Archive for Sydney Smith

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.