Archive for July 1, 2009

Suspicious Minds

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2009 by dcairns

Well, I lied. This isn’t really close analysis, it’s random jottings sparked by odd moments and characters in one scene of SUSPICION. I do flatter myself that it’s not a scene many people have focussed on, if that’s any recompense.


My Dinner with Sedbusk:

The opening shot of the scene: in a manner quite typical of his style, Hitch creeps closer during the first half of the sequence. Rather than doing it with a slow track, however, he moves forward in a series of stationary shots.  This establishing shot is only good for some party chatter, since we’re really too far away to be satisfied with the view. Once we’ve got our bearings, and our curiosity builds about who’s in the scene, Hitch cuts to a closer angle, then a closer one still, as the dialogue proper commences.

This frame interests me because of the starring role given to a lampshade, which reminds me of DIAL M FOR MURDER. I’ve never seen it in 3D, but Comrade K, who has, points out the way the foreground lampshades loom out in a surprising fashion, creating a series of visual stepping stones. Hitch really does make a major feature of them, and once you’re aware of it they’re very strange.


Sedbusk: Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee, in her only movie) is as much plot function as character, the crime writer who rigorously researches her books to the point where they can potentially be used as how-to guides by aspiring wife-murderers. Her names reminds me obscurely of Hitchcock’s, and her profession in popular fiction, coupled with her enthusiasm for true crime, makes me feel that she’s a Hitchcock stand-in. Interesting that he’d make her female: Hitch often claimed to identify most closely with his heroines. Also interesting that, if I read the scene correctly, she’s gay.

The other guests are the Aysgarths (Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant), Isobel’s brother Dr. Bertram Sedbusk, and this lady, who’s clearly typed as a lesbian (She’s wearing a suit and tie! Her hair is severe! She calls Cary “My dear chap,” as if she were some kind of wo-MAN) So what’s she doing here? Her chief relationship appears to be with Isobel, and they call each other Phil and Izzy, and Isobel says, “Do the wine would you, Phil?” as if they were co-hosts…


This little unconventionally conventional same-sex relationship is very nice and completely positive in tone. Cary Grant is the only character in the room who MIGHT be up to no good. It’s the nicest gay scene in Hitchcock. But my chief interest is in Hitch”s imagining himself as a gay woman…

Phil is credited as “Phyllis Swinghurst,” another Hitchcockian construction of a name, and she’s played by Nondas Metcalf (extraordinary name!) in what appears to be only her second role, and her last. More information please!

The other charm is that it’s one of those typical Hitchcock scenes where nice people discuss murder over a meal. See SHADOW OF A DOUBT for the best example, and FRENZY for the queasiest. Here, Isobel (who has no Miss or Mrs to her name, it seems) holds forth on the CSI-style brilliance of modern 1940s forensics, aided by her brother —


Dr. Bertram Sedbusk is a rather figure, even if his story function is sinister. “Ah, arsenic,” he murmurs fondly over his chicken, when somebody mentions his favourite poison. Sedbusk’s slight accent appears to me an attempt at Scots, and I’m pretty sure he’s based on Sir Sydney Smith, a renowned professor of forensics at the University of Edinburgh, whose memoir, Mostly Murder, is an agreeably macabre trot through the recent history of British homicide, and certainly a volume Hitchcock would have poured over with great interest. One story tells of the discovery of two murdered children in a swamp, their bodies entirely transformed into a cheesy substance. Since this kind of decay was rare, Smith illegally took samples from the bodies: a head, two legs, an arm… smuggling them back to the University in his bag, causing some distress to his fellow passengers on the train, when the gorgonzolian aroma wafted forth. Only a year or so ago, a distant American relative of the murdered lads, researching her ancestry, came across this story and insisted on the burial of the preserved bits.

The murderer was the boys’ father, I believe, and he was publicly hanged.

The real purpose of this scene, so pleasingly decorated with interesting cameos, is to set-up the untraceable poison, an ordinary domestic substance which can cause instant death, and becomes undetectable within instants of entering the body. Of course, neither Bertram nor Isobel nor Hitchcock and his writers can reveal the identity of this substance: that would be irresponsible.

It’s not quite a McGuffin, this poison, but it has a lovely McGuffinly vagueness.


“Just carve them up like regular chickens!”

Footnote: the IMDb has actress Auriol Lee down as a descendant of Robert E Lee. I wonder if her car had a musical horn like his.


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

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2009 by dcairns


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 ~



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.”


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 ~



~ 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.


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.


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.


Now for some reasonably close analysis of one particular scene…