Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

by on August 31, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Sept 7 at 7:30 at 92YTribeca [Program & Tix]
*Special guest Rory Albanese


Somehow there are three Hitchcocks playing around town today and you’d do fine by any of them. However if you asked ole Hitch himself he’d likely steer you towards this one, his personal favorite. Bonus: introduced by Rory Alabanese from The Daily Show.


David Denby, upon selecting the film to play in the New Yorker fest:

“Shadow of a Doubt,” Alfred Hitchcock’s sixth American film, released in 1943, was one of his personal favorites among his work, and yet it’s not nearly as well known as some of the earlier, British films—“The 39 Steps,” “The Lady Vanishes”—or such later American masterpieces as “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” and “Vertigo.” Perhaps the quiet domestic setting of Santa Rosa, California, and the lack of obvious camera flourishes account for the movie’s relative obscurity, and yet the somnolent town is treated with a tenderness that can only be called ironic and even malicious, and Hitchcock’s use of the camera has never been more assured. The movie is about a glamorous roving uncle (Joseph Cotton) who joins his adoring sister and niece in Santa Rosa as he hides from the police. The movie is the most “psychological” of Hitchcock’s films, and the one with the clearest and most explicit exposition of evil, yet the director’s attitude is profoundly ambivalent. Goodness can be terrifying, too, and its collusion with evil is part of the movie’s enduring fascination.



Kevin Jack Hagopian for Images Journal:

After making five films in the United States since his arrival in 1939 (Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Mr. & Mrs Smith, Suspicion and Saboteur) Alfred Hitchcock believed he was at last able to imagine a true picture of America on celluloid. Saboteur, 1942’s picaresque tour over a condensed map of the country, highlighting the nation’s archetypes and oddities in a brisk chase between enemy agents and True Love, was a very rough draft of this vision. 1943’s Shadow Of A Doubt, however, was Hitchcock’s first fully realized cinema masterpiece, a grim, sad picture of American docility and Babbittry. The film moved Hitchcock out of the category of mere genre director and into the realm of the essayist on the universal fears and discontents of his species. In the process, Shadow Of A Doubt slanders that most cherished of American landscapes, the small town. That such a thorough critique of American mores appeared during World War II, a time when other directors were enshrining rather than embalming these standards, seems nothing short of incredible.


It’s easy to imagine ourselves wandering its wide, dark, upstairs halls, and just as easy to imagine being stalked by the frightening Uncle Charlie. Hitchcock made the home a place where exotic terror lives uneasily with domesticity, an innovation he remembered when he returned to the Universal lot many years later to build the more famous Bates house for Psycho.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Alfred Hitchcock’s first indisputable masterpiece (1943). Joseph Cotten is Uncle Charlie, aka the Merry Widow Murderer, who returns to his hometown to visit his niece and namesake, played by Teresa Wright. Hitchcock’s discovery of darkness within the heart of small-town America remains one of his most harrowing films, a peek behind the facade of security that reveals loneliness, despair, and death.



The blog Not Just Movies:

It’s important to note that Hitchcock does not particularly structure this film as a mystery; Uncle Charlie’s identity as the Merry Widow Murderer is obvious as soon as we learn that a serial killer is on the loose, and Cotten does nothing to disguise Charlie’s true self. Instead, Hitchcock uses his clear evil as a bouncing-off point for his aesthetic duality. Hitch juxtaposes innocent with perverse, humble with arrogant, plain with preening. Wright’s radiance illuminates even her low-lit scenes, while Cotten casts all into shadow. Hitchcock was always evoked emotion with ruthlessness, and the manner in which he upends Young Charlie’s world is heartbreaking in its cruelty: the poor girl is so flabbergasted to see that her unity with her uncle is one of horrifically diametric opposites that she almost cannot see how Jack, the detective pursuing the killer, forms a reflection of her goodness, not its inverse like Uncle Charlie. Of course, it also wouldn’t be a Hitchcock film without jokes, and the director here delights in gags involving twos. The best of which, surely, is the scene inside the ‘Till Two club where doubles are ordered.


When the two detectives posing as reporters come to Santa Rosa, they con their way into the house by saying they want to do a story on a typical American family, to which the mother, Emma, ironically replies that she doesn’t think they’re typical. Yet the suggestion under Hitch’s use of broad types and unforgiving humanity is that the twisted, Freudian incest of this family and the seedy elements lurking under pre-fab suburban cleanliness and conformity is common to all such towns. Hitchcock would only delve further into such perverse, paranoid matters after the war ended, but Shadow of a Doubt is not only his first major consolidation of such issues but one of his best. It shows a director in complete control of his look and tone; no wonder, then, that his trademark cameo in this feature is a shot of him at a bridge table literally holding all of the cards.


David Sterritt in his book The Films of Alfred Hitchcock:

Hitchcock the manipulator presides over many important moments in Blackmail, but his more mischievousness twin dominates Shadow of a Doubt – Hitchcock the joker, the trickster, the prestidigitator, This doesn’t mean the film has less serious overtones; indeed, Shadow of a Doubt features one of Hitchcock’s most heinous villains and unleashes him against an entire family of ostentatiously (if deceptively) wholesome townspeople. But the prospect of a morally intense struggle between good and evil rarely leads Hitchcock to pull in his reins and put on his Sunday face. He’s full of tricks and surprises in Shadow of a Doubt, and he’s as likely to pull them on behalf of wicket Uncle Charlie as to favor the seemingly virtuous heroine of the tale.


Shadow of a Doubt may be considered an exploration and indictment of the increasingly chaotic nature of American life during the period. In ways, it seems even more despairing than the war-related dramas since if inscribes the incipient psychoses of American life in “ordinary” citizens without recourse to treacherous Nazis or hostile foreign powers. To accomplish this, Hitchcock employs the sort of nightmarish plot and shadowy visuals that are two of film noir’s most consistently encountered traits, and the horror-film conventions which have strong resonances on political, cultural and psychoanalytical levels. Shadow of a Doubt refers to the vampire-movie tradition with surprising frequency. Uncle Charlie is like a vampire on the narrative as well as the visual level – an alien invader whose very presence contaminates the environment wherein he operates and threatens to corrupt others, especially those he chooses as targets. His activities also have the heavy overlay of sexual aggression that is common to the vampire genre.



Fernando F. Croce for Slant:

Shadow of a Doubt is the picture where Alfred Hitchcock first discovered America, locating the mirror image for the ominous instability lurking barely an inch under the cozy surfaces of his native England. The doubling effect is appropriate, for this is a film of doppelgangers, full of the kind of tantalizing motifs and patterns that led the directors-in-waiting at Cahiers du Cinéma to prick through the director’s cheery façade to find the anguished Catholic dismayed at the world’s submerged dangers. Not that by 1943, with Hitler plowing through Europe, one needed Hitchcock’s anxious eyes to tremble at the horrors looming over Eden. The difference between Shadow of a Doubt and a hectoring good-versus-evil tract such as Watch on the Rhine that same year, however, lies in the way Hitch sees darkness as less an infiltrating outside force than as the repressed backside of normalcy.


Like Lynch’s fever-dream of transcendental perversity, Shadow of a Doubt is about awakening, the simultaneous darkening and enlarging of the world; the difference is that, where Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont is able to tap into his own dark reserves, Wright’s Young Charlie must muffle her knowledge as to not disturb the order of things. What was uncorked must be covered again, thus a killer is given a lavish hero’s funeral while the heroine watches from afar, next to the ineffectual bearer-of-justice (detective Macdonald Carey). Hitch’s habit of taking us to the edge of the abyss and then returning us with a wink, so often resulting in unconvincing happy endings, here seals one of his most pitiless visions of a monstrous cosmos admitted only to be denied.



Bill Hare for Film Noir of the Week:

Joseph Cotten was in a nervous frame of mind when he asked to see Alfred Hitchcock, the director of his next film. Ever so casually, Hitchcock, who did not drive a car, asked an apprehensive Cotten to drive him to downtown Beverly Hills. Cotten explained the source of his anxiety; here he was being asked to play a homicidal maniac in Hitchcock’s next film and he was in a quandary wondering how a killer would look and act. What is the prototype of a killer?


Hitchcock, cool in a crisis, the same director who told a nervous Ingrid Bergman, “Ingrid, it’s only a movie”, asked Cotten to pull his car over to the curb. The famous director then asked Cotten to study the faces and behavioral mannerisms of men walking down the street. Cotten finally wondered if there was a point to what seemed to him like a baffling, if not pointless, exercise. Hitchcock explained that the exercise explained everything he needed to know about his next part. The answer was that killers “act like anyone else” and reflective of the way people generally act; like the men Hitchcock asked Cotten to observe.


One sometime ingredient of genius is the ability to reduce problems to a simple conclusion, and such it was on this sunny afternoon amid the palm trees, luxurious buildings and fashionable stores of downtown Beverly Hills. Cotten had his answer and was thereupon creatively freed, able to go on to play one of the two memorable film noir starring roles of his career.


Some more background from Jeremy Arnold at TCM:

Outline in hand, Hitchcock put in a request for Thornton Wilder to write the script. He had admired Wilder’s recent play Our Town and wanted to incorporate a similar sense of small-town American life into the movie. Furthermore, the director was eager to work with top writers. Hitchcock remembered, “In England I’d always had the collaboration of the finest writers, but in America – writers looked down their noses at the genre I work in. That’s why it was so gratifying to find out that one of America’s most eminent playwrights was willing to work with me and, indeed, that he took the whole thing quite seriously.” As a matter of fact, Wilder at first wasn’t terribly interested in the project. He knew he was about to receive military orders and took the job as a way to make some extra last-minute cash to help his ailing sister. But when he met Hitchcock in Los Angeles and felt the director’s respect for his work, Wilder’s enthusiasm rose greatly. Hitchcock recalled that they “worked together in the morning, and [Wilder] would work on his own in the afternoon, writing by hand in a school notebook. He never worked consecutively, but jumped about from one scene to another according to his fancy.”


But the final writer was Hitchcock himself. He devoted an unusual amount of time to the screenplay, even writing extensive dialogue – something he rarely did. The speech that Patricia Collinge delivers about what her brother Joseph Cotten was like as a boy, for instance, was drawn from Hitchcock’s own life experience. And Collinge’s character was named “Emma” after Hitchcock’s own mother – “the last benevolent rendering of a mother figure in Hitchcock’s films,” wrote Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto. Indeed, after this picture, Hitchcock’s films would be filled with possessive, tyrannical, deranged, or evil mothers. One reason for this is that during the writing of Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock’s mother became seriously ill in England, and he was unable to visit her because of the difficulties of wartime traveling. She would die during production. According to Spoto, “Hitchcock poured his soul into the first spiritually autobiographical film of his career. Shadow of a Doubt would become a handbook of all the literary and cultural influences on his own life, and it would be as near as he would ever get to wearing his private heart on his public and professional sleeve.” Resulting from all these writers’ hands was a remarkably subversive movie, something of a flip side to Our Town. The town in the film is sunny and pleasant on the surface, but underneath runs a river of uncertainty and anxiety. Considering it was made in the middle of WWII, to find such a dark and disturbing portrait of smalltown America in a major studio production was quite amazing.



Alfred Hitchock in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, published in Who the Devil Made It?:

Isn’t Cotten rather sympathetic in the film?

There is sympathy for any murderer, or let’s call it compassion. You hear of murderers who feel they’ve been sent to destroy. Maybe those women deserved what they got, but it wasn’t his job to do it. There is a moral judgment–he is destroyed at the end, isn’t he? The girl unwittingly kills her own uncle. She is the instrument by which he falls in front of the train. It comes under the heading that all villains are not black and all heroes are not white. There are grays everywhere.


Does Cotten really love Wright in the film?

I don’t really think so. Not as much as she loves him. And yet she destroys him. She has to. Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said, “You destroy the thing you love?” Shadow of a Doubt was a most satisfying picture for me–one of my favorite films–because for once there was time to get characters into it. It was the blending of character and thriller at the same time. That’s very hard to do.


Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan for CultureCartel:

It’s worth mentioning that Collinge is the most touching mother in all of Hitchcock’s work, a real change from the overbearing mamas that flood most of his other films. You can feel the dissatisfaction, even the bitterness, behind Collinge’s dithering. When she hears that her brother is going away, she breaks down in front of company, to the embarrassment of the guests. She rattles on about how her brother had brought back so many good memories of who she used to be. “You sort of forget you’re you, you’re your husband’s wife,” she says, heartbreakingly. Wright looks at her with the same deep pity that overtakes Tippi Hedren when she watches Jessica Tandy clean up the living room in The Birds (1963).


Uncle Charlie is Hitchcock’s most intense villain. He’s not charming and childish like Robert Walker’s Bruno in Strangers on a Train (1951), and he’s never as touchingly sweet as Norman Bates. This man is a Nazi, he is a serial killer, he is without heart or conscience. There’s vague mention of a childhood accident, but nothing can really explain a man like this. And Hitchcock rubs your nose in him, as if he’d had a premonition of our post-war future. There is a last struggle between the Charlies on a train, and it’s quite clearly meant to suggest a rape. The last scene tries to wrap things up with talk, like the clinical penultimate speech in Psycho, but it’s really no use. Wright is left with absolutely nothing. If it weren’t for her needy mother, one could imagine her lying back down in her room and staring at the ceiling again, not with the hope of romance anymore, but with the same gruesome pessimism that had driven her Uncle to seriously consider suicide.


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