Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)

Few directors are as famous as Alfred Hitchcock. To some fans his movies form a genre in itself even. I wouldn't go quite that far, but it would be hard to argue that he did not have a profound effect on film making as a whole, and on the thriller genre specifically. Some of his movies have definite noir touches, and 1943's 'Shadow Of A Doubt' most certainly is one of them. It brings together a lovely, innocent small town and a lovely, innocent family and a charming but sinister invader with a disturbing secret, resulting in a remarkable movie that is both very dark as well as having quirkiness and humor in it.

'Shadow Of A Doubt' was based on a story by Gordon McDonell and turned into a screenplay by among others Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife. The musical score was done by Dimitri Tiomkin ('D.O.A.', 'Angel Face'), and a lot of it was based on a waltz by Franz Lehár. Cinematography was done by Joseph Valentine ('Possessed', 'Rope').
'I know you. I know that you don't tell people a lot of things. I don't either. I have a feeling that inside you somewhere, there's something nobody knows about.'
'Something... nobody knows?'
'Something secret and wonderful. I'll find it out.'
'It's not good to find out too much, Charlie.'
'Shadow Of A Doubt' might as well be called 'A Tale Of Two Charlies', as its two main characters are called Charlie. There's Charlotte 'Charlie' Newton (Teresa Wright), a teenage girl, bored out of her mind with her dull life, who is over the moon when her uncle Charlie, Charles Oakley, comes to visit them, all the way from New Jersey. She was named after him and idolizes him, believing they're kindred spirits. Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) however has alterior motives for travelling cross-country to visit them. At first all is fine and she loves having uncle Charlie around, spending as much time with him as she can. But soon small things happen that make her think uncle Charlie has a secret to hide from them, believing it to be a wonderful secret initially, and she's determined to find out what it is. But as she discovers, uncle Charlie's secret might be darker than she could have ever imagined, as he could be the Merry Widow Murderer, who's sought on the West coast for 3 murders...

 The movie focuses on Charlie and uncle Charlie and their relationship, which changes drastically over the course of the movie, helped by Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), a detective posing as a government interviewer doing a piece on the Newton family, but who in reality is trying to keep tabs on uncle Charlie and take a picture of him to send back to New Jersey for identification purposes. Charlie had already uncovered some weird behavior in uncle Charlie but didn't think much of it. The cryptic engraving in a ring uncle Charlie gave her as a present and its possible connection to one of the murders proves to be the tipping point for her however, and from that point on the movie changes from 'Charlie & uncle Charlie against the world' to 'Charlie vs. uncle Charlie', but there is still no real evidence, so she has to keep her fears and suspicions to herself, while seeing her mother happier than ever with her kid brother staying over.

Joseph Cotten is simply amazing as uncle Charlie. To the viewer, and later on to Charlie, he has an icy-cold demeanor filled with dread and menace. However, to the family and the local community of Santa Rosa, California where the Newtons live, he's a charming and successful businessman with a quirky sense of humor and a bit of an odd outlook on life. Even a vitriolic speech about 'faded, fat, greedy women' at the dinner table is shrugged off as nothing special. This makes uncle Charlie such a scary and memorable character, despite his creepy ideas on life and rich widows in specific, he blends in perfectly well. Cotten usually played the 'good guy' in movies and starred in genuine classics such as 'Citizen Kane' and 'The Third Man', but every time I think of Joseph Cotten I think of uncle Charlie and the ominous aura he possesses in this movie.

Teresa Wright ('The Best Years Of Our Lives', 'Pursued') is also really good here as Charlie. This was her fourth movie, and the first for which she did not receive an Oscar nomination, one of which she also won (for 'Mrs. Miniver'), according to IMDb something no one else achieved before or since. She gives the innocent, small-town girl Charlie a strong and determined edge, and the transformation in her relationship with uncle Charlie is done quite well. The chemistry between her and Cotten and their changing bond is part of what elevates this movie to great heights. Charlie, and Teresa Wright, reminds me of Iris/Margaret Lockwood in an earlier Hitchcock classic, 'The Lady Vanishes'. Both are young women who live a fairly carefree life, and through the course of the movie learn how strong and determined they really are. Almost a decade after this movie, Wright and Cotten would star again in another noir thriller, as husband and wife no less, in 1952's 'The Steel Trap'.
'We're not talking about murder, I'm talking about killing Herb and he's talking about killing me!'
The supporting cast is also wonderful, and the script gives them all distinct characters. The Newtons, as well as Santa Rosa, represent an average family in an average small town, but Hitchcock has given them their own unique and quirky personalities. Mother Emma 'Emmy' Newton (Patricia Collinge) is the head of the family and pampers her kid brother Charlie because he's the youngest one, unlike her own youngest kid, Roger (Charles Bates) who tries to be noticed but is mostly ignored or dismissed by everybody else. Dad Joseph 'Joe' (Henry Travers) has a dull job as a bank teller but enjoys discussing various ways to kill a person with his colleague Herb (Hume Cronyn), and younger daughter Ann (Edna May Wonacott) reads non-stop and wants to marry a librarian when she grows up. Oh, and she asks for a blessing for Veronica Lake in her nighttime prayers, how can you not love her? Macdonald Carey's Graham is pretty middle-of-the-road in comparison and seems almost too young to play a government agent, but his character is helped by a blossoming romance between him and Charlie.

The music's theme is centered around the Merry Widow waltz by Franz Lehár, a tune that Charlie cannot get out of her head when uncle Charlie comes to town, already hinting at what's to come. Visually, the movie is beautiful, and has plenty of clever touches. Some shots and scenes are repeated in a different context, such as when uncle Charlie looks out of a window at two men who are shadowing him in New Jersey, and later on at the Newtons he carefully peers out of a window again only to find two women chattering about unaware of his presence. There are also plenty of beautiful shots that are used to signify the changing relationship between Charlie and uncle Charlie, including shots that are taken from the point of view of one of them. And lastly, there are a lot of small things that happen or are said, that are innocent enough by themselves, but still somehow tie in to the story, and they become more prevalent on consecutive viewings, adding to the appreciation of the movie. For instance, in one scene, a jaded waitress sees the ring uncle Charlie gave to Charlie as a present, and casually remarks that she'd die for a ring like that, not knowing its past. Or when Joe tells uncle Charlie to not put his hat on the bed. Uncle Charlie asks Joe if he's superstitious, to which Joe replies that he isn't, but he also doesn't believe in inviting trouble, but trouble has of course already found its way into the Newton residence.

I've already mentioned the 'faded, fat, greedy women' dinner table speech, but there's also another well-known monologue by uncle Charlie, when he takes Charlie to a shady cafe and all but confirms Charlie's suspicions about his real reason to come to Santa Rosa. He ends his talk with a pitch-black observation which is probably the best-remembered quote from this movie:
'Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts of houses you'd find swine? The world's a hell, what does it matter what happens in it?'
Hitchcock was known for loving to shoot on set and disliking shooting on location, where he had less control over the surroundings. But due to severe budget restrictions set by the War Production Board, he was forced to use location shooting and only a minimal amount of sets for this movie (source). He hand-picked Santa Rosa, California as the location for the movie, using some of its inhabitants as actors in the movie including first time actor Edna May Wonacott who's quite remarkable as Ann Newton (here's a wonderful post on her), and the story goes that he fell in love with the town so much he bought a house there.

The ending apparently was studio-mandated, Hitchcock wanted it to be more open-ended and leave more to guess/think about for the audience. It might have worked better, I don't know, to me the ending is quite fitting. Either way, the movie's great. Hitchcock is reported to have said on several occasions that 'Shadow Of A Doubt' was his favorite of all of his movies. I am not a Hitchcock expert but of all of his movies that I've seen so far, this one is also my favorite. It is really really good and full of tension as well as some black and sardonic humor, and to me it gets even better after repeat viewings. Highly recommended!


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