Monday, July 2, 2007

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

“Shadow of a Doubt” was thought to be Director Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite film. This could illustrate that the Master of Suspense had just as keen a sense of humor as of horror. Though “Shadow of the Doubt” is hardly a comedy, there is much that amuses in the film and Mr. Hitchcock uses his particular brand of humor to throw us off and leave us unprepared, as Young Charlie is unprepared, for the unimaginable psychological terror unexpectedly brought on by the visit of a favorite uncle.

Teresa Wright plays Charlie, a young woman who has yet to throw off the blinders of innocent childhood and is slow to realize her beloved uncle, played by Joseph Cotten, is a murderer. The audience learns this at the beginning, and we are drawn in to the story of how an Average American Family, if such thing exists, faces evil, or chooses not to face it. There is a strong allegory in this film relative to America’s isolationism and its late entry into World War II when facing evil was the only thing left to do once it seemed that choosing not to face it was no longer an option. There are signs or posters in Mr. Newton’s bank and in the library promoting defense bonds, and even the nerdy Herb from next door wears a flag pin on his lapel. Mr. Hitchcock never elaborates, he only insinuates.

Teresa Wright was one of the best young actresses of her generation, and is so far the only actress to win Academy Award nominations for every one of the first three films she appeared in, winning Best Supporting for “Mrs. Miniver,” (1942) , the year she was also nominated at the same time for Best Actress for “Pride of the Yankees” (1942). Her performance of a gentle girl with nerves of steel is, along with Joseph Cotten’s as the sinister Uncle Charlie, for whom she was named, are the only two characterizations in the film not given to whimsy or humor. She is good and innocent; he is wily and twisted, and each is in dead earnest about what they want and what they are going to do about it.

It is the character actors who support these two which give us the background of who these people are and what this family and community are about. Patricia Collinge is particularly affective as the fragile and loving mother (see blog entry March 8, 2007), and Henry Travers is reliable as the kindly if occasionally confused father. His running discussions with neighbor Herb, played by a young but made to look older Hume Cronyn on how best to murder people is a delightful comic foil to the film as the script grows more tense. Both men are fans of murder mysteries, and the books and fiction magazines they trade and the gruesome facts of murder cases are delightedly discussed with utter seriousness. They share favorite methods on how they would murder each other, to the point where Teresa Wright nervously loses her temper in a near fit of hysterics after she begins to piece together the lurid story of her uncle’s past, the current danger to her family.

Edna May Wonacott, the typical little girl Hitchcock found while scouting Santa Rosa, California for this location shoot, is extraordinarily natural and quite funny as the too-serious younger sister Ann, who reads more intelligent literature than her father and wears flowers in her hair, who pompously warns her little brother he is not to make seditious remarks against the government. Underneath the jovial family chaos, some undercurrent of disaster is brewing.

Like many of Hitchcock’s films, this is a character study and the suspense is organic. It comes not merely from a threat from the outside, but from something within the characters, something weak, or ignorant, or wrong that makes them vulnerable to a stronger force. The characters played by Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten play a game of emotional chess with each other, with the Newton family as the stakes, with all this nonsense going on behind them.

Two of the best and most famous shots, however, are technical achievements: the extreme close-up on the ring Miss Wright wears when she drapes her hand on the banister coming down the stairs to challenge her uncle to leave town, showing him she has the evidence, which is the ring, to convict him. The second is the moment in the darkened town library when, searching newspapers while a thunderous chorus the “Merry Widow Waltz” shocks us, she reads details of a crime spree by a suspect called the Merry Widow Murderer which implicate her uncle. The camera pulls back in a long overhead shot, leaving Wright small, exposed and vulnerable as she pulls herself up with difficulty from the library table and walks, trance-like and ill, trudging away into the shadows.

We see here again that Alfred Hitchcock is ever as much a technician as a storyteller picking apart human psychology. He is aided and abetted here, perhaps not so ironically, by screenplay writer Thornton Wilder, who is famous for the play “Our Town,” an iconic piece about a supposedly average American town. He gives Mr. Cotten the chilling speech: “How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you’d find swine?” Not the stuff of Grover’s Corners.

If Young Charlie is the antithesis of Uncle Charlie, then perhaps Hitchcock intends for “Our Town” to be the antithesis of “Shadow of a Doubt.” He never comes right out and says it though; as with the meanings of the many pairings of two in this film, we have to follow his hints, while he merrily strings us along.

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6 comments:

Kate said...

Love, love, love Shadow of a Doubt. It was my first Hitchcock and I could watch it over and over again.

I always love young Charlie's sudden distaste for her father's joking and talk about murder. It's almost like a meta joke in some ways, because the last act of Shadow of a Doubt itself hangs on the potential for Charlie, or her family, being hurt or killed. Even the fact that she survives several attempts (two of them right out of a standard mystery plot) is kind of neat.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Kate. Thanks for stopping by. I love "Shadow of a Doubt", too. The funny conversations about murder mystery novels how to get away with a murder while a real plot to kill is being hatched under their roof is both funny and creepy at the same time.

Sharon's Place said...

Love Shadow of a Doubt. It's
such a classic. I also love
Strangers on a train.

Lisa said...

Hey, Jacqueline, just happened on this great posting about "Shadow of a Doubt" and wanted to point you to a post I did on the film a while ago, specifically about Edna May Wonacott, which eventually ended up in another blogger interviewing her at her home in Arizona! There are links to the articles and well worth reading! I loved her character and her performance and she turned out to be just as delightful in real life!

http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/08/03/my-favorite-bookworm-or-where-in-the-world-is-edna-may-wonacott/

Thanks for a great post about a movie I can watch a million times. I also love the shy but genuine romance that develops between Macdonald Carey and Wright -- quite appealing! Such an entertaining film in all ways!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you Lisa, for the kind comments and the links. I agree this is a terrific film in many ways, not the least of which is Teresa Wright. Edna May Wonacott is a hoot in this movie, I just love her. I can watch this one a million times, too. Maybe I already have.

Wilbert Takken said...

Great review of one of the great noirs. I love how Terresa Wright isn't your typical 'femme-fatale', Hitchcock at his best!