d. Alfred Hitchcock. United States. 108 mins.
"You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares." - Joseph Cotton, as Uncle Charlie, in Shadow of a Doubt
Those who read regularly know I have a fascination with the National Film Registry in the Library Congress, always curious to know what U.S. films people think should be preserved for future generations. The order in which films are inducted, of course, has very little relevance to their quality, although the first few years saw more American masterpieces than the last few have. It's no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock's most revered film, Vertigo, was his first film included, but perhaps a bit more surprising is that Shadow of a Doubt was his second.
It had taken him a few years to assimilate cinematically, but by 1943 Hitchcock's films were beginning to resemble apple pies served with a deadly blade. With Saboteur a year before, Hitchcock's films began breathing Americanness, most notably in the climax set atop one of the most recognizable landmarks in the entire country. But Shadow of a Doubt – one of his ten best films – is a nose-dive into bucolic, small-town America, tinged with psychological complexity and a murder mystery ("the idea of bringing menace to a small town," as Hitchcock's daughter Pat has said).
The small town in question is Santa Rosa, California, where Hitchcock filmed on location. Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is the eldest child of a typical middle class family, and the ordinariness of her life is causing her a standard level of teenage angst. But two developments threaten to shake up the Newton family. One is that her beloved namesake Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) has come to town, and the other is that two detectives are roaming Santa Rosa looking for the "Merry Widow Murderer," who woos wealthy women then robs and murders them. The possibility of the two being connected eventually overcomes the younger Charlie, and her investigation into her uncle leads to some unsettling revelations.
The names originally floated for the leads were William Powell's and Joan Fontaine's, but Cotton and Wright are an unbeatable match. Cotton came to Shadow of a Doubt already a quasi-star (he'd been in performing in theater and, being Orson Welles's close friend, had appeared in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons). Like Cary Grant in Suspicion, he was cast in his darkest film role at the time under Hitchcock; both relished the idea of playing bad, but it is Cotton who seems to embrace the potential of his role whole-heartedly. At the other end (or the other half), Wright is a polished blend of small town wholesomeness and disillusionment, and the supporting cast is strong. Charlie's mother, and Uncle Charlie's sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge) is warm and steady while Charlie's father (Henry Travers) is humorously oblivious to the possibility of an actual murderer because he and his neighbor (Hume Cronyn) are wrapped up in pulp stories and ridiculously devising the "perfect murder."
The source of the script came from Gordon McDonnell, who sold plots to film studios and whose wife Margaret was a story editor David O. Selznick. What began as a slim idea called "Uncle Charlie" would be expanded by Alma Reville (a.k.a. Mrs. Hitchcock) and award-winning writer Thornton Wilder into an Oscar-nominated screenplay. Of all the lauded writers he worked with, Hitchcock got along with Wilder the best; Wilder wasn't afraid to look outward for inspiration and could pen striking dialogue that fit squarely in the realms of shadows. (He is believed to have been the one who penned the Cotton dialogue above.) In Hitchcock's eyes, Wilder was a splendid coworker because he didn't look down on the director's work; many in the theater and film industries did, dismissing Hitchcock as a pure genre artist, but Wilder – whose novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and whose play Our Town both won Pulitzers – was up to the challenge of the thriller.
Film noir had yet to hit its stride in America, but the early films in that style still seem to have influenced Hitchcock during production. Upon Uncle Charlie's arrival, Santa Rosa is bright and sunny, but as his niece begins to suspect he is hiding something, more and more shadows seem to creep into the frames. Thematically, Shadow of a Doubt is best remembered for its eerie doubling effect: Uncle Charlie and Niece Charlie are presented as two sides of the same personality – the shadow and the light, the bad and the good, the immoral and the moral. The doubling is structurally resonant (Cotton and Wright are frequently filmed in two-shots or imitative framing), but hardly subtle. It's not the doubling that seems to interest Hitchcock but the way such doubling can be complicated. It's not as easy as Wright wear the white stetson and Cotton wears the black stetson. Uncle Charlie is deliberately charming (his leitmotif is Franz Lehár's Merry Widow Waltz), both socially and physically, and revered by his niece as someone who is exciting and invigorating, not unlike how Satan himself is frequently characterized in later films. It's the young Charlie who investigates her uncle and becomes determined to bring him to justice and who ends up guilty of killing someone herself. "What it boils down to," Hitchcock said, "is that villains are not all black and heroes are not all white. There are grays everywhere."
It has become ingrained in Hitchcock lore that Shadow of a Doubt was his personal favorite of his fifty-three feature films (a fact reiterated by his daughter Pat), but he flatly denied that statement to François Truffaut in their lengthy interview and told Peter Bogdonavich that it was one of his favorites, but not the only one. The one statement that he never publicly backed away from was that making it was his "most satisfying" experience in the director's chair. Still, that concept is intriguing on its own. The film didn't provide Hitchcock any technical puzzle he had to solve with wizardry (the most compelling technical shot is one where the camera swoops in and follows Cotton as he bounds up the stairs and stops to look over his shoulder), nor was it his most difficult to squeeze through the censors – both challenges that the director loved to conquer. It might very well be that Wilder's contributions helped his self-esteem, and it might be the fact that Shadow of a Doubt served as American terra firma for his British soul, and the on-location filming allowed him to turn himself into an American director. In many ways it's atypical for a Hitchcock film (not counting the fascination with murder in a small town, which as he would say later on his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, is "where it belongs"), but it is still one of the director's best and his satisfaction seems entirely warranted.
17 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock. United States. 108 mins.