Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SHADOW OF A DOUBT 1943

Decades before David Lynch turned his twisted lens on small-town perversity in the masterfully weird Blue Velvet, Alfred Hitchcock had already taken what I consider to be the definitive look at the pernicious effect of evil on small town life in Shadow of a Doubt. You can keep your Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window — classics all— but for me, there isn't a Hitchcock film that compares with Shadow of a Doubt.
Hitchcock to the left : Holding all the Aces

As a thriller, it has a simplicity of plot that is near-irresistible: A beloved uncle with a dark secret (Joseph Cotten) visits his family in a small northern California town. A figure of evil, his presence threatens to disrupt the conventional lives of the townsfolk and initiates a shattering coming-of-age for his adoring niece (Teresa Wright).
Santa Rosa, California
 If you can imagine Vincente Minnelli's small-town valentine, Meet Me in St. Louis crossed with Orson Welles' noirish thriller The Stranger, then you have a pretty good idea of what a delightfully sinister mélange Hitchcock concocts in Shadow of a Doubt.(Both Thornton Wilder of Our Town and Sally Benson of Meet Me in St. Louis worked on the script for Shadow of a Doubt).
Teresa Wright as Charlotte Newton
Joseph Cotten as Charlie Oakley
Macdonald Carey as Det. Jack Graham

Patricia Collinge as Emma Newton

Henry Travers as Joseph Newton

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I've always been impressed by Alfred Hitchcock's ability to balance humor and terror in his films. It always seemed like such a dangerous risk to take...potentially sacrificing mood or suspense for the sake of interjecting some bit of levity...but his films always carry it off. Almost always. The humor in Frenzy and Family Plot verges on the painful.
In "Shadow of a Doubt" the humor on display is of the gentle type derived exclusively from the characters. To great effect, Joseph Cotten's self-serious, misanthropic sociopath (how's that for a description? Reminds me of Wood Allen's line: "I'd call him a sadistic, sodomistic necrophile, but that would be beating a dead horse.") is contrasted with the practical and sweet Teresa Wright and her decidedly dotty family. Each is lovably offbeat in some very real way, and their harmless eccentricity lends them an endearing vulnerability in the face of Cotten's poisonous view of mankind.
"Really Poppa, you'd think Momma had never SEEN a phone! She makes no allowance for science. She thinks she has to cover the distance by sheer lung power!"
The Newton Family: If cast today, the parents look too much like grandparents

PERFORMANCES
I've always liked how Joseph Cotten never seemed to be too taken with his own good looks. He played both villains and romantic leads with such a refreshing lack of ego that even his monsters were likable.
Charlie- "The whole world's a joke to me."

As good as the entire cast of Shadow of a Doubt is, it's the work of Teresa Wright that towers over the rest. A stage-trained actress Oscar nominated for her first three film roles, Wright gives one of those performances that makes the film unimaginable without her. She is a wonderfully natural presence in the film, very contemporary in her acting style and apparently incapable of having a false moment on the screen. I can't think of another actress from this era who exudes such a down-to-earth quality. While so many of her contemporaries spoke in that stagy, mid-Atlantic dialect that telegraphed "acting!" Wright seemed not to be playacting at all. Her performance under Hitchcock's direction is one of her strongest.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Years before he would succumb to stylistic self-consciousness, Shadow of a Doubt shows Hitchcock in full control of his gifts as a master storyteller. The film is sharp and compact and zips by at an entertaining and very suspenseful 108 minutes. Indeed, in this era where a film like Sex and the City 2 can eat up more than two hours with a virtually non-existent plot, or Quentin Tarantino can actually lose his way when confronted with a running time of less than 2 ½ hours (Death Proof is like the work of a gifted 10 year-old let loose with a camera), Shadow of a Doubt looks like nothing short of a miracle. There isn't a wasted frame, superfluous scene, or self-indulgent moment in this tightly-structured film that economically achieves its desired effect without skimping on character development or plot detail.
The almost psychic connection between Charlie and his niece Charlotte (Little Charlie), rendered cinematically.

Uncle Charlie- "We're old friends, Charlie. More than that. We're like twins."  

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
My absolute favorite parts of Shadow of a Doubt are the scenes chronicling Teresa Wright's mounting disillusion with her idealized uncle, Joseph Cotten. The psychological authenticity of her behavior and reactions are so keenly observed and subtly performed. It's marvelous to me that the screenwriters had the sense and took the time to really let Wright's awakening to her uncle's true nature be an integral part of the film's second half.
Everything is Suspect: Charlotte watches her uncle's powerful hands twisting a napkin.


Filmmakers today, afraid of losing the short attention-span of their audience, never seem to understand that unless you devote enough time to the psychology of your characters, no degree of plot twists or action scenes can generate interest in the outcome of a film. The most gripping moments from Shadow of a Doubt come from the scenes where the loss of idealism in Wright's character is something we can literally see. The defeated body language, the hardening of the voice, the way you can tell that she mourns for her previous state of ignorance. It's masterful! I love how her once-free physicality around him slowly becomes awkward , and how she can't seem to stand looking at him. There are these great fleeting moments when you can see her studying him when he's not looking, searching for a betraying trace of the evil she knows is there but somehow missed.
The post-library dinner table scene is, from a psychological standpoint, one of the most emotionally true, discomfiting scenes of mounting family discord in modern cinema. It's in this scene that Teresa Wright really shines. Scarcely an actress today could handle the complexities of that scene (Ok, maybe Natalie Portman or Cate Blanchett...).
Charlotte notices a mysterious inscription inside of a ring her uncle just gave her.
As I've stated, Teresa Wright gives a stellar performance here, but kudos go to the team of writers who were smart enough to mine the dramatic possibilities in a young girl being forced to confront the ugliness of the real world. They could have played up the police/manhunt angle for the obvious action potential, but the film benefits greatly from keeping its focus on what the characters are going through rather than the chase and the procedurals of police work.

Though the term is bandied about a lot these days, Shadow of a Doubt has a deserved reputation as a Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece. A solid entertainment and suspenseful drama, but what resonates for me is that at its core it is a cunningly perceptive treatise on nostalgia and the romanticism of the past.

Charlie: "I keep remembering those things. The old things. Everybody was sweet and pretty then, the whole world. A wonderful world. Not like the world today. Not like the world now. It was great to be young then."

These words, spoken by a character embittered by what he sees as the corruption of good around him, are no truer then than they are now. Every age thinks the age past is the ultimate age of innocence. If you look on YouTube you can even read comments by people lamenting the state of the world today and denoting the 70s, 80s, and even the 90s as a "kinder, gentler time." As a man past middle-age, I find myself caught in that inevitable "curmudgeon zone" where everything about the world today seems somehow inferior (as is evident from my comments about contemporary filmmakers) and my past seems endlessly cheerier and innocent. Now mind you, the innocent and cheerier time I look back at with such rose-colored glasses are the 70s. And we all KNOW that the 70s were anything but innocent.
But that's what I mean, the world of the past is always soothing to our minds and we go to great lengths to recreate it as we wish to remember it. No matter how far from the truth it may be.
Hume Cronyn (right) making his film debut as a neighbor obsessed with the details of crime and murder.
The small-town life depicted in Shadow of a Doubt is a vision of America that never existed except in our minds and perhaps on our TV screens and in our movies. It takes a special kind of myopia to be able to (or need to) see the world in such a narrow fashion. To paraphrase Dickens, history has always been a combination of the best of times and the worst of times. The world is never all good, nor is it all evil. Shadow of a Doubt artistically shakes us out of our fantasies and reminds us that remaining in a state of ignorance is not the same as remaining in a state of innocence. Charlotte Newton has her eyes opened to some of the darkness that exists in the world, but seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, is just a part of growing up.
On Uncle Charlie's twisted opinion of the world: "It's not quite as bad as all that, but sometimes it needs a lot of watching. It seems to go crazy every now and then."

And wasn't it Norman Bates in "Psycho" who said, "We all go a little mad sometimes" ?

Something Wicked This Way Comes:
Uncle Charlie arrives.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

4 comments:

  1. I just saw this movie a few days ago for the first time. I really did like it and appreciated the focus on characters and how much of what happens is in and around Charlotte's home (and of course her family). It's very personal and frightening in that way, to have the murderer not only be in her house but to be someone she loved and felt so close to.

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  2. @Anonymous
    Thanks for your comment! I agree that the idea of a murder being "in" your home and someone you're close to is particularly frightening. Too many movie thrillers try to make their killers such extraordinarily over-the-top madmen, you can't imagine them paying the rent, buying groceries,or doing laundry. It's like they have to be killers 24/7. What's genuine is that the killers are the ordinary people behind the normal facades you encounter every day.

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  3. I like 'Shadow Of A Doubt,' but it's not my favourite Hitchcock movie. That distinction goes to 'North by Northwest.' 'Shadow' has an appealing premise with entertaining characters, but it also has too many instances where plot development trumps realism.

    Why would a women's group in Santa Rosa have any interest in being addressed by Uncle Charlie? And this esteemed man of the world's immature behaviour in the bank, with a number of unimpressed witnesses, would hardly be likely to enhance his reputation.

    His ugly diatribe at the dinner table against wealthy widows is passed off by everyone but Charlotte as Uncle Charlie simply speaking his mind. Why any self-respecting family would wish to have such a visiting relative's company indefinitely is hard to fathom.

    But maybe hardest of all to accept is the high drama of the life-and-death struggle in the doorway of a moving train where Charlotte somehow manages to get the better of her much bigger and stronger uncle, pushing him to his doom. And shortly thereafter, this fine upstanding fellow is given a public funeral in Santa Rosa where we hear him being praised as an eminently solid citizen taken much too soon. Quite a different summation from what Charlotte and Jack are providing on the steps of the church.

    That early scene with Joe and Herb talking murder methodology does qualify as a favourite. I'm fond of both those actors, but Henry Travers (from what I've seen) is prone to an excess of innocent niceness, and it's fun to have him telling how he'd kill someone.

    'North by Northwest' is on a completely different scale in its cinematic ambition and accomplishment. Two films by the same director, but we're talking the difference between a chamber group and a symphony orchestra.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Rennieboy
      Yes, "North by Northwest" is a favorite of mine as well. But as you point out, that film and "Shadow of a Doubt" are so divergent in style, theme, and approach, that to compare them beyond points of subjective personal preference is really not useful except as a way of indicating which we derive more joy from.
      The elements of realism you call attention to in "Shadow of a Doubt" are well taken and I can well imagine them looming so large as to prevent the film from ranking among one's favorite of Hitchcock's works.
      For me, the family's and town's reaction to Uncle Charlie's rather boorish behavior has always struck me as similar to the kind of hero-worship latitude we afford celebrities in our culture (like the nation's love/hate affair with Charlie Sheen).
      Uncle Charlie is glamorous enough of a personality to make these small town people second-guess their own natural reactions to his bluntness.
      Thanks again for sharing your food-for-thought observations!

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