Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Saboteur had been Alfred Hitchcock’s first truly American thriller; casting the U.S. from California to New York as a travelogue equivalent to the urban England and rural Scotland of The 39 Steps, it firmly established that the suspense director could transplant his scrappiest, breeziest sensibility to Hollywood. He was still under contract by 1943 to David O. Selznick, for whom he’d made the florid Rebecca, but that film and its obvious descendant Suspicion felt in one way or another like compromises to the Selznick sensibility. Shadow of a Doubt marks the first time since Hitchcock’s arrival in America that he is permitted (now on loan by Selznick to producer Jack Skirball) to craft a film under what are seemingly entirely his own terms.
The results are riveting, though also extremely dark and disturbing — and moreover, dark and disturbing in a specific way that only encroaches on most viewers some time after their first viewing of the film. The director was attracted to the concept of an outwardly innocent household in a small town hiding unimaginable corruption and evil; in turn, Shadow of a Doubt itself is presented as a facade. It’s a light mystery with wholesome family values — but as it weaves its sinister story around the viewer, nearly everything it presents as sweetness and beauty is tainted. The long-term effect of seeing this happen so subtly is genuinely unnerving, and only becomes more so when one revisits the misleadingly placid world of the film over time.
That’s because not only is the evil herein presented all too believable, the central goodness of the family (and the town) at the story’s center is just as convincing. This commitment to avoiding sugar and patness is undoubtedly assisted by Hitchcock’s recruitment of playwright Thornton Wilder to help script the film (he ultimately shared the credit with Alma Reville and Sally Benson, writer of Junior Miss). Wilder is of course well known, among other achievements, for the Pulitzer Prize-winning metanarrative play Our Town, a celebration of small town America known for its genuine compassion and affection for the important dramas of everyday life. Thus it’s no wonder that at the outset of Shadow of a Doubt, we meet the Newtons as a busy, loving, complicated family. Joseph (Henry Travers) is a banker and mystery buff who discusses preferred murder methods with neighbor Herbie (an amusingly young Hume Cronyn); wife Emma (Patricia Collinge) is a perpetually nervous, overly busy and hard-working homemaker with an incredible attention to detail. Their younger children are Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and Roger (Charles Bates). Ann is especially precocious — a voracious reader who tries not to fill her head up “with things that don’t matter” — and happens to be the one person who suspects something odd in the story we’re being told from the very beginning.
The opposite is true of her sister and our lead character, a young adult named Charlotte (she goes by Charlie) portrayed by Teresa Wright who seems depressed when we meet her — claiming that her mom works like a dog and it goes unappreciated, that the family never goes anywhere or does anything, that they’re all stuck in a big rut. Somehow this is the first evidence we get that this film isn’t simply a placing of the Americana mythos on a pedestal; all is not well in Charlie’s eyes, but in a fit of coincidence her savior is soon to come.
The screenwriters and Hitchcock don’t merely establish these characters fully and believably in a brief span of time, they capture the hubbub and miscommunication of family life in a sequence that, ancient telephone aside, seems not to have aged a single day. When things clear up it’s eventually evident that a telegram has arrived and that Emma’s brother Charles (he goes by Charlie, or more likely Uncle Charlie) is coming to visit. In the audience, thanks to an earlier scene in a tenement house somewhere in New Jersey, we know that Uncle Charlie’s reason for jetting off to Santa Rosa, California where the Newtons live is anything but pure. The circumstances are unclear but we last saw him giving the slip to two men after a cranky conversation with a kindly landlord — cigar in the mouth, money spread out everywhere — and an obvious itch to get the hell out. When we see the face of Charles (Joseph Cotten at peak brilliance), we know we are not in for a gentle ride or even a detached series of funhouse thrills. Something nastier is afoot; this is film noir.
The arrival of film noir in Santa Rosa is eventually signaled by the blackened smoke of an arriving train on which Uncle Charlie is posing as a sick man. As soon as he unloads and greets the Newtons, it’s immediately evident he feels a protective bond toward all of them, a nostalgic adoration of his sister, but something more — something almost impossible to pare down — with his niece who was named after him. The two Charlies connect on our first experience of them together and throughout the entire film as though they are, in the younger Charlie’s words, “more than uncle and niece.” Hitchcock films them like they are lovers. In any case, the depth and intensity of their relationship is indisputable, without the direct reason or background of it ever needing to be explicitly laid out. “We’re like twins” is how it’s put at one point, a strange statement indeed about a girl just recently out of high school and a shady bachelor in his late thirties.
Shadow of a Doubt is both one of the most unorthodox examples of film noir — because at its heart it remains a story about a “conventional” family, hides its terror behind humor that’s often quite warm and doesn’t allow its potential anti-hero to take center stage — and one of the few Hitchcock films that can even be generously categorized as such; generally speaking, his characters are too much “in the boat” with the audience, and often too direct and passionate. (Notorious leans on mythical qualities and is a clear exception.) But the film is noir, perhaps foremost in the manner by which it is shot — unusual angles, shadows, careful compositions with an emphasis on tension shown between characters and sometimes directed straight at the camera, with a number of stunning subjective shots and nearly all of the interiors cast in foreboding black sooner or later. A quick comparison with Saboteur and Suspicion, despite impressive and wild directorial moments in each, reveals that this is where we begin to see the Hitchcock we know from his later, bracingly singular Hollywood pictures. Given some of his work in England and the still-powerful psychological trauma in Rebecca, it’s hard to concur with Dave Kehr that this is Hitchcock’s “first” masterpiece, but it is undeniably the beginning of a surehanded power he’d now employ always. It’s significant that all of his previous Hollywood pictures felt like studio product. This doesn’t, nor does any subsequent effort.
But the noir elements are right there in the script as well, in the way the story has its menacing barbs and turns. We learn gradually — along with Wright’s perspicacious Charlie, the second of many powerful female heroines in the director’s American work — that Uncle Charlie is right to run from the detectives who start knocking at the Newtons’ door under false pretense. He is the Merry Widow Murderer, the headline-grabbing perpetrator of shocking crimes against elderly women in three states. Charlie the elder is a truly nasty noir villain: he can’t conceal his hatred for women and descends into unprompted rants about them at the dinner table with a generous speckling of “good old days” pap, and when he embarrasses his brother-in-law at his workplace he explains it away with the bizarre mission statement “Everything’s a joke to me” — delivered with bone-chilling steel eyes by Cotten. Yet his niece, when she turns on her beloved namesake, is equally unsentimental and uncompromised a figure; by the time another suspect is caught and Uncle Charlie is (unjustifiably) exonerated, she fears for the safety and security of herself and her family and makes no disguise of it: “I’ll kill you myself,” she says, the spell now broken but still something unrecognizable as a traditional familial bond.
Charlie’s realization about her uncle comes prompted partially by a boyish, flirty detective nosing around the front door, but she does most of the work herself by making a solo journey to the library after hours to check into an article Uncle Charlie snipped from the morning paper. That sequence that follows her, purpose unwavering, pain just under the surface of every movement, is utterly beguiling — it takes her and us from the Newtons’ house down the street, past a crossing guard who’s furious at her for not obeying his signals, and into a gorgeous library building (since demolished) covered in vine. She briefly argues with an employee at the door before being allowed in for just three minutes, and the camera pulls away to leave her with her crushed feelings in a shot that calls forward to All the President’s Men. In that film, a camera pulling back in a library signifies the impossible task that lays ahead of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. In this film, it just illustrates how sickeningly simple it is for Charlie to determine that the most important man in her life not only isn’t who she wanted him to be, he’s a killer. It is her agony for the remainder of the picture.
That incredible library is but one facet of Santa Rosa’s well-utilized beauty; Hitchcock lets it function as an extra character in his narrative, eagerly encompassing the inevitable eccentricities. More than nearly any other Hollywood film of the period, Shadow of a Doubt is defined by its cunning, evocative location work. (That Hitchcock hated location shooting is a nasty myth not borne out by its omnipresence in his filmography, but this is probably the first instance of a film of his being fully defined by it.) His movies are constantly filled with oddball, fascinating characters who are fleshed out for specific scenes and then quickly discarded (witness the mystery writer and her girlfriend in Suspicion, or the bomb-making bird-man and his daughter in Sabotage), but seldom had they carried such a ring of general, affectionate truth. There is for instance the listless, down-and-out waitress Louise (Janet Shaw), whose tentatively friendly probes at a rowdy bar are barely noticed by Charlie and Charlie as they stare each other down ferociously. Louise has two brief dialogue sequences in one scene and is on camera for probably less than two minutes, but anyone who sees the picture will wonder for years what happened to her after the curtain went down. There’s also Mrs. Martin, the overly talkative landlady; the doctor on the train who doesn’t want to be bothered because he’s on vacation; the postmaster who gets confused when asked about telepathy. None of these one-off characters have to seem natural or vivid, but that’s the way Hitchcock wanted them and that’s the way they feel.
Child actress Wonacott would remember decades later that Hitchcock asked the actors to read their lines with as little adornment as possible — to try and achieve naturalism from his cast. If this is the strategy (somewhat unusual for the time and for Hitchcock, whose last film had been full of very Hollywood characterization from Priscilla Lane and Robert Cummings) that wrought the performances we get herein from Cotten and Wright, it’s the author of a cinematic goldmine. Wright and Cotten contrast their roles marvelously; the former a fever-pitched overcommunicator, the latter a more pragmatic, cool presence holding cards close to his chest while varying his surface attitude significantly depending on who’s in the room. When the two of them are in a scene together, their strange, uncomfortable chemistry is galvanizing. Wright had come off a powerful, Oscar-winning performance in Mrs. Miniver prior to this; while both films showcase an astounding range from her, in this one her sense of grief and turmoil generate even more compassion. Cotten was a rich presence in great films throughout the ’40s; though he was never an outright movie star, his casting here implies that this was a rare instance (at the time) of Hitchcock getting exactly who he wanted in both lead roles.
As for that weird romantic tension, scholars of the film have read it for years as an incest allegory, and the more one notices about the way the pair’s relationship is developed onscreen the harder it becomes to read it otherwise. Uncle Charlie gives little gifts to his niece that seem designed to secure her loyalty to him; she gets giddy when he’s mistaken for a boyfriend as they walk down the street together; he represents, like Robert Donat did in The 39 Steps for the lonely farm wife played by Peggy Ashcroft, an enticing larger world that she feels is unavailable to her. Later, this all takes a nasty turn into the realm of coded abuse — the misery and secrets in the two Charlies’ eyes, the pains the younger Charlie takes to try to avoid being in a car alone with her uncle, the way other family members come to function as barter (Charlie backs down from informing her mother when it’s pointed out that it would devastate Emma, who worships him), and the classic patriarchal line to a potential accuser: “No one would believe you.” It is only Charlie’s coy ingenuity at snooping — in a scene pointedly alluded to years later in Rear Window — that rids her of her uncle’s madness: she intrudes upon a party wearing a telltale ring, a piece of evidence from one of the murder victims, after he makes at least three attempts to kill her. The sexual undercurrents of their secret life, permanently hidden from the rest of the Newtons (though Ann’s distrust of her uncle rings as a warning bell), carry through to the climax: as Charles prepares to kill his niece by tossing her off the train, clutching and covering her mouth and relying yet again (in vain) on her bond to him to give him essentially what he wants, there is an unmistakable sensation of sadomasochism to their movements. In a film free of Hays Code constraints, one assumes this scene would have been one last series of advances, one “goodbye” from an abuser to his constant victim; it’s easy enough now to read it otherwise, but not to miss the despair at the core of the sequence and its ugly resolution.
Not all such despair is in subtext. A magnificent, underappreciated performance in the film comes from Collinge, whose adoration and admiration of her brother — who makes such a good show of being rich, successful, exciting — seems to wake something up in her drab life of barely acknowledging her husband’s tiresome games and the constant stressful melange of tasks to complete, worlds to conquer: the eggs have to be broken after the cake’s underway, and the paprika is what makes the cream cheese turn red. But Charles is her escape from all this, a prism through which it becomes not so bad after all. He brings the freedom of the past back for her, while linking her to something beyond the stuffy limitations of her home and her town, which are all so “average.” When Collinge breaks down as Charles tells her he must leave the following day, she gives one of the most heartbreakingly honest monologues in a Hollywood film — heartbreaking because she’s barely holding herself together, honest because she wanders about without really saying what she means, although as the screen fades we do get a sense of what’s eating at her most: “You become your husband’s wife, you sort of forget who you are.”
This brings us to one of the most surprisingly modern aspects of the film, especially coming after the irksomely pat romances in Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur: the female lead, Wright, is never given a love interest. Actually, she has an attempted one: the cheerful young detective Jack played by Macdonald Carey. Jack becomes important to Charlie insofar as he’s the one other person who knows the truth about her uncle and is a lifeline of sanity for her. But there’s a fascinating sequence in the Newtons’ garage late in the film when Jack confesses that he’s started to develop feelings for Charlie and wonders, in a very Hays code manner (a clumsily expressed hope-you-and-I-can-get-married-someday proposal), if she might be interested in him romantically. Charlie smiles patiently and says she’d like for them to just be friends and, one joke about redecorating the garage aside, that’s pretty much the end of it. In the final shot, after Charlie the elder has been killed, Jack is holding her hand but it’s never stated or implied that they are now a couple. In a film with several other elements that can be read as feminist, this is quite a remarkable facet; it might have only happened for reasons of narrative economy, but it’s refreshing all the same. (Sabotage takes a similar jab at the tradition of unquestioningly “hooking up” characters for no reason other than convention.)
Incidentally, that finale carries with it a wonderful moment of irony; just as Wright finishes talking about how Uncle Charlie never was quite right with the world, a eulogy is being read that talks about him being a beloved son, a flawless human being, a hero. It’s a blessing that Hitchcock plays this from outside; to show us the other Newtons’ reaction to Charles’ death would edge dangerously close to exploitation. Instead, we have this memorial for a man he simply wasn’t, in front of people who will never know he wasn’t. It feels like this only will cause further torment for young Charlie, more of a sensation of unresolved fury inside her. Her family can no longer be a safe place for her, nor can her hometown; even if it never really was, she certainly began the film with faith and wide eyes. Maybe there just isn’t such a thing as a safe place, then. The darkness that was her uncle’s has in some ways been transferred onto her — this complexity, the impossibility of peace, is true noir. It’s also true Hitchcock, and for all that came later Shadow of a Doubt, this nightmare of peace amid war, remains one of his greatest, most lingering and troubling accomplishments.