“Gaslighting” is the use of psychological manipulation to make a person doubt their own sanity, and even to lose it. The term derives from the 1938 British play Gas Light and its 1940 and 1944 film adaptations from Britain and Hollywood, respectively. It is somewhat surprising Alfred Hitchcock was not at the helm of the latter version, he being firmly entrenched in the Hollywood system by that time, as the story is very much in his wheelhouse. Gaslighting figures into a number of Hitchcock plots, as seen in Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958), for example, as well as other Hitchcock-influenced movies like Les Diaboliques (1955) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).
It is unclear whether Hitch intended his 1941 film Suspicion to be read in this way, since the explicit text of the story exonerates Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) of any wrongdoing beyond constant lying to his wife, reckless borrowing, and a gambling addiction. However, Grant brings such a sly shiftiness to the role, and Hitch so expertly handles the tonal whiplash of the constant back-and-forth of our suspicions about Johnnie, that even in the end we may be more doubtful of his innocence than his poor gaslighted wife, Lina (Joan Fontaine).
In the time Suspicion and many other Hitchcock classics were released, studios would not allow murderers to get away with it on screen, due to the pressures of the Hays Code. It can be seen in many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that Hitch enjoyed flouting this regulation as best he could, often ending the story with the murderer going free and then wrapping the episode up with a tongue-in-cheek narration of how the killer was, in fact, later caught. Knowing Hitch’s droll, dark humor as we do, it is easy to imagine he pulled off something similar in Suspicion, allowing the Hays Code to accept the logical explanation of Johnnie’s innocence as easily as poor Lina (or Monkeyface, as Johnnie calls her throughout) does.
Johnnie begins lying to Monkeyface almost the second the film begins, as he stumbles into her first-class train car in the dark as the train passes through a tunnel (though it was released almost twenty years earlier, Suspicion oddly seems to begin where North by Northwest leaves off). Whether or not Johnnie honestly failed to notice the car was occupied, as he claims, he quickly manages to swindle some money out of Lina when he is discovered in the first-class section with a third-class ticket. This nicely sums up Johnnie’s character and ambitions; he has been a third-class citizen all his life, but he uses deceit, charm, and quick thinking to sneak his way into the upper crust, as Lina sees when she glances at her newspaper and spots her new acquaintance on the arm of some high society dame.
Johnnie sees Lina again at some sort of…horse party? (I dunno what rich people do), and decides to pursue her, perhaps out of normal romantic attraction but, given what we have already seen, more likely because her presence at this hoity-toity event indicates she (or at least her family) is wealthy enough to be worth his time. Soon he is rather diabolically luring her away from church to gleefully assault her on a nearby hilltop. It is intentionally staged to look at first as though he is trying to throw her off the cliff, but instead he “merely” tears her coat off and forcefully holds her wrists as she struggles to get away from him. Then he insults her hair and calls her “Monkeyface.” Ah, the romance of the greatest generation!
It all works, though, as she rewards him with a kiss and rushes off to ask her father, General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), about him. Johnnie is a bad boy, “thrown out of some club for cheating at cards,” her father says. “Or maybe it was a woman.” Either way, Monkeyface is clearly pretty into it, and moments later Johnnie calls to cancel the date he had just insisted on before they parted ways. He then disappears from her life for a week, causing her great distress and a splitting headache that disappears immediately when she finally receives word from him that he wants to see her again. Johnnie has already expertly manipulated her emotions to make her physically dependent on him, and they have practically just met.
Few, if any, are immune to Johnnie’s charms, it seems. At the ball where he plans to meet Lina, he smoothly talks his way in despite obviously never having been invited, and then five of the women already in attendance spot him and just fucking dash over. He chooses Lina from the flock of thirsty bitches, and as they dance he greets her: “Hello, Monkeyface.” She replies with a shy “Hello,” and he repeats his greeting/insult until she gives him the desired “Hello, Johnnie.” It is almost like he’s training a dog. After their second date, she confesses she is in love with him, saying, “For the first time in my life, I know what I want.” His plan is working so effectively she thinks it is all her idea, and Johnnie’s face suggests even he is a little surprised at how quickly he is pulling it off, but he goes ahead and proposes to her. Again, second date.
Shortly after the marriage, Johnnie shows Monkeyface the extravagant home he has “bought” for them, then immediately hits her up for a thousand pounds to pay off someone he borrowed from for their honeymoon. When she reasonably asks him why he took such a lavish house when he has been broke all his life, Johnnie replies, “I didn’t think you’d want to live in a shack. A girl like you is going to come into plenty of money someday.” Despite this rather blatant statement of his intentions, he lets Monkeyface talk herself out of believing he married her for money, reasoning with subtle self-deprecation that he could have done better in that regard.
Sometime after Johnnie reluctantly agrees to get a job, his friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce) shows up and reveals to Monkeyface that Johnnie has been with him at the racetrack, rather than at his supposed job, and that he almost certainly sold the missing heirloom chairs her father previously sent them. “He doesn’t need more than one second to invent the most howling lie you ever heard,” Beaky tells her. When she asks him about the chairs, Johnnie admits to selling them but (we soon learn) lying about the circumstances, utilizing that vital blend of the truth and lies that any expert liar knows will help sell it. He feigns surprise that she would have wanted to keep the chairs, despite her explicitly stating that she wanted to pass them down to their children. Monkeyface shrugs it off, saying, “If they’re gone, they’re gone,” already used to her hysterical, womanly feelings and opinions being devalued, which is undoubtedly one thing that attracted Johnnie to her in the first place. Beaky doubts even the story Johnnie has supplied, but Monkeyface has been well trained, and she quietly but fiercely defends Johnnie.
The back-and-forth between trust and suspicion continues when Monkeyface sees the precious chairs in a store window, not in the hands of a private buyer as Johnnie had said (presumably the lie here was part of his claim to have gotten more money than the store actually paid for them), but just as she is ready to again confront him with his mendacity, Johnnie showers her with gifts and all is forgiven and forgotten, until Monkeyface later finds out Johnnie was fired from his job six weeks before, when it was discovered he had embezzled 2,000 pounds from his employer, Captain Melbeck (Leo G. Carroll). She resolves to leave him, then tears up the letter in which she was going to tell him. A confrontation at least seems imminent when Johnnie appears ominously behind her, but he distracts her with news of her father’s death and she collapses into his arms, helpless and fully his again.
Also now belonging to Johnnie is the inheritance the General has left Monkeyface, which consists of 500 pounds per year and a portrait of himself. The disappointment on Johnnie’s face is as screamingly obvious as his keen interest was moments before when “his” part of the inheritance was about to be announced. Did Johnnie in fact kill the General in some way that made it look natural, or was he merely hoping the death would provide him a windfall? It is an interesting question in light of his already established fondness for detective stories, with the idea that he might be reading them for tips on how to get away with murder developed later on.
When Monkeyface finally confronts him about losing his job on the ride back from the will reading, Johnnie’s eyes immediately go as shifty as those of the famous dog from the Simpsons episode “Beyond Blunderdome.” You can practically see him writing new lies in his head. Because she is testing the depths of his dishonesty, Monkeyface pretends not to know the reason he was fired, and sure enough, Johnnie lies about it before segueing into an idea he has for a real estate company, and (wouldn’t you know) he only needs 10, 20, maybe 30,000 pounds to get it off the ground. It would seem as though he is hitting her up for money yet again, but he ultimately gets Beaky to foot the bill for this one, and when Monkeyface tries to talk Beaky out of it, we see the first real glimpse of the darker, potentially violent side of Johnnie’s gaslighting when he shouts at her to stay out of his affairs.
From this point on the threat of murder becomes more evident, as the next scene opens with Johnnie framed in silhouette in the foreground as he watches Monkeyface trim the hedges, a silent prototype of a hundred slasher movie villains to come. He is all smiles and pleasantry, though, when he announces that he is calling off his real estate scheme, though he wants to take Beaky out to the location he had in mind. When Monkeyface sees that it is a cliffside property, she suspects as we do that Johnnie plans to off Beaky the same way he seemed prepared to do her the first time he ever got her alone. Her psychological whiplash intensifies when, after driving out to the location and finding no one there and no signs of foul play, she returns home to find Johnnie there with Beaky, who tells a suspenseful story of Johnnie saving his life when he nearly fell from the cliff. Soon enough, poor old Beaky has been killed after all, a victim of a bet with his unnamed companion to drink an insane amount of brandy, despite a medical condition Johnnie explained to Monkeyface earlier on. We see her putting two and two together as the police inform her, and as she sees them out the shadows in the foyer of the house illustrate the web of deceit in which Johnnie has ensnared her.
Monkeyface goes to Johnnie’s favorite mystery writer, Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee), and tries to casually justify what she believes Johnnie has done by asking if it is really murder if you trick or prank someone into death. Johnnie has such a hold over her mind that even if she accepts that he has murdered his friend, she is still trying to figure out a way to make it alright. Isobel then drops the bombshell that she literally loaned Johnnie the book on a previous case in which brandy was used as a murder weapon, because he is researching poisons for some mysterious reason. When Monkeyface returns home to discover in a telegram that Johnnie has attempted to take out a loan of 500 pounds against her life insurance policy, which has been denied because it is only payable in the event of her death, the tension in her already fragile mind reaches a fever pitch, and the suspense is deliciously thick throughout the third act.
Johnnie discusses the finer points of murder with Isobel over dinner, a classic Hitchcock trope that can be seen in other films like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948), and Strangers on a Train (1951). We have seen before how Johnnie often speaks the bare truth to Monkeyface along with his lies, to confuse her mind and make her uncertain of which is which, and here we see him use a sort of reverse psychology tactic, speaking openly about methods of murder with the implication that his conscience is so clean that he can discuss such things casually. Isobel backs him up by claiming she can tell just by looking at someone if they are capable of murder, and that she knows he “couldn’t commit a murder if [he] tried for a hundred years.” “No, I don’t believe I could,” Johnnie replies, smiling with everything but his eyes at Monkeyface.
After dinner, Johnnie commands Monkeyface to take off her coat and she recoils from him, saying, “No, Johnnie, please don’t.” He laughs and says, “This reminds me of when we first met on the top of the hill, when you wouldn’t let me unbutton the top of your blouse. Do you remember?” I would think most women would remember being assaulted by someone they’d just met, but I’m no gynecologist. I guess it was just a different time. Anyway, even though he is her husband, damn it, she refuses him sex again now, and he storms out, leaving her to collapse from the strain of pretending not to know he plans to kill her for the insurance money all night.
The famous glass of milk scene is an almost self-contained masterpiece, with those incredibly menacing, spider web-like shadows in the foyer and the ominously glowing glass, an effect achieved by putting a small light inside it before the milk was poured. Is Johnnie actually trying to kill Monkeyface here? If his plan is, as I hypothesize, to drive her mad, then he knows what she suspects him of already, so he would know she will leave the milk untouched, assuming it is poisoned after the conversation of the previous night. I believe this is just another method Johnnie has devised to continue crumbling the walls of her sanity.
Not content to let Monkeyface make her planned escape to her mother’s house alone, Johnnie insists on driving her there himself, in a more intense suspense sequence than the quiet, subdued tension of the milk scene, providing a harmonious balance that points to Hitch’s legendary craftsmanship. Driving way too fast, Johnnie pulls the same trick on her as he presumably did on old Beaky, creating a condition for Monkeyface to fall to her death only to then save her at the last minute. He berates her, convincing her that all he has done is save her life, and that she is the one who has been driving him crazy! This is gaslighting at its finest, folks, a potent blaming of the victim that could only work at this stage of her abuse. We have known Johnnie to be a fiendishly clever and charming liar from the beginning, but his true mastery of manipulation is seen here when Monkeyface provides the final “howling lie” of an explanation for him. At the height of her distress, she suddenly “realizes” that Johnnie must have been researching poison in order to escape his many debts through suicide, the poor dear.
Johnnie latches onto this with the easy grace we have seen him display time and again, then quickly follows up with presumably premeditated explanations for his whereabouts when Beaky was killed, as well as the insurance loan he attempted. “Oh, Johnnie, if I’d only known!” poor Monkeyface howls. Then, pointedly, “This is as much my fault as yours. I was only thinking of myself, not what you were going through.” Yes, this selfish bitch was only thinking of the possibility that her constantly lying husband might be trying to kill her, and never of the painful self-inflicted burden of the gambling debts for which he would be doing it. Amazingly, Johnnie has it in his heart to forgive her. He pretends to insist on facing the consequences of his wrongdoings, even if it means facing prison for the embezzlement, but as they ride off together in the final shots, the sense of ownership and victory in his embrace of her shoulders begs the question of how long it will be before he has found a way to get out of all that yet again.
The plan was never to kill poor, long-suffering Monkeyface for something as petty as life insurance money (though the jury is still out about whether he killed Beaky, as far as I am concerned). Instead, Johnnie has a lifelong, semi-brainwashed companion with a vast fortune waiting to help him get out of his jams in the short term, and to be inherited directly whenever her mother dies. And if sly, charming Johnnie can figure out a way to make the death of her father look like natural causes, he can surely do the same for mommy dearest. Perhaps then he will get rid of Monkeyface, too, but then again he might just keep her around, now that she has been so completely broken and trained. Of course, this is all just my own interpretation, but if you take the conclusion of the story at face value, then I submit that it is just possible Johnnie got you, too.