Suspicious Minds

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.

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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.

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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…

SuspV

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 —

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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.

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“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.

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45 Responses to “Suspicious Minds”

  1. Hitch loved dinnr scnes (considering his avoirdupois that’s no surprise.) he also loved tweaking the status quo with subtly “unusal” characters. So the odd lesbian was pretty much de rigeur for him.

  2. This pair are surprising because they’re benign. Hitchcock’s work is littered with psychopathic queer characters: can’t think of another Hitch film with nice gays.

  3. Well Hitch found “nice” characters pretty boring as a whole — regardless of sexual orientation. In the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much “family values” get shoved right into the wood-chipper as Jimmy Stewart drugs a hysterical Doris Day into unconsciousness.

  4. That’s true. And thrillers can only really use nice characters by bending them till they break.

    The protagonists in Rope are gay, but they’re also the villains…

  5. AnneBillson Says:

    Also, Martin Landau in North by Northwest pretty obviously has feelings for James Mason.

    I just finished Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell’s memoir about her parents, and about her mother in particular. Quite frankly, not worth reading (all the anecdotes peter out before getting to the point, or to a punchline, and she keeps going on and on and on about what a normal family they were – which in itself is perhaps a little odd), but I was curious about Alma’s role in her husband’s work, and his attitude to women in general, which is all too often dismissed as misogyny. But so many of his films are shot from – and sympathetic to – the women’s point of view. In particular, I think Vertigo is interesting, as it’s from Stewart’s point of view, but you end up seeing him through the women’s eyes as unbalanced and unreasonable…

  6. AnneBillson Says:

    Incidentally, haven’t seen Suspicion for years and years, but this makes me want to see it again.

  7. I think it’s fascinating, especially in the areas where I felt it didn’t quite work. Hitchcock is usually so CLEAR (but with fascinating archipelagos of ambiguity all around the main continent), whereas this one shades off into swampland.

    Pat’s most intriguing story is how Hitch threatened suicide when Alma was ill, so Pat walked out of the room, leaving him alone with an open window, as a sort of test. I wouldn’t call that quite normal. Especially since his brother DID commit suicide…

  8. Yes they’re the villains but they’re also incredibly charming in a decidedly Patricia Highsmith avant la lettre sort of way (though they fail where Ripley succeds.) Rope provides a very precise picture of New York upper crust gay life — complete with a “Fag Hag” who’s passed around among the men like a trophy wife.

    “Leonard” in North by Northwest is not without charm — especially as he pours a bottle of booze (“a libation?”) down Cary Grant’s throat in preparation for having him killed in an “accident.”

    Most charming of all is of course Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train. And it’s particularly telling that Pat Hitchcock herself is the one who is at first amused by him only to discover in the great party scene that he’s strangling her by proxy.

  9. AnneBillson Says:

    I always wondered whether Midge in Vertigo was an Alma surrogate – the specs, the creative-ish job in which she controls the image as opposed to being the object of man’s gaze, and the down-to-earth attitude which make her the complete opposite of the fantasy woman – the one who doesn’t really exist.

    Then, of course, the victim in Strangers on a Train also wears specs…

  10. Hitch’s casting of Pat seems a bit cruel at times, especially as “Piggy” in Stage Fright.

    I guess Midge is quite Alma-esque. On the more glamorous side, could Doris Day be a sort of Alma, sacrificing her career to her husband’s?

    Bruno is indeed a delicious villain, can’t wait to get to Strangers…

  11. Arthur S. Says:

    Well Midge is quite good looking. Hitchcock was quite taken with Barbara Bel Geddes and found her fun to work with and later cast her on one of his TV shows which I believe he directed himself(it’s the one where the woman feeds cops the corpse they were looking for). I think her character is to indeed ground Scottie’s obsession to reality.

    I always saw Pat Hitchcock’s casting as her making light about her presumed un-attractiveness…her winning personality making her very much a star. In PSYCHO when he tells Janet Leigh after that guy leers at her, “Maybe he saw my ring!”

    For me, SUSPICION is very close to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH(remake). It’s about a sense of oppression and guilt and fear that goes to making an insecure woman. Of course Doris Day in the remake is different. Joan Fontaine is so insecure and so fragile in this film. Especially in that scene where she breaks down and cries the first time her suspicions are proven wrong. It’s so disturbing. You sense that she wishes almost that he’s guilty. It’s a study of female masochism, but passive masochism.

  12. Oh, she doesn’t feed the corpse to the cops! She kills her hubbie with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks and serves THAT to the cops.

    You’re right that Midge shows an alternative, healthy route Stewart’s character could have taken. I remember a critic pointing out that by talking about bra designs and stuff she demystifies sex. So he looks for someone more mysterious…

    Interesting idea, Arthur. It doesn’t totally play that way to me, but that makes it a better film, if she’s pathologically creating narratives to make her husband a killer.

  13. Arthur S. Says:

    Yes. Scottie is very romantically inclined. Like the way he gets drawn to her because of the Carlotta Valdes thing…but we’ll save it until we get to Vertigo.

    I think SUSPICION is about repression, the pain of repression. You see a woman who is very shy and timid and obviously wanting to escape her family’s influence and she gets married to a man who is not repressed, who is adventurous and daring but she is totally dependent on him, totally his slave. It doesn’t matter that she’s in love with him. But then wasn’t it Fassbinder who called love the most perfect social instrument for repression. Of course he may be a murderer and a crook but as the film is so fixed from her point of view and so much about her character that it isn’t really important if Cary kills her or not. But the fact that she’ll continue to live like that after the ending, she’s still trapped in the end.

  14. Well, IF he’s innocent but is still guilty of theft, she’s just basically saved his life and persuaded him to turn himself in, so there could be an argument that she’s taking charge of things more. She’s still the serious one, but he’s become more responsible, so they’re better matched.

    One ending, which I’m glad they never shot, had Johnny distinguishing himself in the RAF — which at least shows that Hitch still had the war on his mind, and the propaganda of Foreign Correspondent and Lifeboat could have resurfaced here. Still, a terrible idea, but it’s not fair to condemn a filmmaker for the bad choices they DIDN’T make!

  15. Arthur S. Says:

    Personally I think the-ending-which-was-shot-but-laughed-at might have worked if the actors pulled it off.

    The present ending is really odd but it works in the way the fake-happy-ending is supposed to. Most of those endings were acts of intentional sabotage on the part of the auteur. Think of Sirk and the end of ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS.

    The end of SUSPICION dramatically concludes the narrative but in no way at all does it resolve the conflict.

    The film doesn’t end, it just stops.

  16. Like The Birds, which similarly concludes with a car heading off along a coastal road (well, we don’t see the coast in The Birds, but we know it’s there).

    The two problems with the originally shot ending:
    Hitch wanted Joan to drink the milk and then realise it’s NOT poisoned, which is a nice idea but awkward to execute — the long, uncinematic wait for death… then the anticlimax.
    The dialogue: very ponderous and lengthy. Seeing how great Grant and Fontaine are in the film (they didn’t really get one that well, but the relationship plays beautifully) I can’t see any way to blame them for the audience’s rejection of the ending.

    It’s interesting though that Hitch really fought to keep the idea of Fontaine drinking the milk, expecting to die: the real emotional climax of the story. And he realised that you could still have a “happy ending” on top of that, but managing the revelation that the milk isn’t poisoned kind of defeated him.

  17. You’re quiter right about what Fassbinder said, Arthur. And the great “answer” to Suspicion is Martha — one of RWF’s very best, but scarcely known outside of specialized Fassbinderian circles.
    Its ending is a pip.

  18. Ooh, my library has a copy. Been looking for a gentle introduction to Fassbinder (most of the ones I’ve seen were a bit strenuous for my delicate frame).

  19. AnneBillson Says:

    Martha was the first Fassbinder I ever saw – it was at the NFT in the 1970s when everyone was hailing RWF as cinema’s next big thing, but hardly anybody other than critics had seen his films.

    I remember a lot of people walked out during the screening, or made the sort of tutting noises one often hears nowadays at Von Trier films. But I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The sadistic sunburn scene! Torture by Lucia di Lammermoor! And the fabulous Margit Carstensen – an actress so thin she virtually disappeared when you looked at her from the side!

  20. Arthur S. Says:

    Don’t know if gentle and Fassbinder go together or not.

    I have heard of MARTHA but I haven’t seen it. It’s almost as rare as BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ used to be. It’s adapted from William Irish/Cornell Woolrich, the man who gave us what was later made into Rear Window.

    What did Fassbinder have to say about Hitchcock? I gather he was a great fan of MARNIE, which has been a clear influence but did he have anything specific to say.

    My introduction to Fassbinder was THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS which of the films I have seen is relatively “gentle”. Still tough though, but the use of colour and framing are lovely. His most popular and accessible film is thought to be THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN.

  21. Arthur S. Says:

    Fassbinder has talent, skill and loads of stuff to say. Lars Von Trier does not. Fassbinder may have been a nasty guy in real life but his films are very self-critical and very honest about life experiences. Von Trier isn’t.

    Fassbinder became quite big in America I believe, in the 70s. Vincent Canby was one of his supporters, he was in the mainstream. It’s a bloody miracle that he made all those films and so many o them are of high consistent quality. Even CHINESE ROULETTE which doesn’t work is fascinating. I recently came across one late film of his THE THIRD GENERATION and it’s a masterpiece, so bold and powerful, beautifully shot(by himself) and a great, great cast.

  22. AnneBillson Says:

    I will always love Von Trier for Riget aka The Kingdom, which was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I don’t always like what he does, but it’s always interesting, often challenging, and at least he takes risks.

    I found Antichrist to be a very effective and gruelling horror movie.

  23. I’m crazy about The Kingdom but he’s been testing my love practically ever since. The talent is there, he just needs to find a tone in tune with his fundamentally shallow sensibility, and let his humour come through constructively instead of tittering at the audience from behind a curtain.

    I wasn’t gruelled, alas. Or if I was, only thinly.

  24. Holy crap I love Cornell Woolrich. He’s like the noir EA Poe, only without the actual writing ability. Genius!

    I may have to get out of bed tomorrow morning (a rare event) in order to get to the library in time. I can pick up the book about Bill Douglas’s Comrades while I’m at it — for years a film book that was easier to find than the film it’s about.

  25. Martha has the most amazing 360 pans I’ve eber seen — executed by the great Michael Ballhaus in 16mm!

    Chinese Roulette was shot at the Ballhuas family manse.

    Never liked VonTrier but I utterly adore Jean-Marc Barr and Udo Kier.

  26. Just enjoyed Udo’s little turn in Mother of Tears, a movie which rather wastes its guest stars, in both senses of the word.

  27. Arthur S. Says:

    Chinese Roulette is like a punk remake of RULES OF THE GAME drawing from Beckett instead of Marivaux and set in Germany instead of France.

    I didn’t know that house was Ballhaus’. Amazing set there. He was Max Ophuls’ nephew I believe.

  28. I’m going to give Fassbinder another try. I’ve been meaning to look at World of Wires for ages, since the combo of RWF and sci-fi seemed alluring. I was impressed by Bitters Tears but also somewhat exhausted by it. And as a teenager I found Querelle a bit much to take.

  29. Arthur S. Says:

    Fassbinder + Sci-Fi = The Third Generation.

    It has Eddie Constantine(Lemmy Caution from Alphaville) as the bad guy who runs a computer company(basically he’s turned traitor vis-a-vis his former role). The film is set in the (then) present and it’s context heavy and it is very exhausting on first viewing but on second or third viewing the film works. The ambience of the film is very science-fiction oriented without being science-fiction as a genre.

    There’s also a certain sci-fi feeling to IN A YEAR OF 13 MOONS

  30. I guess all the New German Cinema guys made sci-fi films at some point: Herzog’s Wild Blue Yonder (and maybe Fata Motgana), Wenders’ Until the End of the World (and the film-within-a-film of The State of Things), Schloendorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

    And the nouvelle vague mostly did too.

    A shame the British New Wave didn’t join hands with the New Worlds school of sci-fi. Lester’s Bedsitting Room and Anderson’s Britannia Hospital are the only ones I can think of.

  31. david wingrove Says:

    Another great unsung Fassbinder is FEAR OF FEAR – in which Margit Carstensen plays a neurotic woman terrified of…well, everything. That too might make a good double bill with SUSPICION.

    As for ‘nice’ gay characters in Hitchcock, I’ve long had my suspicions about Suzanne Pleshette as the schoolteacher in THE BIRDS. She seems to warm up to Tippi Hedren remarkably fast – especially odd given that Tippi has just stolen her alleged ‘boyfriend’.

    Of course, a few scenes later, poor Suzanne gets her eyes pecked out. Poetic justice, perhaps, for ‘inappropriate looking’?

  32. Lesbian characters were often treated as disposable, or inherently tragic and therefore better off dead, even if they were sympathetic in terms of their behaviour.

    Oh, Roscoe Lee Browne in Topaz seems like a very probable gay character, and a heroic one at that.

  33. david wingrove Says:

    My one memory of TOPAZ (a profoundly tedious film, as I recall) is of the Cuban dictator murdering his mistress, who – he has just found out – is a double agent.

    As she expires, her voluminous purple skirt spreads out across the black-and-white tiled floor – one of the most lyrically voluptuous death scenes in all of cinema.

    Everything else was a snooze, and as for anyone being straight or gay in that movie…how would they get up the energy to have sex?!

  34. Well nobody has sex IN the movie. There’s a shortage of people anybody would actually want to see having sex. Karin Dor is about it, and she’d be on her own.

    But Roscoe Lee is the film’s high point, performance-wise, as a rather dapper Harlem florist and CIA operative.

  35. david wingrove Says:

    Ah, the lovely Karin Dor!

    Apart from TOPAZ, her career was limited to sleazy low-budget German horror flicks, usually directed by Leni Riefenstahl’s one-time assistant, Harald Reinl.

    Oh, and she appears briefly as a ‘bad Bond girl’ in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, but gets dumped in a piranha pool after only a few scenes.

    Still, she made quite an impression on me when I was 12 – as you can probably judge from my ‘in-depth’ knowledge of her CV.

  36. Karin was married to Dr Reinl. One feels it was a mistake for him to let her go, since she was very lovely, and since his next wife stabbed him to death.

    She adds glamour to a couple of latterday Mabuse sequels, which I quite enjoyed.

  37. Just watched Suspicion and was really taken by the Isobel and Phil dinner scene, so I googled ‘queer hitchcock suspicion’ and found this post – thanks! I then googled Nondas Metcalf and found this: http://www.michenermuseum.org/bucksartists/artist.php?artist=153

    It was nice to see queer characters from this era who weren’t pathetic, made fun of by the hero, didn’t die etc. They were just there and so obviously (through Phil’s costume) meant to be read as queer. This makes these ‘nice’ characters really, really extraordinary! I wonder what contemporary audiences made of them? Did they expect them to be evil because of that cinematic archetype? Or did it just pass them by? We can only wonder but it’s boggling my mind.

  38. Maybe they would just be seen as English eccentrics by some? Sissy characters appeared regularly as comic relief in forties films, and though the stereotyping isn’t too offensive at times, and sometimes very funny thanks to deft playing by the likes of Frank Pangborn, it’s rare that it goes beyond the one-joke characterisation. The gay best friend in No Time for Love is an exception. Mannish women were likewise common figures, but often there’s an implied judgement made against them even if it isn’t a plot point. Mitchell Leisen, who directed NTFL, did feature some positive butch ladies, as in Swing High Wing Low.

  39. I watched Suspicion 3 days ago and was delighted by the dinner scene. Have begun google research about gay charcthers in film noir, i wonder what else i’ve missed in noirs i’ve seen …or in the oldies i’ve watched when i was younger.

  40. Quite a bit of coded gay content was slipped into those movies. As long as it had plausible deniability, or was sufficiently sly for the blue-noses to miss it altogether. a great deal could be gotten away with.

  41. candykane Says:

    Do you have any tips? What other movies should i see?

  42. Gilda and The Big Combo for gay male innuendo, also Lady from Shanghai. Rebecca for lesbianism. There are lots — many of Mitchell Leisen’s films, and in France, Clouzot’s.

  43. I like your perspective. I thought the same about the dinner scene in Suspicion. Its was sat to note that Auriol Lee was killed in a car accident on her way to visit a friend after filming Suspicion, her only film. She was a stage actress and director. Also flew planes successfully. Interesting lady!

  44. Sounds like it! Also sounds like Hitchcock cast a genuinely nonconformist woman, rather than trying to transform a more conventional actress.

  45. As a point of interest, Auriol Lee played Napoleon’s mother in the 1938 film, “A Royal Divorce.”

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