A psychotherapist goes to the movies

I recently gave a talk on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 movie, Suspicion. Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine are the stars in this Hitchcock thriller set in 1930s England.

The plot is typical of Hitchcock, a sewing together of circumstantial events that lead Fontaine (as the newly married Lina) to suspect Grant (as her husband, Johnny) of trying to murder her.

As the publicity poster puts it, Each time they kissed… there was the thrill of love… The threat of murder!

Poster for Hitchcock’s Suspicion

The film begins with their chance meeting on a train. Lina is reading an academic book on child psychology when Johnny asks if he could borrow money to pay for his train ticket.

Sometime later, while returning home after an embarrassing first date, Lina hears her parents talking about her through an open window:

FATHER: Lina will never marry, she’s not the marrying sort…

MOTHER: I suppose you’re right, dear. I’m afraid she is rather spinsterish.

FATHER: Well what’s wrong with that? The old maid is a respectable institution. All women are not alike…

Suddenly confronted by the question of what women want as well as by her father’s answer to what she wants – to remain unmarried, to become an ‘old maid’ – Lina is shown confused or distracted, in a bind or quandary, and anxious.

In a desperate attempt to end what has become an unbearable scene, Lina turns to Johnny (he has suddenly appeared next to her) and kisses him for the first time.

But what kind of kiss does she give him?

Her kiss was sudden, Johnny was not expecting it nor given the chance to respond since Lina exits through the doorway as soon as the kiss is over.

One way we can make sense of Lina’s kiss is as an example of a ‘passage through the act’.

an unbearable combination of embarrassment and anxiety

A ‘passage through the act’ is a last resort against an unbearable combination of embarrassment and anxiety.

Within the therapy literature there are two much-discussed examples of a ‘passage through the act’: young Dora’s slap across the face of the man who confessed to her his lack of interest in his wife; and the fall from a bridge by another young woman following her father’s disapproving look.

Here, Lina’s kiss constitutes her as ‘the marrying sort’ – whatever that might entail – instantly distancing or separating herself from her father’s satisfaction.

This is what makes a ‘passage through the act’ radical or drastic – it catapults Lina beyond the boundaries that up to this point had determined her social and mental existence.

This is also what makes a ‘passage through the act’ desperate since it can never be known in advance what you are committing yourself to, what you have suddenly become. It is a junction at which one’s destiny switches from one track to another.

(The young woman who fell from a bridge paid for this undoubtedly serious attempt at suicide with a considerable time on her back in bed, though fortunately little permanent damage was done.)

The next few scenes show Lina in a variety of situations ‘working through’ what it means for her to have become the ‘marrying sort.’ She obliges herself to treat him in a certain way and she obliges him to treat her in a certain way. A main function of the laws and obligations of marriage is to render co-existence bearable, so that relations do not explode in murderous violence.

This part of the film culminates with Johnny proposing to Lina in front of a portrait of her father.


Johnny about to propose to Lina in front of a portrait of her father

With a tragicomic touch, Hitchcock has the portrait fall from the wall but Lina tells Johnny, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.


Johnny catches the portrait as it falls from the wall following his proposal of marriage

In the next scene they elope and we see them through a window of a Register Office being married in front of two witnesses.


Still from Hitchcock’s Suspicion


Lina’s parents thought she had gone to the shops to buy some wool.


Notes to blog

My talk, Beyond Doubt: Alfred Hitchcock’s Lina, was given on 12 April 2019 here.

Were Lina to remain ‘not the marrying sort’ then an answer to what she wants might be to enter a same-sex relationship, perhaps like the couple she dines with later in the movie, rather than become the ‘old maid’ advocated by her father.

Passage to – rather than through – the act is the usual translation of the French passage à l’acte, borrowed by psychoanalysis from French criminology and psychiatry.

The two much-discussed examples in the therapy literature are case histories by Freud: Dora (1905) and The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman (1920).

Judith Butler might describe Lina’s new identity as performatively constituted by the very ‘expression’ – a kiss – that is said to be its result. See her Gender Trouble.