character like Johnnie Aysgarth from the novel and making him acceptable to censors and the audience in 1941. I thought Hitchcock and Raphaelson did a brilliant job with that.

    I like the current ending better than Hitchcock’s original ending, because I found the film much more psychological.

    Beaky was a good friend of Johnnie since his childhood. And Johnnie was broken all of his life financially. Lina’s suspicion starts only after their marriage. If Johnnie was responsible for the death of Beaky, then he would have been focusing on getting the profits from Corporation. The Corporation is still in place, because Beaky wasn’t able to sink the corporation. So if he was the murderer, he wouldn’t have applied for a “loan” out of Lina’s life insurance policy.

    If Johnnie isn’t a murderer, then what is the reason for the increase of Suspicion?

    Lina’s Suspicions increase only after her father’s death. Her father’s death was very shocking for her. Her father never trusted Johnnie. After her death, she started fearing that her father may be right. There is a psychological conflict going on Lina’s mind – the conflict between what she believes and her father believed. For Example, the scene where Lina talks to her father’s portrait – “he didn’t go to paris. he didn’t go to paris I tell you.”

    Bill Krohn also pointed an interesting information in Suspicion DVD documentary – it was Lina, who bought “Murder on the Footbridge.” And it was Lina who spelled “Murder” (Anagram).

    As for the testimony of the waiter, it isn’t clear if Johnnie is the murderer. This is because French waiter only has a slight understanding of English. And the current ending also parallels some of the incidents that happened in the film before. In the ending, Lina begs Johnnie to turn the car around. Johnnie says “No, Lina.” But he turns the car around.

    Throughout the film, Johnnie changes his mind when Lina suggests something. In the beginning of the film, Lina invites Johnnie to comes to her house and have a drink (right after the part scene in the beginning). Johnnie refuses. But when they reaches Lina’s house, he decides to stop the car and he accepts her invitation.

    This is the same thing with the chairs. When he realizes that Lina loved those chairs, he brings them back. When Lina was against the idea of Real Estate Plan, Johnnie was angry about it. But he later call off the real estate plan. Johnnie changes the mind throughout the film for Lina.

  2. Thanks for a great and thoughtful response. The French waiter is a nice moment: he thinks the killer’s name was something like “Allbeam” — due to the fact that Beaky calls his friends “Old Bean.”

    I think Johnny reads equally well as guilty and innocent. Innocent for all the reasons you offer, and because of his “rational explanation for everything,” but guilty because otherwise Beaky’s death is an unexplained loose end — who did it? and he doesn’t prove his innocence, he just offers explanations, which Lena is only too glad to accept. By this reading, the moment when the stand-ins drive away is pretty grim, since he’s sure to kill her…

  3. Christopher Says:

    I also saw Grant as more of a sinister heel than a rogue in this…and I think he maybe called Fontaine “Monkeyface” one too many times..

  4. The John Tenniel composition (Is there any better way to shoot a train compartment?) also turns up in Freddie Francis’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors with Peter Cushing as the sinister Dr. Schreck (terror), and Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland among the five passengers sharing his compartment.

  5. hi David

    North by Northwest is being shown at the filmhoose on sat. If I can persude my friend Alison I might be going 5.45

  6. Seems like we have 3 or 4 possible readings of the film —
    1) Grant is innocent, Fontaine’s understandable suspicions are disproved.
    2) Grant is innocent, Fontaine is an excitable fantasist.
    3) Grant is guilty, and a quick thinker.

    +

    Hitchcock made the film as if Grant was innocent.
    Hitchcock made the film as if Grant was guilty.

    The Tenniel composition isn’t really possible in a real carriage. A Hard Day’s Night comes up with some excellent solutions to filming in a real train (especially using mirrors).

  7. I’m probably avoiding North by Northwest because I only want to see it again when I’m at that point in Hitchcock Year. I wonder if, by sheer chance, there will be a screening of a Hitchcock film at the right time for me to catch it? Seems possible. And it gets more likely as we get towards the 50s.

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