Monday, January 11, 2010

Dial H For Hitchcock: "Shadow of a Doubt" - Norman Rockwell with a Twist in Hitchcock's America


Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was Alfred Hitchcock's fifth American film and the first of his films that he believed truly depicted America. Hitchcock's "first draft" attempt at this had been Saboteur (1942), but he hadn't had the cast he'd wanted, he felt the script was weak and that he'd been rushed into the film before he was ready...none of this was the case with Shadow of a Doubt.

The narrative was based on a story called "Uncle Charlie" by Gordon McConell. For the adaptation, Hitchcock got Thornton Wilder, convinced that the author of Our Town possessed the concept of small-town America he wanted for Shadow of a Doubt. Wilder, who helped Hitchcock select Santa Rosa, California, as the setting, wrote a prose outline of the story before being mobilized into World War II. Hitchcock then turned to screenwriter Sally Benson, another writer deeply steeped in Americana. Her "5135 Kensington Avenue" stories had been the basis for Meet Me in St. Louis.

The opening scenes of Shadow of a Doubt make it clear that the man we come to know as Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) has sinister secrets and a dark side, so when he descends on pristine Santa Rosa and his sister's family, the Newtons, we already know that something is quite wrong, but we don't what it is. Oakley is handsome and smooth. His voice is velvet and his manner is insinuating; he has seen the world and flaunts his style and money with confidence. When he comes to stay with the Newtons, their staid community is bedazzled and responds by immediately embracing him.

Santa Rosa, scene of much location work, is blissfuly serene, a spotless tree-filled little town of quaint houses with broad porches, lush flower beds, friendly neighbors, fussy librarians, crusty traffic cops, immaculate churches, a stately and bustling bank and every trapping of the ideal American town in the 1940s.

At the heart of the film is a doppelganger motif personified by young Charlie (Teresa Wright) and her Uncle Charlie. They are admitted "doubles," she was named for him and adores him; he obviously favors her. The two Charlies seem to have a psychic link, share a restless spirit and other traits. But one of the pair is pure while the other is corrupt, and the two eventually come to an unbridgeable abyss and a stand-off. Teresa Wright delicately renders Charlie as an intelligent and decent girl impatiently verging on womanhood. Intuitive and strong, she has her mettle tested and must grow up quickly and profoundly when she realizes her beloved uncle is a cold-blooded killer. Uncle Charlie, intricately wrought by Cotten, is a ruthless sociopath of indecent charm. His view of humanity is far beyond cynical:

"Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you'd find swine?"
Wright and Cotten contrast and play off each other beautifully; their scenes together are rock solid. Backing them up is an excellent supporting cast that includes Hume Cronyn making his memorable film debut as the Newton's eccentric next-door-neighbor; Henry Travers, cozy and congenial as small-town-dad Joe Newton; Patricia Collinge, note-perfect as fluttery and sentimental Emma Newton. Also very watchable are Edna May Wonacott as the cheeky little sister and Wallace Ford as a detective on Oakley's trail. (See this week's "Underrated Performers" blog, posted January 10, to learn more about Collinge and Wonacott)
Shadow of a Doubt has been called Hitchcock's first fully-realized masterwork. I'm not so quick to write-off his direction and overall imprint on Rebecca, but agree that Shadow of a Doubt, multi-layered and meticulously orchestrated, is among his very best films. The juxtaposition of a simple and complacent American small town with the lethal killer creeping toward its heart is neatly executed, and the early kinship that becomes a battle-to-the-death relationship between the two Charlies ensures that the dramatic tension never eases up.

What are your impressions of Hitchcock's vision of America in Shadow of a Doubt? Any comments about his style and technique or technical aspects of the picture? Which of the performances are standouts for you and why? Does it seem to you that the film is referencing the international situation of the time? What other films owe a debt to this one? ...And have you heard about or noticed the repeated use of "twos" or "doubles" (starting with the two Charlies) in Shadow of a Doubt?


(Note: Shown at top left, "Freedom From Want" (1943) by Norman Rockwell aka/"The Thanksgiving Picture," it is one of Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" paintings inspired by President Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union Address; the color photo is "The Newton House" on MacDonald Avenue in Santa Rosa, California)

11 comments:

Dawn said...

Ladyeve, I want to first say I loved your review. Loved how you compare the pictures of a wholesome, middle American values. With the films contrast of dark secrets hidden within a family. My favorite scenes is with the nerdy neighbor, who visits around dinner time, to talk about how he would plot a murder over the dinner table....My mother would not allow that type of discussion around our dinner table.. :)

toto2 said...

Eve, this was an exceptional review! I like how you paired the slice of Norman Rockwell with the slice of Santa Rosa. You paired the sisters brilliantly in our Underrated Performer article. I paired the trains in my comment to your Underrated post. Other pairings include brother Charlie and sister Emma, the front and back staircases, and real detective Jack and armchair detective Herbie (ironically it is the armchair detective who saves Charlie's life). Hitchcock employs the doppelganger theme again in "Strangers on a Train," "Vertigo," and "Psycho."

I think the ensemble cast is quite believable. When I watch a movie and cease noticing the actor and become immersed in the character I tend to truly enjoy the performance most. Thank you for your remarkable post!

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Great review, Ladyeve. For me, Joseph Cotton is the standout performer in this film. At one moment he seems like the most congenial man and then the next he exudes malice. I think Teresa Wrigt fed off Cotton in their scenes together, and this made them the best part of the film. Plus, you're right about the two theme that Hitchcock used here: with the two Charlies and the two murder/mysteries that are taking place--one real-life and the other fictional as dicussed by Henry and Joe.

Rick29 said...

Eve, reference the “twins” theme, I love how Hitchcock visually makes a connection between Charlie and Uncle Charlie even when they’re not in a scene together. In the film’s opening, when we first see Uncle Charlie, he’s laying out on a bed in the hotel room. Likewise, later when we first meet Charlie, she’s sprawled out on a bed, too, in her bedroom. They’re frequently framed together when things are going well between them. However, that changes once Charlie learns the truth. One of the most striking images in the film is when Uncle Charlie heads up the stairs happily (thinking he’s off the hook ) and looks back to see Charlie—looking dead serious—framed in the front doorway. Later, there’s a reversal of that shot with Charlie (in the front yard) looking at Uncle Charlie framed in the doorway of the house. In both scenes, Hitch frames the characters dramatically to show their isolation from each other. By the way, Toto, you made some outstanding observations on other pairings! And Kim, the two types of mysteries are another intriguing pair as well.

The Lady Eve said...

I thought I'd jump and and acknowledge these great comments. Dawn, I also really enjoy the scenes with Hume Cronyn as Herbie - one of his best is his briefest, when Charlie acknowledges that he saved her life - his reaction reveals so much of who he is in just a facial expression and a turn of the head. Toto, you picked up on many pairs in the film (there are lots) and Hitchcock's doppelganger themes in several movies. Kim, Jos. Cotten's is one of the best portrayals of a villain on film, I think, worthy of an Oscar. He plays Uncle Charlie so very smooth and yet so deadly. And Rick, you pointed out some excellent "twin" scenes, some of the most dramatic and visually interesting...here are a few more "two" and "twin" touches...the bar was called "Til-Two," there were two detectives trailing Charlie in the east and two in Santa Rosa, Uncle Charlie goes on two seriously misanthropic rants (one at the dinner table about "silly wives" and one at the bar about the world being a "foul sty"), two scenes in the garage, two at the church, two at the train station and two on board, there are two sets of initials on the emerald ring...and check out young Charlie's clothes - when she goes to the telegraph office she's wearing a coat with two huge buttons on the lapel and when she goes to the library she's wearing a dress with two large bird-shaped broaches on the shoulder...Shadow of a Doubt is one fascinating movie, with so many layers (more than two)...

Rick29 said...

That's an awesome set of two's, Eve! I also like how SHADOW employs techniques Hitch used in earlier films and would continue to use in future ones. The dinner scenes, particularly the one where Charlie is trying to remember the name of the waltz, reminded me of the family meal scene in Hitch's earlier YOUNG AND INNOCENT. In both cases, one person at the dinner table becomes gradually more agitated--while everyone else is oblivous to what's going on. As for future techniques, the use of shock scenes would become a staple in Hitch pics (e.g., the shower scene in PSYCHO, the gas station attack in THE BIRDS). He creates shock in an interesting way in SHADOW; he uses an abrupt cut between scenes. I'm referring to where Charlie and Jack are on their first "date." They are walking along and laughing, then Hitch cuts quickly to a shot of Charlie alone--a look of horror on her face--and the camera pulls back to show Jack. We suddenly realize that Jack has told Charlie about his suspicions regarding Uncle Charles. It's a jarring transition between the two scenes, emphasizing the impact of what Charlie has learned.

The Lady Eve said...

Yes. And in a scene a bit later, after Jack takes her home and she goes to the library, we get to experience Charlie's next shock - the newspaper story. The music comes up, slightly reminiscent of the music/sounds in Psycho, when the headline flashes on screen. Then a grotesque version of "The Merry Widow Waltz" plays as she reads the story and everything sinks in. Very effective. And about techniques that became trademarks - the scene when Charlie comes down the staircase wearing the emerald ring and the camera zooms in to a closeup on the ring brings to mind Notorious and the scene in which Alicia has a key in her hand... possibly his most famous use of that kind of shot.

Rick29 said...

Oh, you're right the similar shot of the key in NOTORIOUS; I hadn't thought of that! The newspaper headline shot didn't quite work for me. I think that's because I knew Uncle Charles was guilty because I'd seen the movie before. It would be interesting to watch SHADOW OF A DOUBT with someone who knows nothing about it. At what point in the film would they decide definitively that Charles was guilty? Yes, he's running from two men at the beginning for some reason. And he acts suspicious on multiple occasions, but there could be plausible explanations for his actions...really up until Charlie reads the initials on the ring. It's interesting to contrast SHADOW with SUSPICION and VERTIGO (and to a lesser degree, maybe THE PARADINE CASE). All three films require the viewer to decide if a character is guilty of a crime. SUSPICION holds its cards close until the film's climax (but I don't think works very well). SHADOW and VERTIGO both reveal the secret at around the mid-point of the film, which--for me--makes them both infinitely more intriguing. (BTW, a non-Hitchcock that works the "is she guilty or not" angle very well is MY COUSIN RACHEL).

The Lady Eve said...

The problem I have with Suspicion is that it's pretty clear that the ending was changed so it doesn't play for me. In Shadow of a Doubt, when Charlie and her Uncle have their confrontation in the bar, he basically confesses to her, so even the most trusting viewer ought to figure it out by then. The "guilty or not" angle might make for a good blog one day, Rick.

Rick29 said...

Yes, it's clear during the bar scene that Charles is the killer--hence, SHADOWS foreshadows VERTIGO by turning the film into a cat-and-mouse game. Also, I love how Hitchcock uses humor in his films. Herb and Charlie's father are a prime example, as is the amusing friendship between Ann and Saunders. But it's the unexpected humor I like best. A perfect example is when Charles gives his horrible anti-woman, "world is a foul sty" speech--and when he's done, his sister comments that she hopes he doesn't talk about that to her ladies' club! It's a natural comment, but also very funny.

The Lady Eve said...

The last time I watched Shadow of a Doubt, I made a point of trying to watch it as if for the first time and could imagine the jolt the audience would experience, as did Charlie, when the grim headline flashes. And I could particularly imagine the tension that would develop in the viewer as it becomes clear that Uncle Charlie is out to kill her. Joseph Cotten does such a good job as the suave killer and the plot advances in such a way that I imagine audiences sighed a great sigh of relief when Uncle Charlie finally fell in in the path of an oncoming train.