Filmmakers have always faced challenges, from budgetary problems to fights with the studios. The later was especially true under the Production Code when studios would scrutinize scripts, demanding changes from word choices to deleting whole scenes and plot lines. Even the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, ran into trouble making his films. With Suspicion (1941), the studio objected to the film’s original ending so Hitchcock changed it to placate the studio. Yet in doing so, he gave us a film with a delightfully ambiguous ending that viewers are still debating.
Suspicion is the story of a young spinster, Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine), who falls in love with John “Johnnie” Aysgarth (Cary Grant), a charming man who cons his way into situations and people out of their money. After a short courtship the two marry, much to the disappointment of Lina’s father. With a wife and home to support, Johnnie is forced to get a job. His attempts to go straight don’t last long though, and he is soon fired for embezzling from his cousin’s firm. When Lina’s father dies leaving her only his portrait and her annual allowance of £500, Johnnie persuades his kind but dimwitted friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce) to finance a land development scheme. When Beaky dies shortly afterwards under questionable circumstances Lina, who has caught Johnnie in repeated lies, becomes convinced that he killed Beaky and that she is his intended next victim. Does Lina, a fan of mystery novels, just have an overactive imagination or has she married a murderer?
The film is based on the 1932 novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the book there is no question that Johnnie is bad. He swindles, steals, seduces, and ultimately murders. At the end of the book an increasingly disturbed Lina knowingly drinks a glass of poisoned milk given to her by Johnnie because she loves him too much to think of going on without him.
When it came to the film version, Hitchcock would later claim that he wanted the film to end with Lina drinking the poisoned milk but first asking Johnnie to post a letter to her mother in which she has revealed that Johnnie is her murderer. The last scene would show an unknowing Johnnie dropping the letter in the mailbox, sealing his fate.
Although no script with this ending exists, there are signs throughout Suspicion that would support the theory that this was Hitchcock’s intended ending. Letters play an important role throughout the film. In the opening scene where Johnnie first meets Lina on a train, he asks her for a stamp to use in lieu of cash to pay for his ticket and tells the puzzled train conductor who accepts it, “write to your mother.” When Lina leaves home to elope with Johnnie, she tells her parents she is going to the post office. Throughout the film there are shots of the village mailbox (Hitchcock’s screen appearance is him posting a letter), and Lina is shown reading and writing multiply letters.
The problem with this ending was that the studio, RKO, didn’t want Cary Grant to play a murderer (they didn’t think audiences would buy it) and the production code didn’t allow for suicide, which is what Lina would essentially be committing by letting herself be murdered. So Hitchcock was told to come up with an alternate ending in which Johnnie is innocent.
In the final scene, Johnnie and Lina are driving along the cliffs. Johnnie speeds up, and Lina’s door opens. She begins to fall, and we see Johnnie’s hand reaching out toward her. She struggles and screams. The car stops and the two jump out. Lina, who has been dreaming up outrageous situations for some time, believes Johnnie was trying to push her out of the car. Johnnie swears he was trying to save her and tells her that he won’t bother her again. Lina comes to the conclusion that he's planning on committing suicide. Throughout her explanation for why she thinks this, Johnnie remains silent. Finally he states, “Yes, but I saw that was a cheap way out” and swears that he’s going to turn himself in to the authorities and serve his time for the stolen funds. The film closes with the two driving back home, Johnnie’s arm lying across Lina’s shoulders.
The studio got the ending they wanted. Or did they? What if Lina’s original assumptions were correct, and Johnnie is a murderer? One of the brilliant things about this film is that the ending can be interpreted in different ways. Some people see Johnnie as innocent and use the final scene to support that belief. Others though believe that Johnnie is guilty and view the final scene is a different light.
Look at the film again with the idea that Johnnie's guilty. Shortly after their second meeting, Johnnie and Lina are shown engaged in a dramatic struggle on top of a wind-swept hill. Johnnie says, “What did you think I was trying to do? Kill you?” While the mood soon dissolves into the comedic with Johnnie playing with Lina’s hair and giving her a nickname, “monkey face,” the darkness of the first part of the scene hints at dangers that lay ahead.
Johnnie, who is friends with local mystery writer Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee), is constantly getting her to tell him the secrets behind some of the murders in her books and asks her brother who's a doctor about a new undetectable poison. After Beaky dies in Paris from drinking a large amount of whiskey (everyone including Beaky himself knows that whiskey can kill him), Lina is told by the police that Beaky was with an Englishman whom he called by a name that sounds an awful lot like “Old Bean,” Beaky’s nickname for Johnnie who, by the way, cannot account for his whereabouts on the night of Beaky’s death. Later, Lina learns that Johnnie borrowed a book from Isobel about Richard Palmer, a murderer who killed someone with the same brandy trick used to kill Beaky.
Lina then discovers that Johnnie has been enquiring about her life insurance policy. Returning home one evening, Johnnie locks the door and reminds Lina that the staff have the night off and that they are all alone. He offers to bring her a glass of milk to help her sleep. If you believe Johnnie to be guilty, then there’s only one thing that can be in that milk, poison.
This scene is clearly a reference to Johnnie's murder of Lina in the book. With sinister shadows cast on the walls, Johnnie slowly walks up the stairs carrying a small silver tray on which stands a glass of milk. Wanting to draw the audience’s attention to the glass, Hitchcock had a light placed inside it that literally made it glow. It's an incredible scene shot beautifully by Harry Stradling Sr. But Lina doesn’t drink the milk and the still full glass can be seen on her nightstand the next day.
In the end, when Johnnie speeds up the car and reaches toward Lina, one can read his action as he’s not attempting to grab her but rather he’s trying to push her out of the car to her death. Lina’s quick jump to conclusions that Johnnie planned to kill himself gives him an automatic out. Lina, who had been on her way to stay with her mother, is coming back to him, and he’s safe for the moment. The shot of Johnnie’s arm across Lina’s shoulders as they drive home can be seen as a menacing sign. It’s merely a matter of time before Lina becomes his next victim.
Hitchcock may not have gotten the ending that he wanted, but perhaps this one is better, leaving audiences guessing and arguing over whether or not Johnnie is a murderer and what will become of poor Lina.