This is because Johnnie was played by Hollywood leading actor Cary Grant, loved for his swoon inducing roles in romantic comedies – it would be most inconvenient if the public perceived him as cold-blooded killer. Still, Hitchcock tried repeatedly to make the best use of Grant’s acting skills, tearing his public persona little by little with every new cinematic collaboration. I wish he could’ve gone all the way with Suspicion, but we’ll always have Before the Fact. Thus I’ll blend movie and novel, and show you why Johnnie Aysgarth is a great villain.
The story’s main character is Lina McLaidlaw. She is a young and intelligent woman with low self-esteem and no love life. At 28 years old, she had resigned herself to spinsterhood; until she met Johnnie Aysgarth. He his the youngest of the Aysgarth boys, an attractive and charming man with a boyish smile, who always knows the right thing to say – he’s wonderful. Johnnie immediately begins to seduce Lina, but her family alerts that he is rotten, and is most likely just after her money. Lina marries him anyway.
After a passionate honeymoon in Paris, the real Johnnie begins to reveal himself: she finds out that he has no money and has no prospects of getting it because he is, in fact, jobless. He is also addicted to gambling, and appears deprived of a moral compass: as years go by, he coerces her into giving him more money, steals from her and her guests, sells her belongings, forges her signature, embezzles money, and ultimately cheats on her with several women.
So by now Lina knows her husband is a criminal, yet she stays with him because poor Johnnie, he’s like a child, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. But before we dismiss her as some weak, stupid little woman, something needs to be noted: at one point, Lina does leave her husband. She even meets someone, a nice gentleman who appears to truly love her. Yet when Johnnie asks for forgiveness, she instinctively goes back to him.
So Lina was not with Johnnie simply because she was afraid of being alone – if for nothing else, the other man was there precisely to point that out: she could’ve gotten divorced and live happily, but she chose Johnnie. And she will keep choosing him above everything else, even her own life. And if you think her love for Johnnie is unthinkably blind at this point, you better sit down because it gets ten times worse.
As said above, Johnnie saw in Lina a chance to easily feed his gambling addiction, and refuses to let go of her. His motif is money, it’s that simple. And when it becomes harder and harder to raise money, he simply finds more extreme ways to get it:
Lina’s money source is her father, so when the old man refuses to give it, Johnnie kills him. But it wasn’t enough. He then cons a friend into investing in a business opportunity, only to keep the money to himself and kill the man afterwards. But here’s the most extraordinary thing: he never actively kills anyone. Johnnie doesn’t use his bare hands nor any kind of weapon; he creates the ideal scenario for death to occur, taking advantage of the victim’s biggest weakness.
Eventually Lina finds out about this too, through a little notebook Johnnie kept. But after the initial shock subsides, Lina discovers that she still loves her husband. She devises excuses for his murderous behaviour, focusing on the fact that the he didn’t kill them directly, and somehow, in the midst of all this danger, she feels safe. But soon Lina will fear for her life, and this is when things get really interesting.
One of their friends is a writer of detective stories, always looking for new inventive ways to murder someone (it’s as if the book was written for Hitchcock). Lina finds out that Johnnie has been inquiring about untraceable poisons, and she becomes certain that he intends to kill her. Moreover, she knows he will try to have her commit suicide, since that seemed to be his M.O. And yet again, instead of running, she stays put. She does nothing. At one point, she even felt compassion for her murderer:
His sorrow state was comforting to her, but eminent danger was driving her crazy. Should she let Johnnie kill her or not? Before she could decide, she finds out she’s pregnant. It is now clear that she must die, for Johnnie can’t be allowed to reproduce. And the easiest way for that to happen, was to let her husband murder her. And the sickest thing is, she won’t just let him, she’ll help him.
When the moment came, he killed her with poisoned milk and soda (just like in one of the film’s key scenes, above). He was careful about it, she made sure of that herself. And just like she predicted, there were tears in his eyes, and his face was filled with horror. Lina felt sorry for him.
So after all of this, I wonder if you see it like I do. Lina was a born victim, and Johnnie a master at manipulation. I think he got so good at bending his wife’s will, that he leads her to kill herself. Had he simply poisoned her without she ever realising it, he would just be another murderer. But she not only knew, she knew because he wanted her to know. It was probably his plan all along.