Cary Grant, Hitchcock & cinema's most famous glass of milk
“For the sake of their own careers, important stars won’t be villains. The idols that we put up there must do no wrong. If they do, audiences don’t approve of sort of thing”. (1)
Times, and trends, have changed since Alfred Hitchcock made Suspicion (1941). 14 years before, Hitchcock’s third film, The Lodger (1927), had featured Ivor Novello as a mysterious young man, suspected to be the serial killer “The Avenger”. Balking at the idea of their popular star as a murderer, the studio reworked Elliot Stannard’s script so that Novello’s innocence was firmly assured. By the time of Suspicion, Hitchcock was now in Hollywood. His American debut, Rebecca (1940), had won the Oscar for Best Picture the previous year. Yet, history was about to repeat itself. Despite his instant success away from Britain, Hitchcock once again found the studio having the last word with his second picture. Or did they?
Based on Francis Iles’ 1932 novel Before The Fact, Suspicion told the tale of wealthy but timid spinster Lina McLadilaw (Joan Fontaine in the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock film) who falls for charming rogue Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). After their honeymoon, Lina becomes increasingly unsettled by her husband’s devious behaviour and begins to suspect that he is plotting to kill her. Joan Fontaine had co-starred alongside Laurence Olivier in Rebecca. For Cary Grant, Suspicion was to be the first of four collaborations with Hitchcock.
Suspicion’s most celebrated scene is where Johnnie ominously ascends up a shadowy staircase, carrying a luminous glass of milk for his wife. In fact, this Gothic-like sequence, seemingly signalling Johnnie’s murderous intent, would be at the heart of the controversy over the film’s eventual ending. Hitchcock would later share his original intentions with François Truffaut:
“I had something else in mind. 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…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”. (2)
In the letter, Lina would reveal to her mother the truth about her husband. Knowingly, she drinks the milk, unable to live with the fact that the man she desperately loves is also a killer. Of course, Suspicion does not end like this. As with Novello’s eponymous lodger, Johnnie’s innocence is proven and Lina’s suspicions are finally nullified.
The abrupt, studio-imposed ending left Suspicion with a controversial legacy. Time Magazine’s contemporary review would be reflective of criticism of the film since its release.
“Suspicion is good Alfred Hitchcock-up to the last few minutes. In those final minutes the picture falls apart at the seams…This dippy denouement spoils the picture” (3).
Yet, is all really as it seems? In the book, Lina drinks the fatal glass of milk. Though she survives in Hitchcock’s film, we never know if the drink was poisoned or not; the milk is left, and shown the next day, as untouched. At the end, having resolved their perilious cliff-top ordeal, a redeemed Johnnie drives back home, his arm around his wife. Is what Geoff Andrew calls a “silly cop-out ending (4)” the classic example of studio interference or did Hitchcock weave some final ambiguity into his picture after all?
Perhaps, at the film’s closure, we’ve swapped places with Lina. She’s fully convinced of her husband’s innocence, but, ironically, the abruptness of the ending is actually unsettling for the audience. We’ve been witness to Johnnie’s dishonesty throughout the film. Is he still lying? Just as with that glass of milk, we don’t know the truth for sure. Lina is once again smitten but we have only his words to go on. We’re left suspicious.
1. Chandler, Charlotte. It’s Only A Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006 (Paperback), p.137
2. Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1983 (Revised edition), p.142
3. Time, The New Pictures: Nov 17, 1941. Available at: http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,795639,00.html
4. Available at: https://www.timeout.com/london/film/suspicion