Suspicion (1941)

Given its austere domestic settings and the casting of Joan Fontaine as a woman driven mad by the sinister social forces that box her in, it’d be easy to frame Suspicion as the B-picture version Hitchcock’s Rebecca. It’s certainly a narrower, cheaper follow-up to that lush psychological drama, one with more of a penchant for outright comedy, which always has a way of making a film seem lesser-than. The main difference between the two pictures is that Hitchcock is far less interested in Fontaine’s character’s inner psyche here than he is in Rebecca. Suspicion is more explorative of a masculine sensibility, particularly in the cad-like villainy of an absolute scoundrel played by Cary Grant, who torments Fontaine throughout the picture. This is a film about the sinister combination of masculine charm & traditional handsomeness, to the point where if it were released in the 2010s instead of the 1940s it would have almost certainly been framed as a condemnation of the dreaded Toxic Masculinity. It also surely would’ve gotten more flack for how its Studio-sabotaged ending failed to fully condemn that weaponized machismo with any true conviction.

Fontaine stars as a Provincial daughter of immense wealth who’s staring down a potential life of spinsterdom, alone with her overprotective parents & mountainous piles of books. She’s taken aback, then, when a handsome playboy played by Grant actively courts her for marriage, when he could just as easily pursue much more worldly, glamorous women from the nearby metropolis of London. It quickly becomes clear that Fontaine has been singled out by Grant because she’s an easy mark, willing to overlook his glaringly obvious character flaws because he’s a handsome charmer. When Grant becomes frustrated that his new cash-cow wife’s inheritance money from her wealthy family isn’t pouring in quickly enough to bankroll his outrageous spending & gambling habits, things turn sinister. Characters who could bring money into the home through their last wills & testaments conveniently start dropping off like flies, and Fontaine fears her demise may be next thanks to her robust life insurance policy. Much of the film is dedicated to generating paranoia through the eyes of Fontaine’s increasingly suspicious protagonist as she attempts to parse out exactly who or what she has married – an overgrown man-child, a handsome grifter, a coldly calculating killer? Unfortunately, the studio behind the picture chickened out and forced Hitchcock to choose the least interesting answer to this question possible, but the director does a great job of holding onto the suspense of her suspicions for as long as they’ll allow him to.

Suspicion works best as a character study of an absolute scoundrel, especially since much of the film is dedicated to sussing out exactly how sinister Grant’s handsome-devil playboy antagonist truly is. So many of his character traits from frame one are the tell-tale signs of a toxic macho bully we’ve all come to recognize as the worst aspects of traditional masculinity. Instead of sincerely relating to Fontaine’s bookish Provincial nerd, he nefariously makes a point to seduce her, like a mid-2000s pick-up artist. He negs her with the off-putting pet name “monkey-face,” repeatedly violates her personal boundaries when she tells him “No,” and infantilizes her reactions he she is legitimately upset with his lies & selfish deeds. And because he’s a handsome charmer who people find pleasant to be around, they’ll excuse even the most roguish offenses of his behavior. Characters will wave off his faults by describing him as “a baby” or explaining, “You mustn’t mind Johnny when he cuts up. That’s what makes him Johnny!” When someone asks early on, “Isn’t Johnny terrible?,” it’s meant as a compliment to his cheeky devilry, but as his list of faults accumulate it retroactively plays almost as a warning. Johnny is terrible; in fact, he’s not much more than an amalgamation of the modern man’s worst behavior. Once he starts reading pulpy crime novels as if they were instruction manuals, the situation only worsens, but he was already a danger to everyone around him from the start – especially to women.

The only thing that hinders Suspicion from being a convincing screed on the dangers of toxic masculinity is its bungled conclusion, which was reportedly altered by RKO Pictures to preserve Cary Grant’s likeability with audiences by making the character’s guilt improbable (although not entirely absolved). The good news is that there are plenty of other places to find this exact story of male entitlement run wild in other works, at the very least in the novel this film was adapted from and its spiritual descendent in Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (which has also seen several big-screen adaptations). There’s also plenty of places to see Hitchcock’s cheeky devilry as an auteur uninhibited by studio influence, partly due to the success of more stately pictures like Rebecca. What you don’t see as often is Cary Grant’s excellence as a dangerous cad who’s too handsome & too charming to fully resist – likely to your own peril. No matter how much the studio attempted to neutralize his performance of toxic bravado, the damning display of weaponized charm & sinister entitlement still shines through, and Suspicion is most worthwhile as a vehicle for his performance of a truly dastardly character who represents the worst societal ills of his gender.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 37: Equinox Flower (1958)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Equinox Flower (1958) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.” One of his examples includes the passage, “In Equinox Flower, a Japanese film by the old master Yasujirō Ozu, there is this sequence of shots: a room with a read teapot in the foreground. Another view of the room. The mother folding clothes. A shot down a corridor with the mother crossing it at an angle, and then a daughter crossing at the back. A reverse shot in a hallway as the arriving father is greeted by the mother and daughter. A shot as the father leaves the frame, then the mother, then the daughter. A shot as the mother and father enter the room, as in the background the daughter picks up the red teapot and leaves the frame. This sequence of timed movement and cutting is as perfect as any music any written, any dance, any poem.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he does mention it as evidence in his salute to Ozu as “A Master of the Cinema.” He writes, “To love movies without loving Ozu is an impossibility. When I see his films, I am struck by his presence behind every line, every gesture. Like Shakespeare, he breathes through his characters, and when you have seen several of his films you feel as if you must have known him. What is strange, considering that his films were once considered too Japanese to even be shown in the West, is that you also feel you have known his characters–some of them for all of your life.”

I am beginning to accept that, like Andrei Tarkovsky & Terence Mallick, Yasujirō Ozu is one of those incredibly talented filmmakers I’ll never emotionally connect with. I’m too impatient, too scatterbrained to work my way up to Ozu’s quietly reflective, well-mannered wavelength, no matter how much I admire his attention to craft. With long, pensive features stitched together through meticulously arranged static shots, consciously avoiding camera movement, Ozu’s catalog is diabolically designed to make me feel like an unappreciative dolt in well-versed, patient film nerd circles. The delicate dialogue and stoic architecture that fascinates the filmmaker leave me feeling stubbornly stuck in a slow-sinking mud, praying that I don’t give up and fall asleep. This is especially true in Equinox Flower, a film that’s explicitly about stubbornness and inaction. In Ozu’s more devastating dramas like Tokyo Story, there’s at least a heart-wrenching central conflict with an undeniable emotional hook (in that particular case, the way the elderly are left behind by uncaring, selfish youth). Equinox Flower is a much tougher vibe to engage with, as its own conflict is a pensive shift towards enlightenment & understanding, something that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama.

Marking a shift in sympathies from valuing the elderly & tradition over the new-fangled youth to a more modern perspective, Ozu’s first color film wrings its hands for two full hours over the dissolution of the arranged marriage as a social institution. Our central character is a middle-aged father fretting over his conflicting feelings on modern marriage. He’s introduced giving a speech in favor of romantic marriage at a colleague’s daughter’s wedding, disparaging the result of the practical, arranged marriage he has with his own spouse. He then later advises a family friend to disobey her mother’s wishes and marry the man she loves. These expressions are explained to be hypocrisies as his own daughter is revealed to be planning marriage with a coworker, without seeking her parents’ counsel. The father apparently prefers the tradition of arranged marriage in his own household, finding it to be a more stable foundation for a partnership, whereas passion fades. He doubles down on his opposition to his daughter’s choice by essentially imprisoning her in their home, fighting off an encroaching modernity that looks increasingly inevitable. The audience knows this impulse to be toxic, and the movie tracks his stubborn drift towards empathy for his adult daughter’s autonomous decision.

My disconnect with Ozu might boil down to just how stubbornly well-behaved he is as a filmmaker and a persona. It’s how I imagine Scorsese & Bergman’s crises-of-Faith films appear to people who weren’t raised Christian. Ozu tells this story of young women leaving home to choose their own professions & lovers with great empathy for the old men who wish to control & stifle them. Arranged marriages are explained to be in opposition to passionate ones, but here “passion” is expressed through polite & mannered conversation, never physical desire. Much like how his protagonist fights the dissolution of arranged marriage traditions, Ozu fought the transition from silent film to talkies in the 1930s and the transition to color that started with Equinox Flower. In both cases he found that new-fangled way of doing things wasn’t so bad (he never returned to black & white filmmaking), despite his stubborn, teeth-grinding resistance. It’s clear he identified with the mental anguish this film’s patriarch goes through as he comes to terms with is adult daughter’s entitlement to romantic freedom. I never shared in that fretting for one minute, so the film mostly played like watching a stubborn bully gradually decide to not be such a rigidly traditionalist brute. It’s an admirable personality shift, but also one that doesn’t earn the long, self-reflective journey it’s afforded.

I do greatly appreciate the visual arrangements of Ozu’s framing. His biggest fans fawn over how his editing room cuts find a peculiar sense of movement within that beautiful stillness. Ebert gushed in particular about a sequence in Equinox Flower that establishes a poetic domesticity through these cuts, which he describes a being one of the most joyous sequences in all of cinema. I’ve been guilty of finding that same poetic joy in the artificial domesticity of a Douglas Sirk picture or two, but Sirk’s melodramas were informed by an emotional passion Ozu had no interest in exploring. It’s likely this feeling of a well-mannered, well-behaved emotional remove is a culturally-informed one, something I should strive to look past in my appreciation for the director’s formalist achievements. I can’t deny though, that I would have been much more enthusiastic about Equinox Flower if it paired its technical craft with genuinely passionate melodrama. It could have at least told its story through the daughter’s POV instead of her stubborn, traditionalist father’s. That might be the crux of where Ozu & I differ in sensibility & temperament.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Young at Heart (1954)

-Brandon Ledet