Viewer Guide: Suspicion and Smashed with Richard Peña

July 27, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.  

REEL 13 CLASSIC | SUSPICION

This week’s classic is the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Suspicion, from 1941, starring Cary Grant as a charming wastrel who may or may not be a murderer, and Joan Fontaine, in her Oscar-winning role, as his wife who fears that her husband may not be entirely innocent.

Suspicion is based on a 1932 British novel titled Before the End, and over the years there had been several attempts to adapt it for the screen. Emlyn Williams, the actor and playwright, tried, as did Robert Montgomery. Even Laurence Olivier tried to launch a production with a very young Maureen O’Hara set to play his wife. They all failed.

Enter Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock said he was attracted to the material in part because it allowed him to make another English-set picture in Hollywood during the war, just as he had done with Rebecca.

As he typically did, he had his writing collaborators—his wife Alma and Joan Harrison—create an outline. Then he hired screenwriters to polish it. Nathanael West, author of The Day of the Locust, had completed a draft just before he died. Hitchcock replaced West with Samson Raphaelson, probably best known for writing the play The Jazz Singer, the film that more than other made “the talkies” a reality for Hollywood.

Raphaelson had become a specialist in witty comedies, especially for director Ernst Lubitsch. He didn’t write thrillers, and that was the first of the film’s many problems. Raphaelson couldn’t seem to find the right tone. There was also the problem of the title. They couldn’t settle on one, and they only arrived at Suspicion days before the film was set to be released; throughout, the cast had a hard time finding their bearings.

Then there was the problem of the ending. The studio refused to let the film end the way the novel did. At a preview, the audience laughed at the ending that Hitchcock did shoot, and so he had to go and shoot a new one. Hitchcock fell ill during the production, and when he returned to the picture, Fontaine thought he had lost his zest for the movie. She fell ill too, and at one point, the studio thought of shutting the whole thing down. Hitchcock was so unhappy with the film he even thought about taking his name it.

And yet, for all that, the film turned out to be pretty good. Most critics liked it, and it received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Musical Score; Joan Fontaine won the Oscar for Best Actress.

The novel ends with the wife deciding to commit suicide because she is convinced that her husband is a murderer. But she also decides in a suicide note to share her suspicions with her mother and asks her husband to mail the sealed letter. He gives her a poisonous glass of milk and then mails the letter sealing his own fate.

Hitchcock said he loved that ending, however the studio made him change it. There are memos that indicate Hitchcock would later claim he couldn’t really imagine Cary Grant a murderer and after trying all sorts of other endings, including having Grant join the Royal Air Force, they came up with this one on the film today, where the wife’s suspicions are all in her imagination.

 REEL 13 INDIE | SMASHED

This week’s indie is Smashed, a 2012 drama directed by James Ponsoldt.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate Hannah, a convivial young woman whose warm and charming personality serves her well as a Los Angeles-area grade school teacher, winning her the respect of her students and school principal alike. The trouble is, the source of Kate’s conviviality is too often of the bottled variety. Together with her husband Charlie, played by Aaron Paul, Kate’s afterhours carousing to check out new bands and join in karaoke competitions—all fueled by a steady supply of alcohol—has shifted from the pleasurable to the punishing, with an ever-increasing list of regrettable experiences piling up, all under the influence. Through her alcoholic fog, Kate has begun to sense she’s crossed an invisible boundary from social drinking into something darker and scarier, with a growing sense of urgency that she has to find a way out. But what exactly does finding a way out entail, and furthermore, how do you do it?

Also featured in supporting roles are Megan Mullally as Kate’s principal, Nick Offerman as a fellow teacher, Mary Kay Place as Kate’s mother and Octavia Spencer as Kate’s first AA sponsor.

Reminiscent in broad outline of director Blake Edwards’ groundbreaking 1962 film The Days of Wine and Roses, Smashed simply but effectively conveys a marriage come undone when the participants begin to fall out of love—not so much with each other, but with alcohol, which has evolved into the primary object of affection in the relationship. So while the film offers a familiar story, this time it’s retold without the histrionics of the Wine and Roses era when alcoholism was among the many subjects that needed to be discussed very cautiously. That said, the damage and destruction are, painfully, still very much the same.

The script grew out of conversations between screenwriter Susan Burke and director James Ponsoldt as they compared stories about the “stupid things” they had done under the influence, and the pair ultimately incorporated some of Burke’s own experiences in becoming sober into the narrative. The film avoids the strident moralism of an earlier generation of “treatment” films, depicting Kate’s situation as not simply a personal failing but as a drag on her life and future that must be dealt with. As so many prior films about alcoholism had centered on the experiences of male characters, Burke was particularly interested in keeping the dramatic focus on a young woman’s struggle to cope with her alcohol abuse—to make her central character another one of the countless women “hiding in plain sight” with a dependency she can no longer control.

 

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