Release Date: November 14, 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
After watching several screwball comedies, it was alarming how similar this psychological thriller begins. Was Hitchcock making a statement on screwball comedies, or is it just a coincidence? Shortly after their first meeting, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) pursues Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) across a meadow, and then grabs her hair and starts to readjust it. This is a huge red flag for Johnnie’s bad character, and yet how many screwball comedies begin with a “goofy” character breaking personal boundaries?
Lina, convinced she’ll become a spinster, is drawn in by Johnnie’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude. After they elope and return from a honeymoon, Johnnie reveals that he is broke, has no job, and spends much of his time gambling. Lina catches Johnnie in several lies as he continues to gamble, and even embezzle, behind her back. When he proposes setting up a speculative land business with his friend Beaky (a wonderful performance by Nigel Bruce), Lina suspects that Johnnie is planning a con. And when Beaky dies, Lina begins to fear that Johnnie is a murderer and she will be his next victim.
The conclusion is cleverly ambiguous: is Johnnie really attempting to work through his compulsions and Lina’s imagination is running away with her suspicions? Or, is Johnnie lying and successfully conning Lina once again? My understanding is that the Hays Code considerably changed the source novel significantly to be acceptable for filming, but I think Hitchcock worked well within those restraints to make a compelling drama. Plus, Fontaine puts in a fantastic performance, and Cary Grant, who I’ve always liked, is very creepy and unsettling.