Suspicion is a good movie, probably even better if you haven’t read the Francis Iles book on which it is based, Before the Fact. That, however, is a nuance not typical of Hitchcock’s adaptations. On the other hand, never was he so hampered by his source material. With this one, whoever adapted the story had to know going in that there was one element of the book — and it’s an important element — that, realistically, couldn’t be included in the film. And without it — well, it’s a different story.
It won’t sound like it in a review without spoilers, though. The film, like the book, is about a young woman who marries a dashing scoundrel. Johnnie Aysgarth lies, cheats, and steals, partly to cover his addiction to gambling and partly to pay for it. Mostly because that’s just who he is. Lina, his wife, doesn’t approve of any of it, but as Johnnie’s transgressions progress, one suspects she could be happy with a little gambling which, after all, is a whole lot better than murder.
After a whirlwind romance, the movie is all about Lina discovering who, really, she married. And it’s here that the movie fails. Not in the little things: this movie (again, like the book) is funny and suspenseful; Cary Grant has no difficulty with the role of a lovable rogue and Joan Fontaine (who won Best Actress for her role) grounds the film dramatically, just as Lina hopes to ground Johnnie. The trouble is on a larger scale than that. In the book, written entirely from Lina’s point of view, we learned everything we needed to know about the other characters. In the film, also from Lina’s point of view, we don’t. The concealment is cleverly done, but it still feels like something Johnnie would do: it feels like lying or cheating. Movies (and books, too) do this kind of thing all the time, of course, but rarely in a way so central to the plot. Which isn’t to say the movie doesn’t end well. I think both book and film end the way they ought to, but each is operating under a different set of rules.
With Hitchcock’s adaptations, it doesn’t usually matter much whether you read the source material first. He molds them and changes them, creating films that stand entirely on their own. In this case, though, I think it does matter. If you are thinking of reading the one and watching the other, I suggest seeing Suspicion first. But if you have time only for one, read Before the Fact.