Thursday 25 February 2010

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Shadow of a Doubt was a strange one for me to watch, given a rather unfortunate honorific that it carries. I only had a few Hitchcocks under my belt before I began working through his filmography in 2004, and while they were some of the greats (like Rear Window and Psycho) they were still only a few. Blistering through a couple of dozen more that year, I soon began to recognise the themes and techniques that the great director kept coming back to, the volume helping immensely to provide an understanding of his body of work through pattern recognition. What makes Shadow of a Doubt strange to watch is that it was apparently Hitch's personal favourite of all his films, and who better is there to judge? Well, perhaps 'favourite' doesn't necessarily translate to 'greatest'.

Looking back now from a safer vantage point, having seen over forty of Hitch's movies, it's clear that his greatest films came in Hollywood, dotted throughout a few decades, but my favourites thus far are simpler earlier ones like Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes and the film he made before this one, Saboteur. The problem here is that this one doesn't seem to fit into either category, instead fitting strangely into a category all of its own. I've found that most Hitchcock movies improve on further viewings, even if they were classics from the first time through, but this one actually felt lesser. Never mind the title, this seems to be a lesson in inevitability, a clever one in many ways but an inevitable one nonetheless, and that's hardly Hitch's way of doing things.

The most obvious comparison is to Suspicion, which Hitch made two years earlier in 1941, when this film was set, suggesting an even closer tie than just the theme. In Suspicion Cary Grant marries Joan Fontaine, who over time becomes more and more convinced that he is a murderer whose next victim will be her. Shadow of a Doubt has Joseph Cotten move in with his sister's family, one of whom over time becomes more and more convinced that he is a murderer whose next victim will be her. Intriguingly the part was originally written for Joan Fontaine.

Of course the power of both films is in the way Hitchcock manipulates his viewers, how he sets us up to believe that Cary Grant and Joseph Cotten are murderers only to turn tail and set us up to believe that they're not. Which red herrings are really red herrings? Watching these two films sometimes made me feel like one of the jurors in 12 Angry Men, beginning with the assurance that of course they're guilty as charged but that maybe if we examine the details we'll find one that inextricably proves that they aren't. That's an important judgement to make, given that the Merry Widow Killer is a cold blooded murderer who has already strangled three elderly women to death.

Cotten plays Charles Oakley, who we first find in bed, fully dressed with money scattered around him. He's a suspicious character who doesn't seem to know what he wants, if indeed he wants anything. At first he appears to be a strange throwback into black and white of an example of the Whatever generation, but he sparks up because at least he knows that he has to avoid the two 'friends' who come to see him, two men who hang around at the corner looking innocent and pretending not to recognise him. He gives them the slip and has a wire sent to Santa Rosa, as a heads up to his elder sister Emma that he's going to visit and stay for a while.

As he wires, Charlotte Newton, his niece who was even named Charlie for him, is lying in bed too wondering how her family has gone to pieces. They're in a rut, she thinks, and she calls herself 'a nagging old maid', even though she's only just out of high school. She's waiting for a miracle and suddenly she thinks that Uncle Charlie is it, so much so that she wants to send him a telegram to come shake them up, not realising that he's sent them a telegram to say he's coming already. He'll be there on Thursday and this news tells her that they have a telepathic link. Well, it isn't quite what she thinks it is.

Santa Rosa is very nice, a stark contrast to the derelict and beaten up nature of the buildings wherever he was previously, Philadelphia apparently. The Newtons are very nice too, whatever doom and gloom young Charlie initially suggests at, an all-American family where pop works at the bank and mom keeps herself busy housekeeping. They're Joseph and Emma Newton, in the able form of Patricia Collinge and Henry Travers. If Collinge isn't the epitome of the small town mom of 1941, I don't know who would be. The kids are bright, cheerful and unique. Charlie is the eldest, followed by little Ann, who is polite but precocious, trying to keep her mind clear for important things. She reads two books a week and believes they're all true. Roger, the youngest, counts his footsteps everywhere. We don't see too much of him but when we do he makes his presence known.

And into this small town routine comes Uncle Charlie, as suspicious to his namesake from moment one as he was to us, this time because he appears to be an invalid when he gets off the train, only to perk right up and shrug off all ills the moment he catches sight of her. As time goes by he only gets more suspicious, every little detail pointing towards his being the Merry Widow Killer, Hitch ably holding back that actual revelation until later, simply building our distrust of him before pointing us to the underlying reason.

Emma Newton keeps humming a tune and when young Charlie tries to identify it, he poorly pretends a lack of recognition. It's the Merry Widow Waltz, of course. When he sees something in Joe's evening paper that he doesn't want anyone to see, he turns the paper into a house to impress the kids and surreptitiously pockets a couple of pages. Later when young Charlie calls him on it in fun, he gets serious. He does that a lot, like when he points out how happy he is that he's never been photographed, only for young Charlie to bring an old childhood photo of him that she's kept safe. After opening an account at Joe's bank where he drops in $40,000 of apparent loose change, he focuses on Mrs Potter, who wears a veil, presuming correctly that she's a widow. Even the emerald ring he gives Charlie has a faint inscription on it that he didn't notice, complete with telltale initials, 'to TS from BM'.

One reason that he doesn't seem to be particularly suspicious to the Newtons is that he's family. Another is that they're innocent and naive in that way that only pre-war small town Americans tended to be. We're slipped the date of 1941 in passing, so this is before Pearl Harbor when Santa Rosa could have been light years away from the war in Europe. To these folks, there was nothing further east than Boston harbour and 'Nazi' was merely a word they simply hadn't heard yet or if they had it hadn't registered. They're so full of naive goodness that anyone with skills in social engineering could tie them all into knots without much of an effort. If e-mail spam existed back then, they'd be buried in little blue pills without the faintest idea what do with them.

So when a couple of very pushy characters, Jack Graham and Fred Saunders, turn up from the National Public Survey to interview everyone in the family and take photos of them all, of course they'll help out. When Uncle Charlie doesn't want anything to do with them, they just can't understand why but they're sure he has his reasons. What does he do? Well he's in business, like men are, you know. When Charlie Newton rumbles Jack Graham as a detective, he confides in her and so we're really off and running but without any real mystery or suspense, making everything seem a little odd.

Of course the sheer volume of hints tells us that Uncle Charlie must be the Merry Widow Killer and they're continually reinforced, every one a little less subtle than the last. This role was intended for William Powell, but MGM refused to make him available. Cotten is an excellent substitute, though his sinister scenes are often awkward because he has to play overtly to us but in a way that the other characters don't notice. He's certainly the only character with any real depth here, even though he only gets the second credit after Teresa Wright, who had recently become the only performer to ever be nominated for Academy Awards for each of her first three films. This was her fourth after The Little Foxes, Mrs Miniver and The Pride of the Yankees.

I was really surprised to find that Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock's favourite of his own films, because there's nothing in it that would suggest why. It's not his most personal film, which is undeniably Vertigo. It's not his most highly regarded, as Rear Window heads a list of no less than seven of his films that are rated higher in the IMDb Top 250 and it doesn't make any of the AFI lists. There are no great set pieces like the Statue of Liberty scene in Saboteur or the Mount Rushmore scene in North By Northwest. Admittedly it begins with a landmark, but not one we're likely to recognise and which is presumably there only to highlight that we begin on the wrong side of the river in the seedy part of town. After all it's a New Jersey bridge moonlighting in Philadelphia. Hitch's wife Alma Reville contributed to the screenplay but she wasn't the only one and she was hardly new to that role in his films. It didn't even have one of his usual blondes in the lead, top billed Teresa Wright being a brunette.

So why was he so fond of it? Initially I thought it might tie to Herb Hawkins, in the able form of Hume Cronyn playing much older than his years. This was his debut film and it marked the beginning of a long friendship between him and Hitchcock. He's a neighbour of the Newtons who has a relish for the intracies of murder, roughly similar to the role Auriol Lee had in Suspicion, but where she was a writer of detective fiction, he's just an amateur with a wonderfully tentative voice and an inquisitive nature. He spends his time wondering about how to commit the perfect murder, then discussing it as often as he can with Joe Newton, even somehow personalising the concept while keeping it abstract. 'We're not talking about killing people. Herb's talking about killing me and I'm talking about killing him,' says Joe. So perhaps Shadow of a Doubt was a second attempt at Suspicion and Auriol Lee and Hume Cronyn are merely playing Alfred Hitchcock.

Watching through for a second time I don't buy this any more. Hitchcock covered the concept often, not least five years later in Rope, which was all about the intellectual approach to the perfect murder, with all the arrogance needed to cover taking it to the experimentation stage. In fact that time, Hume Cronyn co-wrote the script. Now I don't believe that Shadow of a Doubt was even intended to be a suspense movie, a thriller in the way that Hitch was generally known for. Instead I think that with this film, Hitch predated the work of a number of modern day filmmakers, not least David Lynch and Lars von Trier, who are so good at showing the dark side of small town America.

I think Santa Rosa is set up to be the American dream, and Uncle Charlie is reality making its presence known in no uncertain terms. There's reality there already of course, but only after he arrives do we see bars, read headlines and hear about murders. When he drags his niece into one of those bars, he's immediately at home but she couldn't be further from it even though it's her town. The waitress, who'd attended the same school, could have been from another planet. In Santa Rosa, cops just help folks safely across the street, the only ones who actually have anything to investigate being the ones who ship in to follow Uncle Charlie. To add that small town flavour, some of the cast weren't professional actors, merely picked from the many locals in Santa Rosa who followed the film crew around, including Estelle Jewell and Edna May Wonacott, who is highly memorable as the precocious Ann Newton.

The point of Herb Hawkins is not to portray Hitchcock himself in character form, it's that while he's utterly driven to think about the dark side of human nature all the time, he doesn't notice it when it's right under his nose, even when Uncle Charlie veers off at the dinner table into an undeniably creepy monologue, misogynistic in the extreme, something that nobody in their right mind could ignore. David Lynch certainly noticed and Thornton Wilder must have done given that he wrote most of the script and was singled out for attention in the opening credits. Significantly, Wilder had written Our Town a few years earlier, one of the great glorifications of small town America. This is its dark side.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read some where that Hitchcock loved this film most because there was a "bit of himself" in each of the characters, the crime "obsessed father", to the precocious children and even with Uncle Charlie. Shadow of a Doubt wasn't my favorite Hitchcock film (that honor goes to Rear Window), but it is one of his best!