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Killer Profiles: Johnnie Aysgarth, in Suspicion (1941)
This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 thriller Suspicion, Johnnie Aysgarth probably never killed anyone; but in the book it is based on, there is absolutely no doubt that he was a murderer. Written in 1932 by british novelist Anthony Berkely (under the name Francis Iles), Before the Fact has one of the most striking opening lines I’ve ever come across, and makes it immediately clear who we’re dealing with:
Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realised that she was married to a murderer.
This simple and straightforward writing style is kept throughout, giving the novel a fast rhythm that intensifies suspense and the kind of storytelling that will make your skin crawl in the final chapter. Any of this will sound familiar if you’ve ever seen a Hitchcock film, but it doesn’t entirely apply to Suspicion: Due to studio pressure, the director was forced to make Johnnie’s psychopathic behaviour a fabric of Lina’s imagination, and ultimately to stay clear of the chilling ending that makes this crime novel a haunting literary piece.

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. 

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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:

Johnnie intended to kill her, yes; but he did not want to kill her […]
The idea of killing her plainly depressed him very much indeed.
He would do it with tears in his eyes. 

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.

Lina always believed in Johnnie’s innocence. 
She even believed those final tears were real. But did you?

View Comments (12)
  • OK, I am going to try track this book down at the library. I’ve ranted to you a few times about my thoughts on the studio meddling, and I’m keen to read the story the way it was intended.

    Marvelous post, by the way. So glad you joined our blogathon and chose to feature Cary Grant in “Suspicion”.

    • If you have an e-reader you can rent it for free in the Open Library. That’s how I got it. And it’s a great read. It’s very similar to the film until a certain point, where the movie stops but the novel continues. But of course being a book there is no Hays Code to keep the characters from doing and saying what they really mean, so it might even surprise you sometimes. I sure was!

      Thank you! I’m eager to read other entries, it’s a great theme. 😀

  • Just tried to post a comment but it disappeared – Disqus always goes wrong for me! Anyway, I enjoyed your posting a lot and I do think Johnnie seems suitably sinister, despite the studio’s efforts to water things down. You make me want to read the book. Although Johnnie isn’t unfaithful in the film, I still think it is hinted that he might be having an affair with the maid, like the husband in ‘Gaslight’. (I mean the British Gaslight with Anton Walbrook, I haven’t seen the US remake as yet.)

    I especially like your comment:
    “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.”

    • In the book he does in fact have an affair with the maid, so yes. And with several other woman too… it’s quite shocking how far the author goes, compared to the movie. Really — after reading the book, it all makes sense.

      So yes, you should definitely read it! Especially if you like crime novels. And if you don’t mind listening to an indecisive woman, because everything is told from Lina’s perspective and she’s very… inconsistent. Many people find her annoying, but I didn’t.

      Oh thank you, I do think Hitchcock tried to do that! Their collaborations always featured Cary Grant in roles that weren’t entirely flattering, which is very refreshing. My favourite is still Notorious, I love everything about it!

  • I’ve never read this book, but was always aware that it was quite different from the movie. I never however, realized how different. What an amazing film it could have been, had Hitchcock been allowed full control. A what a juicy role for Grant. Obviously Grant is still good in the film (like most of his) but Fontaine tends to be more memorable (at least for me). Had Grant’s character followed the book more, he clearly would have stolen the show! Thanks for another wonderfully insightful read, and for a great contribution to this blogathon.

    • It would’ve been a dream movie and role for Grant!

      I wanted to write more about Fontaine, but this was really just about Johnnie – which was really hard because all we know about him comes from her! Nonetheless, yes, she was really good. And if you ever read the book you’ll see just how well cast she was too — she fits Lina so perfectly, the whole “born victim” motif… Fontaine could embody fragility better than anyone.

      Thank you, and I’m happy you stopped by!

  • Really interesting! Love this movie but never knew much (anything) about the source material even though I’m always fascinated at what changes are made and why. But it sounds like it would’ve been amazing for Grant. He was so good at being of questionable motives and mystery, even though he was usually light fun and charming he could really turn that into intimidation and ego to be scary here.
    thanks so much for being part of the blogathon!

    • Couldn’t agree more! Grant captured the dubiousness of his character perfectly in Suspicion. Even in Notorious there was something dark about him, and it suited him very well. It would’ve been great if the original story was put to screen, but this was still good.

  • I do wish Hitchcock had been allowed to stick more closely to the original novel as I think it’s excellent, and Johnnie makes a much more compelling villain on paper. That said, I think Hitch got a great performance out of Cary Grant, and this film really changed my perception of him. He clearly was so much more than a ‘romantic’ lead, I just wish he had of been allowed to take it further.

    • Yes, exactly! I’s a shame that Cary Grant didn’t get more roles like this one, too. Even if he wasn’t a real villain, just having that dark side was interesting. Though I can’t say I mind all those delicious romantic comedies!

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