(director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriters: Samson Raphaelson/Joan Harrison/Alma Reville/from the novel, “Before the Fact,” by Francis Iles; cinematographer: Harry Stradling; editor: William Hamilton; music: Franz Waxman; cast: Cary Grant (Johnnie Aysgarth), Joan Fontaine (Lina McLaidlaw), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Gen. McLaidlaw), Nigel Bruce (Beaky Thwaite), Dame May Whitty (Mrs. McLaidlaw), Isabel Jeans (Mrs. Newsham), Heather Angel (Ethel), Leo G. Carroll (Captain George Melbeck), Auriol Lee (Isobel Sedbusk); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alfred Hitchcock; RKO; 1941)

 “The Hollywood-style happy ending was imposed on Hitchcock by the studio.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Alfred Hitchcock’s (“Vertigo”/”Rear Window”/”The Birds”) first film of his that stars Cary Grant (who gives a superb performance as a debonair rascal playboy and gambler, who is concurrently charming and sinister). It was panned by many critics for being compromised–the Hollywood-style happy ending was imposed on Hitchcock by the studio, which didn’t sit well with either Hitchcock or the critics. Hitchcock wanted the same finale as the novel, “Before the Fact,” by Francis Iles (whose real name was Anthony Berkeley Cox), but RKO insisted it didn’t want matinee idol superstar Grant to be viewed as a wife poisoner by his fans. Writers Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville(Hitchcock’s wife) keep the scenario clichéd, while the director keeps the English countryside setting artificial.

Penniless Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) is a charming scoundrel, who meets someone bookish on a train and in a pushy way gets his lady acquaintances to formally introduce him to her when back home. She’s Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine), the prim, overprotected, spinsterish daughter of wealthy General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). Though warned by dad to watch out for the ne’er-do-well fortune hunter, the plain looking Lina falls for Johnnie’s good looks and can’t wait to fly the coop of her confining home. After a date to the Hunt Club Ball, the next morning Lina elopes with her feller.

The carefree Johnnie figures her wealthy family would provide for them and when they don’t, he steals their antique chairs so he can raise money to gamble at the racetrack–which she overlooks because she’s so insecure and doesn’t want to lose him and, anyway, he does eventually return the chairs. But when Lina discovers hubby has been fired from his office job for embezzling and has gotten into a shady land scheme with his best friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce), who tipped her off about Johnnie at the racetrack and who dies under mysterious circumstances while drinking brandy in Paris –Lina begins to suspect that Johnnie murdered him and she’s next.

The most memorable scene has Johnnie climb the mansion stairs carrying his wife’s nightly glass of milk, which Lina assumes is poisoned (the milk glows portentously, as Hitchcock had a light bulb placed in the glass). In the climactic scene, the couple are wildly driving along a dangerous rocky cliff high above the ocean to her mother’s house and she fears being tossed from the car. But, at last, they have no choice but to confront each other about what’s on their minds and this clears up matters.

I usually don’t like studios to interfere with the creative work of filmmakers, but in this case I didn’t think the so-called cop-out ending was all that bad. Grant was so believably good, that I could have believed him to be either the murderer or merely an irresponsible compulsive gambler.Therefore either the book’s or studio’s ending would work for me.

Joan Fontaine, who plays a timid, vulnerable, and distrustful wife, won an Academy Award for best actress, which many felt was a make up call for losing the award previously for Rebecca.