Hello, good day, and good evening – and welcome back to Weekly Hitch. This is a film studies blog wherein I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, in order, and think about them. I try to do this every week, but rarely actually make it because I’m a human and not a movie watching machine!
This week, the 28th so far, we tackle Hitch’s favourite of his own films, and possibly the first true masterpiece that Hitchcock made. It’s his first truly American film, and bridges the chasm between his British period potential and his future genius. It’s 1943’s Shadow Of A Doubt.
I’m going to try to get through these synopsis a lot quicker from here on out – primarily because they’re just achingly long and it’s nothing you can’t learn from watching the movie, but also because as we move deeper into Hitch’s career the more likely it becomes that you’ve all seen the films – so you know what’s up. So let’s get to it.
Charles Oakley (played by The Third Man‘s Joseph Cotton) is a mysterious man living in a hotel being hunted by suspicious men. We don’t know anything about him accept that he’s got a lot of money and doesn’t want to be found.
Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (played by the incredible Teresa Wright) is Charles’ niece and lives in the quiet California town of Santa Rosa with her family. Girl Charlie is bored because her family is too perfect and her life is too quaint and wonderful.
Hitchcock really presses on the averageness of Girl Charlie’s family and life. Her dad’s a banker, she’s got a know-it-all kid sister (little girls in Hitchcock movies are always precocious and clever – and there’s always a bookish kid), her mom is sweet and emotional, and life in general is a Norman Rockwell painting. (The movie was co-written by Thornton Wilder – playwright of Our Town)
Just as things seem too dull for Girl Charlie to bear, the family gets word that Uncle Charlie is coming to visit – and the next thing you know he sweeps in on the train with a swagger and presents and breezes some excitement into the family’s dull gray world! (Hitchcock always brings danger on a train)
In Santa Rosa, Uncle Charlie becomes a man about town. He opens a bank account with a bunch of money, makes jokes, meets old widows, gets invited to speech at his sisters women’s club and generally plays the happy uncle – and Charlie loves it. There’s an odd relationship between the two – not inappropriate, but Girl Charlie certainly admires and adores her uncle. Make no mistake, she is his biggest fan – and thinks they might even be spiritually connected. But Uncle Charlie is hiding a secret.
Soon, suspicious men come looking for Charles – men posing as reporters looking to write a story about a normal American family… but Charles starts acting oddly, and young Charlie is determined to find out why. At first, it’s all a game for Charlie – but soon one of the suspicious fake reporters approaches Charlie and tells her something awful… that her uncle might be a bad man – someone they’re looking for, it’s either him or someone out East, but he’s willing to bet it Charles.
And then a missing newspaper article leads young Charlie to the library and a story about ‘The Merry Widow Murderer’ – a man who marries rich widows and then strangles them – taking their fortune and leaving town. Suddenly Charlie’s suspicions begin to coalesce and she starts to worry that her uncle just might be a killer.
In amongst all this, Charlie’s father and his friend Herbie have sporadic discussions about how to commit the perfect murder – an enjoyable sub-plot that Hitchcock often throws into his films (Murder, Strangers on a Train, Dial M For Murder).
Soon though, Uncle Charles realizes that young Charlie suspects him and he professes his innocence, then demands her silence – telling her it would ruin the family and Charlie agrees to keep quiet, so long as he leaves. Meanwhile, Detective Graham, the young man who was pretending to be a reporter, is falling for Charlie and worries that she might know more than she’s letting on.
But when the other suspect on the East coast runs and is killed – Uncle Charles decides that he’s in the clear and makes up his mind to stay in Santa Rosa – even against young Charlie’s wishes, her suspicions overwhelming her. And Uncle Charles, seeing that his niece is the only one who knows his secret, sets about trying to kill her.
At first she falls down some stairs, and then winds up trapped in the garage with a running car… all seeming accidents, but Charlie knows better. In the end, Uncle Charles decides to leave town – with a rich local widow – but on the day he’s set to leave, Charles traps young Charlie on the train in an effort to push her off… a plan which backfires, and ends with the villain falling to his death.
Hitchock made three non-war movies during WW2, and this film, Shadow of a Doubt, the second of the three – is by far the best. (Suspicion and Spellbound being the other two.)
Freed from the constraints of having to protect his leading man from being a villain, and unleashed into small-town America, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is a tense, ferocious, and deceptively simple thriller – an exercise in suspense that rivals the best that Hitchcock would ever achieve. Honestly. It’s a hell of a film.
Shadow of a Doubt is built on its location and themes – small town America plays the forefront, and the idealized American family it’s centrepiece. It is a film that threatens not just a young woman – but physically and unabashedly holds a knife to the throat of wartime American values – the banker, the automobile, the dinner table, the government, the family, wealth and widows and consumerism… it’s a subtle stab and warm hug to everything America was fighting for in the 40’s and it could only have come from a man like Hitch.
Anchored by two incredible performances from the workman-like Joseph Cotton (in what feels like his best performance) and a really terrific leading-lady turn from Teresa Wright, who perfectly captures the smart and confident young Charlie. The film is both a farewell to adolescent innocence, and also an acknowledgement that America can no longer remain isolated from the evils of the world. Shadow of a Doubt is a movie with more layers and ideas that I could ever see.
Curiously though, it’s also a very un-Hitchcockian film in many ways. There are not big set-pieces, no elaborate crane shots, no iconic moments that people remember – but this is a Hitchcock of substance, the Hitchcock of future films like Vertigo and Psycho, a Hitchcock so confident in his tale and his ability that he doesn’t need more than he uses. The film is a spare and simple tale told by a absolute master.
And even in the most tense moments, Hitchcock allows for something so real and small and wonderful in this movie – Charlie’s mother talking about the paprika in her canapé, her nerdy sister on the phone, Hume Cronyn’s Herbie trying to take credit for spotting the garage door closed with a car running inside, her little brother speaking out about government taxation… all while a murderer stands among them and a young woman fights with the knowledge that her own uncle is the devil.
Shadow of a Doubt is a film that, maybe more than most in Hitchcock’s career, benefits from repeated viewing. Uncle Charles inviting young Charlie onto the train at the end saying “Come on Charlie, you can watch me get off.” – referring to his departure and his escape from punishment -is just one of several clever lines buried in an absolutely brilliant script. The movie can seem, at first glance, to be slow in its crescendo… but when it strikes, it cuts like a knife – slams into you like a train – and every time I see it, I’m reminded that there’s evil everywhere. Especially in Hitchcock’s America.
In the spring of 1942, before Saboteur was released, Hitchcock began looking for his next project. He was still feeling bitter about what he thought was a lacklustre film (even though Saboteur would go on to be a success), Hitchcock was placed under contract to producer Jack Skirball for 18 weeks and set upon finding a subject.
To this end, Hitchcock met with Selznick’s story department and others – a few projects were offered, such as the script for Gaslight (which would eventually be made with Joseph Cotton) and an adaptation of another John Buchan (The 39 Steps) novel called Greenmantle – but in the end Hitchcock would settle on a small-town thriller called, at the time, Uncle Charlie. And for a writer, Hitchcock asked for – and received – pulitzer prize winning playwright, Thornton Wilder.
Wilder’s play, Our Town, was wildly hailed as among the greatest plays of the 20th century, and a prime example of small-town Americana – and he and Hitchcock worked wonderfully together. Hitchcock and Wilder scouted locations in Santa Rosa together and worked up a treatment for the film, both contributing elements of small-town life and the American experience as they both saw them. Wilder had written a long-hand shortened draft of a screen play by the end of spring, and then he suddenly left to go to war.
About this time, Hitchcock got word that his mother back in England was gravely ill, and was also refusing treatment. Hitchcock couldn’t go see her though – due to the dangers associated with wartime travel, and so he began rewriting Wilder’s script while stuck in California. The result is one of the more sentimental works in Hitchcock’s history – and the difference is most strongly seen in the role of the mother – named Emma, after Hitch’s mother Emma. Where Hitchcock mother’s are almost universally strong and controlling figures, in Shadow of a Doubt, Mrs. Newton (played wonderfully by Patricia Collinge) is a sentimental, emotional and sweet mother – doting and loving and tender. She is, perhaps, Hitch’s idealization if his mother and add so much warmth to the picture.
By July, the picture was cast and the company had set off for Santa Rosa to begin production. Along with Alma and the cast, Hitchcock brought along his cinematographer from Saboteur, Joseph Valentine and the group started filming throughout the summer. Across the board, Hitchcock seemed to get along well with his cast – Teresa Wright especially was respected by Hitch, who appreciated her trust and work ethic. Also on board was the young actor Hume Cronyn, in his first screen role. Cronyn would go on to become friends with Hitch and a collaborator – starring in future film, Lifeboat, and writing Rope and Under Capricorn. Joseph Cotton called Hitchcock the easiest director he’d ever worked with.
By mid-september, the company went back to Hollywood to work in the studio, and on the 26th – Hitchcock got word that his mother had died. She was 79.
Shadow of a Doubt was released in January of 1943 to near universal acclaim and praise. Hitchcock would often refer to it as ‘his favourite’ of his own movies, and with good reason.
There are, in my super uninformed opinion, a few films in Hitchcock’s career that are near perfect distillations of his ability, potential, and mastery of craft. The Lady Vanishes is such a film – it’s the perfect example of his British period and, just like Shadow of a Doubt, it’s a film of a woman forced to deal with the unthinkable. Shadow of a Doubt is another one of these distillations.
In this film we find elements and examples of all of Hitchcock’s greatest works. The killer is a strangler – Hitchcock’s favoured form of killing, which would carry on through Rope and last until his last masterpiece Frenzy. We see the ring – used as a gift from Uncle to niece, and used as a symbol in Hitchcock’s work ever since his film straight-up called The Ring. Hitchcock explores class values, obsession with perfect murders, ordinary things turned deadly (a car, stairs), and Hitchcock’s deep fascination with duality.
In Charles and young Charlie we find two people – but also two sides of the same coin. Charlie says it herself to her uncle, “It’s like we’re the same person.” – and in Hitchcock’s film she means it. These characters don’t have the same name by chance, Hitchcock is showing us the same person through two different lenses – the light and the dark – and through the film he brings them closer together and then shows us how they move apart again.
But the duality here goes even deeper than just these two characters. There are two killers, both suspected of murder. Two detectives on the trail. The girls Charlie is stuck between two adults and two children. Her mother and her Uncle are two siblings. The film is about two Americas – one rich and wasting and one poor and hungry. And this exploration of duality and contrast would become the central motif throughout Hitchcock’s future work. In Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock will show us duality again, in Vertigo, in Psycho, in Rope, even in the light and frothy North By Northwest Carey Grant is saddled with two identities. And the success and strength of Shadow of a Doubt, the victory of what might be his most personal film to date, reenforced in Hitchcock that his obsession had value.
And if we’ve learned anything about Hitchcock along the way, it’s that success is the only teacher he respects.
So that’s it for now. Next time we’re going to back to war, and into the sea, with the first of Hitchcock’s self-imposed restraint pictures; the morally ambiguous and provocative Lifeboat. Hang tight until then.