The story of Lina "Monkey - face" Aysgard and her husband Johnny is
from a novel by Francis Iles called BEFORE THE FACT. Hitchcock liked
Iles' novels, which were unusual because the heroes were actually
anti-heroes. Johnny is an upper class wastrel who is not unwilling to
swindle or kill if it benefits himself. He is responsible, actually,
for at least three deaths in the story. Interestingly enough, Hitch
always wanted to do Iles' "Black Comedy" novel MALICE AFORETHOUGHT, as
a film - possibly with Alex Guiness - wherein the anti-hero Dr. Bickley
(based on Dr. Crippen and Major Herbert Armstrong) poisons his wife and
several others in a charming little village in the English countryside.
Unfortunately, Hitch never got to do MALICE AFORETHOUGHT (but it has
been done on BBC television once or twice).
He had just pocketed the "Oscar" (for the only time in his career, by the way) for REBECCA - his first American film. Hitch apparently thought he could do anything. He was now to discover he could not do everything.
To begin with, Iles' novel ended with Johnny facing the loss of his wife (but in a curious switch - Lina willingly takes the poison he brings her, and actually destroys him emotionally because Johnny was secretly ashamed of this crime - he really loved Lina and she kills herself to help him out). If the Hays and Breen offices had any imagination they would have realized that the film would have been so far better and more moral if they had left the ending alone. Johnny would have been too cowardly to ever kill himself, and would have gone to his grave realizing what he threw away. It would have been a worse punishment than if Johnny had been hanged.
But the censors would have none of it. If Lina died Johnny must be punished. Hitch played around with changing the ending (he did this frequently in his adaptations of novels). He would have had Lina write a note to her mother, explaining that she knew Johnny was going to kill her, but she loved him and would let him. Johnny would poison her with her evening milk, and then (while happily whistling) post the letter to her mother (Dame May Witty).
Here he came acropper with another portion of the Hollywood scene: Cary Grant's agent and RKO Studio. Both were very image conscious, but that image was comic or dapper or likable - but not murderous. Grant himself would have enjoyed the change (ten years later he might have tried to do it with Hitch that way*). But in 1941 too many interested parties were opposed. As a result, Grant's part had to be rewritten.
(*A few years later, Grant appeared in MR. LUCKY, as a gambler who decides to commit a fraud regarding a war effort charity. He does use violence several times in the film, but he reforms against his partner in the fraud - though he violently kicks him in a fight - and ends up enlisting in the army. That and his role as Ernie in NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART were the two closest negative parts he had after SUSPICION, and neither is a total villain.)
Johnny remains a charming wastrel, who loves gambling, and who depends on others to pay for him. But he is struggling to try to go legitimate, and in his best scene in the film (when he is trying to get financing from Nigel Bruce for a building project) he shows a sense of reality that is just missing from most of the film. He turns on Joan Fontane, who thinks Grant is planning something crooked at the expense of his friend Bruce and begins "gumming up the works" of his business deal. Actually one sees there what the film might have been like, but it was a rare moment of real juice in the movie.
Grant does as well with the part as he can, as does Fontane (who won the Best Actress Oscar award). But it is a hollow victory in the film. Best are Nigel Bruce as Beaky Thwaite, Johnny's close, doomed friend (and in the novel his victim). Also in a brief role is Leo G. Carroll as Johnny's cousin and employer who is swindled by him. Carroll only has one brief scene, but is memorable as one of the few outsiders who calls Johnny's character correctly.
In later years, after he showed his box office success, Hitch would be able to make his central figures negative ones. As pointed out elsewhere on this thread, Joseph Cotton would be "Uncle Charlie" the murderer in SHADOW OF A DOUBT within two years. Later on he would do THE PARADINE CASE, where defendant Alida Valli was guilty, and STAGE FRIGHT, where suspect Richard Todd lies partially about the crime to the audience at the start.
I have one particular complaint. Johnny borrows a volume from the Notable British Trial series from a neighbor who is a mystery novelist. It is the trial of a 19th Century poisoner who once killed a victim by betting the victim that he could drink a bumper of brandy without stopping for breath. This (when Fontane hears of it) resembles the death of Bruce. This actually happened in the 1850s to a notorious poisoner who was a gambler. He was Dr. Palmer of Rugeley. And there is a volume of the Notable British Trial series about Palmer. But it was Dr. WILLIAM Palmer historically. In the movie the volume is clearly labeled THE TRIAL OF RICHARD PALMER. Somebody did not do their research properly
Action / Mystery / Thriller
Action / Mystery / Thriller
Johnny Aysgarth is a handsome gambler who seems to live by borrowing money from friends. He meets shy Lina McLaidlaw on a train whilst trying to travel in a first class carriage with a third class ticket. He begins to court Lina and before long they are married. It is only after the honeymoon that she discovers his true character and she starts to become suspicious when Johnny's friend and business partner, Beaky is killed mysteriously.
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