Grade: B+Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Patricia Collinge

Release Company: Universal

MPAA Rating: NR

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Hitchcock: Shadow of a Doubt


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Just when you think that you have Alfred Hitchcock figured out, he throws a curve to leave you wandering the paths of ambiguity. Shadow of a Doubt is such a case. Even a simple "fact" like the well known label of being Hitchcock's favorite film (reaffirmed by his daughter Patricia on the DVD) can be disputed when you examine the Master's comments to Truffaut:

"I wouldn't say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture; if I've given that impression, it's probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about."

It's certainly plausible and logical to see why this classic 1943 film would qualify as Hitch's favorite. The idea of "bringing menace to a small town" certainly appeals to the master--his films universally blend good and evil and demonstrate that we can never escape the potential dark side in our daily lives, whether you are a good hearted secretary presented with an opportunity to escape suffocating boredom of your routine with $40,000, an innocent socialite who inadvertently gets mixed up with killer birds, or a touring American couple that steps into the inner circles of a spy ring.

Over forty years later David Lynch will bring a similar sensibility to the screen with the more surrealistic Blue Velvet, but once again Hitchcock has pioneered the concept of the evil and bizarre lying beneath the innocence of a small town.

Hitchcock enjoyed working with noted playwright Thornton Wilder and certainly would have collaborated on more screenplays with Wilder had he not gone off to war. This was his first collaboration with a famous American literary figure, as he had been continually turned down by the finest writers and stars in America, who declined to work in Hitchcock's trademark thriller/suspense genre. Hitch was especially thrilled to work with Wilder on this project set in a typical American small town since Wilder had authored the definitive play about such a place in Our Town. Much of the dialogue parallels Wilder's famous play, and he even references a minor character's name in librarian Miss Cochran.

Even though the cast members of Shadow of a Doubt are not huge box office draws, Hitchcock enlists a fine ensemble of American actors, highlighted by the casting of Joseph Cotton as Uncle Charlie. Reportedly, Cotton got along extremely well with Hitchcock--both enjoyed food and drink, were comfortable with each other socially, and hid a dark side beneath their exterior. Although Hitchcock had previously filmed Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt qualifies as Hitchcock's first true American film since it uses an American setting with American writers and actors.

Shot mostly on location at the idyllic small California town of Santa Rosa (bucolic in 1943), the film first intrigues with a mysterious opening. Charlie restlessly relaxes on his bed with a great deal of money haphazardly strewn next to him while two men trail him in the streets of Philadelphia. He gives them the slip and transitions to Santa Rosa with a telegram, where a policeman directs traffic in the typical American small town. Young Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) lies fully dressed in bed staring meditatively at the ceiling posed just like her 3,000 mile distant uncle at the beginning of the film. This connection is reinforced throughout the film--the identical names, declarations of being like "twins," and instances of mental telepathy.

Though unclear, young Charlie appears to be high school aged, and she laments the lifeless routine of her family's life--her father a small town banker, her mother Emma (Patricia Collinge) a typical hard-working housekeeper, her younger brother obsessed with Our Town-styled trivia (like how many steps it takes him to get home from the drugstore), and her 9-year old bespeckled and bookish sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott), fulfilling the typical little girl characteristics that Hitchcock is so fond of. The youngest sister will be the first to mistrust Uncle Charlie--note her disapproval of his gift, her dismay at his newspaper "trick," and her request to not sit next to him at the dinner table.

Charlie wishes for a "miracle" to shake up the family routine, and decides to telegraph Uncle Charlie to come visit, only to find that he will be arriving on Thursday. Like any Hitchcock film, every detail is important and visual clues abound. Notice when Uncle Charlie's train arrives into the sunny town that devilish looking black smoke pours out of the smokestack and clouds darken the sky as he disembarks. To reinforce the idea that evil has arrived inside the innocent Newton household, Uncle Charlie will disregard the superstition about tossing his hat on the bed and will later blow smoke rings while lying down.

The two detectives are trailing two suspects for the serial killing of three wealthy widows?of course, with Hitchcock ambiguity reigns. Is Uncle Charlie the murderer or is it the other suspect now in Maine? The indicators come rapidly. The nervously suspicious Uncle Charlie removes a newspaper article about the "Merry Widow Murderer," he deliberately misidentifies the “Merry Widow Waltz” as "The Blue Danube," and he gives a precious emerald ring previously inscribed "To T.S." to his favorite namesake niece.

Hitchcock layers on the suspense, coming to one climax when young Charlie gets into the library to check out the newspaper story that Uncle Charlie has destroyed from the family newspaper. Again, Hitchcock's camera is the star--watch its movement as the horrified girl becomes convinced that her beloved uncle is a murderer. That moment leads to further twists and turns. Every conversation and gesture takes on new meanings now that young Charlie has lost her innocence.

Cotton delivers the strongest statements against women ever to appear in a Hitchcock film at the Newton family table. (This is destined to send academics scurrying for proof of anti-feminist sentiments in Hitch's work) Uncle Charlie questions the humanity of the rich widows, referring to them as “at wheezing animals”:

"Women keep busy in towns like this. In the cities it's different. The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. Then they die and leave their money to their wives. Their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women."

Again Hitchcock plants ambiguity with this challenging speech. Although it certainly indicates that Uncle Charlie could well be a classic sociopath, he also desires a return to his past childhood--the days that he remembers his sweet sister back at 46 Birnam Street in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has carefully preserved the pictures of his parents, and seeks to re-establish himself in the peaceful hamlet of Santa Rosa, where he feels love and acceptance. It especially disturbs him to discover that young Charlie distrusts him and now draws away from him. He attempts dissuade her by questioning her station in life:

"You're just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there's nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day and at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams... and I brought you nightmares."

Whether Shadow of a Doubt truly is Hitchcock's favorite film or not is irrelevant. It rates highly as a masterful film that contains the seminal elements of the master--the ever-present suspense, complex character studies that intertwine good and evil, the tightly constructed story line, and the magnificent camera-work. The visual artistry of the cinematography ranks as the true star of any Hitchcock film, and this is certainly one of Hitchcock's better films--foreshadowing more great work to come.
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