How to Seduce Joan Fontaine, #6400001 of 9,000,000,000
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” ~
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…