I think this could have been one of Hitchcock’s greats if he had been allowed to shoot the ending that he wanted, the one that was faithful to the book. But as it exists, it is fatally flawed by a totally stupid ending that was forced on him.
It was based on a book called Before the Fact by Francis Iles, a pen name for Anthony Cox. Cary Grant (I’ll refer to the actors’ names instead of the characters) is a total cad, a bounder, a congenital liar, a compulsive gambler, a thief (later), and he welshes on his bets, don’t you know, old boy. But he is handsome as the devil and he presents well except to those who know him. Joan Fontaine falls hopelessly in love with him, marries him, and stays in love even as she slowly discovers his lies and deceptions, his total lack of concern about money which he doesn’t have and jobs he doesn’t want and debts he can’t pay and many other character faults. But she comes to believe that he is planning to kill her, as she believes he killed his best friend (Nigel Bruce, brilliant as yet another rich, clueless Englishman). He needs her money. So great is her love that when he offers her what she is pretty sure is a poisoned drink, she drinks it. She would rather be dead than have to face stopping loving him.
What Hitchcock wanted to film was brilliant. She writes a letter to her mother, telling her that she will soon be dead at Cary’s hand. She seals it, asks Cary to mail it. She drinks the poison, dies, and the last shot is Cary taking the letter to the mailbox, thus ensuring his own doom. Lovely. People would still be talking about it.
Well, people are still talking about the ending we see, and at least for me and Lee, not in a good way. He is driving too fast along a cliffside, and her door flies open, and she is so afraid he intends to push her out that she fights him off … and it turns out he was only trying to save her. There is an explanation for everything, and none of it satisfies. He admits he’s no good, he’s going to face the music. “Let’s face it together, darling,” she says, or something equally awful. And they drive off together. It is to barf. The problem is that no one in Hollywood—and probably no one in the audience in 1941, I understand that—wanted to see the great Cary Grant as a wife-murderer. And it’s too bad, because I think it could have been one of his most memorable performances because of that.
As it is, all the performances are very good. Joan Fontaine won Best Actress. There are many great Hitchcock touches, the best being Cary climbing the stairs with the glass of milk which we think contains the poison. The glass is glowing … because it has a light inside it!