Having read Francis’ Iles brilliant book, Before the Fact (1932), I was interested to see how Hitchcock adapted it and conveniently it was released in this month’s chosen year for Past Offences Monthly Challenge, 1941.
‘Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband nearly eight years before she realised that she was married to a murderer’ (Before the Fact, 1932: 5)
To a small extent the film stays true to the novel. Lina (Joan Fontaine) and Johnny’s (Cary Grant) courtship commences the start of the film and Lina becomes more and more besotted by Johnny eventually eloping with him. And of course it is during her marriage that Lina begins to wonder about her husband; his inability to keep a job and to not gamble, his disregard for other peoples’ possessions and the truth (you know just the small things). However, it is at this point that the film really diverges from the book, as Lina just seems to alternate between going around in a daze and turning a blind eye to Johnny’s behaviour, (thinking his plan to depend on her inheritance makes him a ‘baby’) and acting neurotically and generally like a twit. Lina in the novel is a much more complex character and in a way is made of sterner stuff, in particular thinking she can reform her husband.
Unsurprisingly the film has to cut out a lot of events from the book, but I think in doing so this makes Lina’s suspicions that her husband is a murderer very rushed and centred predominantly on Binky Thwaite, who is a rich friend of Johnny’s. As events progress and Johnny’s need for cash becomes more essential… this suspicion/fear intensifies and develops into the notion that she is also in Johnny’s deathly sights. Hitchcock attempts to do a dramatic and tense ending, with all of Lina’s worries coming together in one big moment, but for me it was a huge disappointment, looking insignificant in comparison to the ending of the novel. Martin Edwards in his new (ish) book, The Golden Age of Murder (2015), agrees saying that, ‘not even the Master of Suspense could match Berkeley’s sheer nerve, and the ending of the film reversed that of the book’ (Edwards, 2015: 144). Moreover, I found that Hitchcock’s ending ruined the characterisation of the Johnny and Lina, as their behaviour had to do a U turn to make such an ending possible. In the novel, Iles doesn’t pull away from the depravities and weaknesses of human nature and their consequences, whereas the film seems much tamer in comparison.
Edwards (2015) also suggests that Cary Grant was ‘miscast as Johnny’ (Edwards, 2015: 144) and to an extent I can see this, but for me the greater miscasting was Joan Fontaine as Lina or perhaps it’s the version of Lina she does which annoyed me so much. My dislike began with how uppity Lina comes across at the start and is compounded as Lina’s character is oversimplified in the rest of the film. You have to remember that Lina increasingly realises her husband is a murderer, yet she doesn’t run to the police or tell anyone. Berkeley, as recorded in Edwards’ book, said that his ‘aim was to explore this curious twist of female psychology and try to make it clear how such a thing can happen’ (Edwards, 2015: 144). And in the book this does happen, where even for a time Lina does leave Johnny but goes back to him. Lina’s relationship with Johnny is shown in the book with all of its complexities and nuances and makes her actions which seem ludicrous when summarised, entirely plausible for that situation. Fontaine’s simplified version of Lina’s character makes this impossible and so she just comes across as a hysterical ninny, rather than somebody who has examined all the facts and has still decided to be in a relationship with a murderer.
All in all I think my rant-review (sorry), suggests that Frances Iles brilliant story is best read rather than watched. This sadly is not Hitchcock at his best and films such as Dial M for Murder are much superior.