Sunday, July 28, 2013

The General McLaidlaw Portrait in Hitchcock's "Suspicion" (1941)

I’m returning once more to the world of portraiture, specifically the portraits of the dead to conclud my series on Hitchcock. Call to mind the oft-mentioned Portrait of Carlotta in Vertigo (1958), the de Winter ancestor portrait in Rebecca (1941), the Alice Alquist Empress Theodora portrait in Gaslight and the Laura portrait in Laura, just to mention the few. Early on in my blog, I made very direct attempts to point out how directors use such portraits to represent the eerie presence of the dead through large, realistic portraits. In many cases, the sitter of the portrait might never be seen actually alive on screen, instead they only maintain a ghostly presence through their surviving portrait (ala Vertigo). But in this instance, the sitter’s “life” in a way endures through the portrait after a death in the film.

Suspicion was made in 1941, after the success of Hitchcock’s first American picture Rebecca. In many ways, Hitchcock seemed to try to recreate the formula of Rebecca: Joan Fontaine starred as the delicate leading lady, a popular actor served as her dark husband, the setting was in England and most of all, it was based on a bestselling novel of the time, Before the Fact by Frances Illes. As far as Hitchcock films go, it’s very solid, almost a great film. Joan Fontaine plays an utterly convincing role as the victimized wife (at the time she was in real life a victimized wife) and Cary Grant is even fairly believable as the ne’er do well cad. Hitchcock also must have been confident in himself after the success of Rebecca because Suspicion shows some bold innovative camera angles, uses of lighting (even in glasses of milk), a fantastic strong musical score by Franz Waxman and a fairly dark storyline for contemporary audiences.
In Suspicion, Hitchcock makes the most out of bold images like the
famed "Milk scene" at the end of the film.
I actually had the chance to read a different screenplay for the story by the American author Nathanial West, which in all honesty, I enjoyed more the film. Suspicion is supposed to the story of a dowdy woman, swept off her feet by a debonair gold-digger and gradually comes to realize that he is not only crooked, he’s a murderer. Or at least, she begins to suspect this (hence the title). Hitchcock thought it would be fascinating to tell the story of discovering a murderer from the victim’s perspective- and it would have been, if the studio had allowed it. RKO feared that portraying Cary Grant as a cold-blooded murdered would hurt his popularity and therefore harm future pictures. The ending is sufficiently unsatisfying and left Hitch complaining about it for years.
Johnnie (Cary Grant) "comforts" Lina (Joan Fontaine)
As I said, the film begins with Lina (Fontaine) being swept off her feet by the disarmingly charming Johnnie (Grant). Lina’s father, the wealthy, respectable General McLaidlaw (Cedric Hardwicke) disapproves of Johnnie instantly and can see right through his oily façade and forbids Lina to marry him. Johnnie persists and the two elope, despite the fact that Johnnie turns out to be not only completely broke, but a liar and a thief who was planning on living off of Lina’s allowance and later inheritance. Lina, as it turns out, has a very small monthly allowance from her father and when the General dies he leaves Lina only a portrait of himself “by the distinguished artist Sir Joshua Nettlewood.” It is to this portrait, that I now (finally) turn.
Johnnie proposing under the watchful eyes of her father, General McLaidlaw
Earlier in the film, Johnnie proposed to Lina in front of this same portrait of her father which hung prominently in the home. Resplendent in military uniform, the general dominates the scene and conveys a sense of characteristic disapproval over the events that transpire (despite the lack of his physical presence). Recall, at this point in the film, the General is still very much alive. During their interchange, Johnnie addresses the portrait multiple times, mockingly asking the General for his daughter’s hand. At one point, Johnnie, scoffing at the General’s dislike, taps on the portrait itself, and the painting falls to the ground.
The Portrait Speaks: When Johnnie taps the painting, it begins to fall-
a physical sign of the General's disapproval
What a moment! What a revelation! Thus far, portraits have come and gone. They have stared down their viewers, haunted their admirers, and judged the events that take place in their absence, but very rarely have they interacted in the scene in such a physical way. Through the movement that occurs, Hitchcock suggests a two points. The first is obvious: that the portrait, in a way, is in fact the general- disapproving of Johnnie to the point of falling upon him. This will play a part later. Secondly, the portraits falling acts as a general symbol for the chaos that will ensue, the falling apart of conservative order that Lina has experienced thus far in her life.
General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke):
 Openly disapproving in life and death
When the General dies, he bequeaths only this portrait to his daughter. Again, two things should be noted from this portrait in this scenario. The first is that the General will continue to watch his daughter and Johnnie and continue to disapprove of Johnnie’s actions from the vantage point of the canvas. Also, the presence of the portrait in scenes reminds viewers of the General’s earlier warning about Johnnie. So, when Lina has her suspicions about her husband, the watchful eyes of her father behind her will remind the audience that the General already had similar suspicions.
Despite its lowly position in the background, the General's portrait
manages to dominate scenes and serves as a reminder of his own suspicions about Johnnie
Finally, when Lina takes the portrait in her home, it doesn’t hang in a prominent place like it did in her parents’ home. Instead, it leans against the wall on the floor, as if Johnnie is attempting to put the painting as far away in the background as possible. Instead of hanging the conservative, orderly portrait of General McLaidlaw over his fireplace, Johnnie hangs a modern landscape. Also hung prominently in the home is a cubist still life, reminiscent of Picasso’s early Cubist work. Some critics suggest that this painting, which gets only very brief screen time, contrasts the orderly portrait of the General and suggests the frazzled nature of Lina’s abstract suspicions.
A landscape, not the portrait, dominates Johnnie's wall
In all respects, General McLaidlaw’s painting serves as one of the most symbolic and also underrated members in the Film Art portrait gallery. As such, I thought I would be able to find the artist with ease. Alas! That was not the case. While the General’s will gives the artist as a distinguished “Sir Joshua Nettlewood,” as far as I can tell, no such man exists. I a few thoughts on this. The first is that the artist was given in the novel, which I did not read, and in that case, no other thought should be given to it. More likely though, the name is a play on Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famed 18th Century portrait artist in Britain. While Sir Cedric Hardwicke has had paintings commissioned of himself, I could not find this one in another record. Most likely, the “painting” was created as the Laura painting was: from a painted-over photograph. Because it’s a fairly unique pose in a fairly unique outfit (military uniform), if this is so, than the photograph was probably posed for by Hardwicke for an RKO photographer whose name may have been lost to the annals of history.
The abstract Cubist still life briefly serves as a comparison to the dethroned
portrait of the General and a suggestion of Lina's frazzled mental state. 
Like I said, Suspicion is by no means the perfect film. It does however contain some quintessential Hitchcock elements that make it a classic. For our purposes though, the General McLaidlaw portrait serves as another instance where the painted portrait serves as a ghostly reminder of an absent or deceased person. It is by no means the most impressive, or even the most important (much like Suspicion itself in comparison with Hitchcock’s larger breadth of work), but as is a truly excellent textbook example of the weight a simple, or maybe not so simple, painting can carry. 

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