The Mysterious Man)
The 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion was a bit of a surprise to its audiences. Its main star, Cary Grant, was known for always playing a heroic or romantic lead, but the advertisements for the picture suggested that this might be his very first turn as a villain!
And though the film begins with Cary Grant’s character, Johnnie Aysgarth, being presented as a humorous, playful bachelor, there is also a sense of insincerity and foolishness about him. For example consider the very first scene, where he is called out for being in a first class train compartment with a third class ticket. He tries to laugh his way out of the situation, but eventually has to bum some extra change off of the lady he is sharing the compartment with. That may not seem like much of a concern at first, but awkward flubs with money become a defining characteristic of the man. After he wins the heart and hand of Lina McLaidlaw, she discovers that he has absolutely no money to his name, and is hoping to siphon money out of her rich parents instead!
But more surprising than Cary Grant playing such a shifty character is how natural a fit he is in the role! At this point Cary Grant had established a career defined by charisma, suaveness, and humor. In this film, though, he is outright immature and selfish, and he plays it very well, spending half the time with a stupid grin while everyone else is trying to have a serious conversation with him.
Worse than a freeloader, though, Lina starts to believe that her husband might actually be dangerous. As the burden of his debts continue to grow, he starts exhibiting some darker behaviors, which get her wondering if he wouldn’t kill her for the insurance money! Most concerning is a scene where he speaks with Lina’s friend, a murder mystery novelist, about whether there are any untraceable poisons.
The whole thing escalates to the climatic scene where the husband and wife are driving along a cliffside road. Lina’s door falls open and Johnnie reaches over. Lina recoils in horror, believing that he is trying to push her out. He sees this and breaks down in anger, asking if she is so repulsed by him that she would lunge away, even when all he is trying to do is pull her back to safety?
At last the truth comes out, about how he has been so ashamed of himself, so miserable that he has dragged not only himself, but also his wife, into financial ruin that he has been considering suicide. Yes, he has been a flawed and dishonest man, but he is not the remorseless killer that the advertisements would have had us believe. The couple drive for home together, resolved to face their challenges together.
Interestingly, Cary Grant would revisit the suspicious lead two decades later in 1963 with Charade. This was one of his very last films, and up to this point he still had never played a villain. Would this be his one take at being the bad guy?
This film opens with Regina “Reggie” Lampert discovering that her estranged husband, Charles, was murdered while on a train from Paris. This opens up a series of revelations to her, culminating with her learning that Charles was actually a spy, and that he had in his possession a considerable amount of wealth which several governments and his former colleagues have been trying to reclaim.
Coincidentally, Reggie makes a new acquaintance right before she hears of her husband’s death. Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant, seems totally disconnected from the drama surrounding Reggie’s dead husband, but he soon becomes embroiled in her efforts to deter Charles’ former colleagues, who now suspect her of knowing where the missing money is.
Reggie is growing more and more emotionally attached to Joshua, her only friend in a quickly-shifting world. But then a great emotional blow comes when one of Charles’ former colleagues tells Reggie that Peter isn’t the man he is pretending to be. Joshua is trying to get the money from her, just the same as the rest of them.
Reggie confronts Peter and he admits that he lied about his identity. He now tells her his “true” identity: Alexander Dyle, whose brother had died on a former mission with Charles. But later in the movie that identity will be revealed to be a lie as well. Reggie had been falling in love with Peter/Alexander/whoever he is, but now she wonders if he won’t betray her as soon as it serves his interest to do so.
Everything culminates in a shootout between Cary Grant’s character and another man who may or may not be the actual murderer of Charles Lampert, the man who was presumed to have died in that former mission. Reggie is caught in between the two men, unsure of whom she should trust. Finally she follows her heart, joins sides with Cary Grant’s character, and this proves to be the correct choice. Together the two of them manage to overcome the would-be assassin, who was the last surviving agent who had intended Reggie any harm.
And then, in the film’s final scene, it is revealed that Cary Grant was a US government agent all along, who had been working undercover to solve this whole case. So once again Cary Grant’s halo remains intact, even if it came dangerously close to falling off!
The Pleasure of Being Unsure)
Of course, it is very unusual for the audience to not know whether a lead character is the hero or villain of the story. Virtually every story establishes these roles right from the beginning, making it clear who exactly you should be rooting for and who you should hate. Some stories might reveal a surprise betrayal later on, but typically those come from supporting characters, not the main protagonist.
Both Suspicion and Charade are unique in making the audience spend the entire film with a lead character that they still don’t know the loyalties of. Both of these films must walk the razor-thin line of giving their female leads more and more reasons to distrust Grant’s character, but not so much as to actually abandon him altogether. The tension can only continue if they stay both near to and fearful of him at the same time. It is truly remarkable how each of them manage to pull this off so well.
In my own story I introduced a main character that audiences will immediately assume is the hero. He is at the end of a great quest, has come to rid the land of a great monster, and will free the community that is living under its terror. He is like Saint George come to kill the dragon, clearly a heroic character.
But as the story goes along, the more suspect Nathan becomes. Bit-by-bit we have learned that he lies, that he steals, and most recently that he even kills! The three core qualities of a story villain.
My hope is that the audience will be conflicted and intrigued, wanting to finally get to the bottom of who this guy actually is. But unlike Cary Grant’s characters, the answer won’t be so black and white.