Saturday, November 16, 2013

#169: Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

Hitchcock's favorite of his own films, 1943's Shadow of a Doubt is both a textbook example of "the master of suspense" in peak form and an unusual exception in his body of work, in that its central subjects are a close, loving family. Hitchcock's protagonists are most often solitary individuals trapped in a private hell or romantic couples bound together by sexual attraction and shared wit, but it's a rare Hitchcock film that focuses so specifically on a family unit, though I'm going to qualify this statement later in the review. Perhaps this focus on family can be attributed to co-screenwriter Thornton Wilder (of Our Town fame) more than Hitchcock, but that's just speculation on my part. No matter the source, it's exciting to see Hitchcock tackle the subject of hidden evil in a wholesome small town. David Lynch, for one, was taking notes.
The family at the center of Shadow of a Doubt is both typical and unusual: a banker father, Joseph (Henry Travers, best known as the angel in It's a Wonderful Life), a working mother and homemaker, Emma (Patricia Collinge), a daughter in her early twenties, Charlie (Teresa Wright, so good here and in my favorite movie about veterans returning from the war, The Best Years of Our Lives), and two younger children, Ann and Roger (Edna May Wonacott and Charles Bates). The family is tight-knit and close, all-American (as stupid as that word is, it fits here), church-going, hard-working, comfortable with each other. They're an unusual bunch, though. All three children are fiercely intelligent, eccentric, and both wise beyond their years and dreamily, naively romantic. Emma embodies the American '40s mother figure, but there's a melancholic wistfulness and a wounded sensitivity just below the surface. Meanwhile, Joseph is obsessed with murder, of both the true-crime and detective fiction varieties, an obsession he shares with his neighbor Herbie (Hume Cronyn, in his film debut). The two men, in some of my favorite scenes, debate the best ways to murder each other without getting caught. Also, both men have some of the best facial expressions in film history.
Charlie is feeling a little down at the film's beginning. She feels the family is stuck in a rut, going through the motions, trapped in its particular roles. She decides to write a telegram to her namesake, her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, veteran of multiple Orson Welles films and plays), and ask him to come for a visit as a way of rejuvenating things. She's pleased and surprised to discover that Uncle Charlie has written a telegram of his own, announcing an extended visit. The two Charlies have a bit of a telepathic connection, in a subtly supernatural undercurrent that grows more disturbing as the film progresses. Uncle Charlie's reason for leaving his current home of Philadelphia to visit his sister's family in Santa Rosa, California, however, is much darker than the younger Charlie realizes. Rather than heeding her telepathic call, Uncle Charlie is on the run from two men he gives the slip at the film's beginning. Initially, we're not sure who these men are and why they're after Uncle Charlie, and Uncle Charlie himself is a bit of a mysterious figure. Nobody knows what he does for a living, other than vague mutterings about him being "in business," and though he has been staying in Philadelphia, his sister mentions their time in the Midwest, his brother-in-law describes him as a "New York man," and he describes himself as a person who's been all over the globe.
Young Charlie has an obsession with her uncle. She feels they have a deep spiritual and mental closeness, and she idolizes his independent lifestyle and worldly demeanor. Some analysts of the film have described their relationship as one of incestuous sexual attraction, but I feel it's more complex and less sleazy than that. Charlie does have a bit of a crush on her uncle, but it's less romantically sexual than it is romantically ideological, in my view. She sees him as a kindred spirit and mentor, an idealized figure who has realized the fantasies young Charlie daydreams about. Charlie is a deeply intelligent young woman, lacking only life experience and adventure, and she thinks of Uncle Charlie as a guide to the wider world. Uncle Charlie initially seems happy to be among family, offering gifts and warm smiles. He's got one hell of a dark side, though, and young Charlie feels the burden of being the only one in the house to discover it. (Here's the solitary individual trapped in a private hell I mentioned above.)
Formally, Shadow of a Doubt is subtler than some of the stylistic tours de force that come later, but Hitchcock still has you by the shoulders and throat from the beginning. He avoids closeups, for the most part, but when he chooses to use one, it has tremendous weight and impact. The camera moves often, but doesn't call attention to itself short of a few intense moments. The film is relaxed and unhurried in its pace without losing any narrative momentum or focus, and suspense is maintained even when we're given most of the information. The man was such a naturally gifted filmmaker.
Hitchcock's work with the actors here is wonderful as well, despite his reputation for using them as chess pieces and his famous description of them, apocryphal or not, as "cattle." The principal cast fit their roles perfectly, but what's equally impressive is how rich and memorable even the tiniest parts are here. Macdonald Carey is too much the all-American bore as one of the men on Uncle Charlie's trail who develops romantic feelings for the young Charlie (she's too complex to love such a conventional guy, in my opinion), but everyone else is interesting enough for their own movie. My favorite is a hilariously deadpan former classmate of Charlie's who is currently working as a waitress at a rough dive bar, but I'm also fond of an overzealous traffic cop, an irritated librarian, and a friend of Charlie's who says very little but hungrily sizes up, head to toe, every man she meets. There's a real sense of community and character here that makes the film feel alive. I was lucky enough to see Shadow of a Doubt on the big screen six or seven years ago, and I loved it just as much on my second viewing.

1 comment:

James said...

Great movie. I think I've read that Hitchcock saw a production of Our Town and asked Wilder to write a suspense story in the same environment.