Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion: Before & After the Fact
Re-constructing the final moments of Suspicion
Much has been written, correctly and incorrectly, about the difficulties surrounding the ending of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (RKO-1941), the director's fourth Hollywood production, based on Francis Iles's Before the Fact. What follows is an examination the shooting script before and after revisions, production correspondence, a careful study of the finished picture, and the director's statements after the fact.
The Ending Hitchcock Claimed He Wanted
Hitchcock himself told François Truffaut and numerous other interviewers that his original intention was to have Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) guilty of the crimes for which he is suspected, and that Lina (Joan Fontaine), aware of her husband's guilt writes a letter to her mother (Dame May Witty) indicating that she knows Johnnie is going to murder her and she intends to allow him to do so. Later, Hitchcock said, Johnnie brings Lina a glass of poisoned milk, and she gives him the letter to mail. The last scene would have been Johnnie mailing the incriminating letter.
This ending, reminiscent of the ironic or twist endings of many an Alfred Hitchcock Presents installment, was never actually filmed, nor is there evidence that it was ever scripted that way. While the twist ending would have satisfied the Production Code, Hitchcock and RKO knew that audiences would have difficulty accepting Lina's drinking the milk which she knows to be poisoned, and so, according to Hitchcock biographers John Russell Taylor and Donald Spoto, it was the director's suggestion early on in his involvement with the production, that the story should be about a "neurotically suspicious woman".
The Incriminating Letter Ending
In spite of the lack of script material for an "incriminating letter" ending, there is much evidence in the finished film to support Hitchcock's statements that this was his preferred ending. Such an ending is consistent with -- and would have completed -- a major theme in the existing picture.
In the opening sequence, it is a postage stamp which Johnnie borrows from Lina that ultimately brings them together. Using the stamp to pay his fare, Johnnie remarks to the annoyance of the conductor, "Write to your mother!" Thus, foreshadowing the ending of Lina's incriminating letter to her mother. At crucial moments in the film letters are sent and received. When Lina elopes with Johnnie, the excuse that she gives her parents when she goes out is that she is going to the post office.
The theme of "letters" is carried forward in the game of anagrams that Lina plays with Beaky. At the moment when Lina decides she will leave Johnnie, she writes a letter to him, ultimately tearing it up (an action that would be repeated by both Judy Barton in Vertigo and Melanie Daniels in The Birds). Johnnie then enters with a telegram containing news of his father-in-law's death. Later, Lina's suspicions mount when Johnnie hides a letter he's received from an insurance company. Finally, Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance dropping a letter into a mailbox.
Also telling are several suggested titles contained in a memo from producer Harry Edington to RKO executive Peter Lieber, dated December 10, 1940, which include: Letter from a Dead Lady, A Letter to Mail, Posthumously Yours, Forever Yours, Yours to Remember, and Your Loving Widow -- all suggestive of the "incriminating letter" ending.
This ending however was foiled for several reasons. One reason is that RKO did not wish to have Cary Grant portray a murderer. A second, and more likely reason is that the Production Code would not allow Lina to allow herself to be murdered. Criminals could commit suicide within the Code, but a heroine could not, in spite of the fact that her actions would help convict a murderer.
The Preview Ending
The first ending shot by Hitchcock, and seen by a preview audience did show Lina drinking a glass of milk which she believes to contain poison. Believing she is about to die, she embraces Johnnie and forgives him. When Johnnie realizes the implications, that Lina believes him to be a murderer, he leaves. War has broken out and Lina searches for Johnnie. In a scene mirroring the opening sequence on the train, Lina sees a London Illustrated News photograph with Johnnie in an RAF pilot's uniform, and using another name, James Allen. She is next seen at the base where an air force commodore explains that Allen (Johnnie) is one of their best pilots -- a real hero. This is a reversal from earlier as Lina's father, General McLaidlaw (Cedric Hardwicke), another representative of the British military, obviously disapproves of Johnnie. Johnnie has made good of himself and their future seems bright. Lina watches as Johnnie flies off on a dangerous mission over Berlin and sees that he has named his fighter after her, "Monkey-face."
Following the preview in June 1941, Hitchcock sought a new ending, and RKO president, George J. Schaefer sent the following suggestion to the director:
"Nothing in the picture is to be changed until the final scene where he brings her a glass of milk. He brings the glass of milk, just as shown now, puts it on the table and says to her, 'I have brought you something. Go ahead and drink it.' She looks him with an earnest, knowing expression, and in the most solemn but devoted tone of voice says, 'Do you want me to drink this? If so, hand it to me yourself. Give it to me out of your own hands, because if you want me to drink it, I will gladly drink it and forgive you.' He looks startled and replies, 'So you know.' She replies, 'Yes, I know.' He says at first incredulously and then later in self-abasement, 'You would drink this, knowing what is in it? You love me so much, you would die for me, that I might accomplish my purpose. Without much qualm, I was about to give you this drink, but low as I have sunk to realize you would die for me in this way, makes me know that I am not fit to live. That I should not live.' With which he puts the glass to his lips and empties it, falling on the bed unconscious. She in panic takes up the telephone, phones the woman detective writer and exclaims excitedly, 'Johnnie took what you told him about in a glass of milk a minute ago. He's unconscious. Is there anything I can do?' The writer replies, 'Don't worry. I did not tell Johnnie and of course, I would not, the real poison. But I wanted to see what he would do, and I gave him a prescription that is a potion from which he will awake unharmed within a few hours. I did not even share with you a fact that I had not told him the real prescription, because knowing all of you, I wanted to bring this thing to a climax.' Lina hangs up the phone, notices beads of perspiration on Johnnie's head and takes his head in her lap, wipes off the perspiration and with a beatific expression of hope, looks into the camera."
The Existing Ending
An examination of the shooting script with revisions, and a careful viewing of the last ten minutes of the finished picture reveal that two key sequences were rearranged, some new scenes photographed and an entirely different ending constructed.
As it stands now, the order of sequences is as follows: Lina and Johnnie arrive home from dinner at Isobel's, where the conversation had touched upon murder and an undetectable poison. Lina tells Johnnie she wants to sleep alone, he leaves and she faints to the floor. After a fade out, the next scene begins with Lina in bed, waking to find Johnnie and Isobel by her side. Johnnie goes to get Lina's dinner, leaving Lina with Isobel. They talk about Johnnie, and Isobel reveals that she told Johnnie about the undetectable poison. Later Johnnie brings Lina a glass of milk, leaving the room saying "Good-night, Lina." Lina merely stares at the glass and the scene fades out. The following sequence begins with a closeup of the untouched glass of milk and Lina packing a suitcase. She tells Johnnie that she's going to her mother's. Johnnie insists on driving her. On route to Lina's mothers, Johnnie takes a sharp turn and Lina's door flies open. Johnnie appears to attempt to push her out of the moving car, Lina screams and Johnnie pulls over. Lina runs out of the car and Johnnie says that he was trying to help her. Lina deduces that Johnnie asked about the poison because he intends to commit suicide. She tells him that they could start over, and they drive off, back home as Johnnie puts his arm around Lina.
Clearly, this sequence of events, with the driving sequence as the finale, completely foils Hitchcock's build-up toward the true climax of Johnnie bringing Lina a glass of milk. The scene of Johnnie carrying the illuminated glass up the staircase was always intended by Hitchcock to be the big set piece for the picture. Whether or not the glass contains poison is irrelevant.
The rearrangement of sequences was accomplished by a simple cheat shot. When Lina is packing her bags to go to her mother's, the opening shot, which was a scene added later, begins with a closeup of the untouched glass of milk, indicating Lina did not drink it. The camera then pulls back and we see Lina packing a suitcase. However we do not see Lina's face - because it's not Joan Fontaine. When the scene cuts to Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant in the remainder of the sequence, if you look carefully at the night table in the background, the untouched glass of milk is missing.
Despite the indecision over its ending, the film was a tremendous success, and more importantly Hitchcock had enjoyed a measure of creative freedom which he knew that he would not get at Selznick International.
Copyright 2001 Steven DeRosa