Today I would love to welcome Stu of Popcorn Nights to the Alfred Hitchcock blogathon. Stu runs a really cool site with fantastic and detailed movie reviews that is certainly worth the follow if you don’t already! Now let me step aside and let Stu take us through Shadow of a Doubt!
Shadow Of A Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock’s sixth film following his move to Hollywood in 1940. If you watch his first few American movies – most notably Rebecca, Suspicion and Foreign Correspondent – there’s a nagging sense that the director was not quite ready to leave England behind, but by the time this one was released in 1943 he was clearly growing more comfortable with America as a setting, and American characters as his subjects. Part of the reason for this is that wartime restrictions precluded Hitchcock from visiting London in 1941 and 1942, while his mother lay dying; apparently he received a warm welcome in Santa Rosa, California, where most of this film was shot, which set in motion a long-term love affair with the USA.
Shadow Of A Doubt – which was actually Hitchcock’s personal favourite out of all of the films he made and is often cited as his first ‘masterpiece’ – begins on the east coast, with a fairly standard chase scene in New Jersey, before the action switches to the small town that made the English director feel at home. Santa Rosa is home to The Newtons, a normal, reasonably wealthy American family. Head of the clan Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) likes to read crime fiction in his spare time and spends much of the film debating the idea of a perfect murder with a neighbour. His wife Emma (Patricia Collinge) is a busy woman about town, and together they have raised two girls and one boy: a precocious little brat of a daughter named Ann (Edna May Wonacott), a boy named Roger (Charles Bates) and their older teenage sister Charlie (Teresa Wright). Charlie is bored with life in Santa Rosa, and spends her time listlessly lolling around her bedroom, but she perks up when her uncle – also called Charlie (Joseph Cotten, fresh from appearing in Citizen Kane) – sends a telegram to announce he will be paying the Newtons an impromptu visit. The only problem is Uncle Charlie also happens to be the mysterious stranger we saw being chased by the feds in the opening scene.
Why? Well, it turns out that Uncle Charlie could well be The Merry Widow Killer, wanted by the police in connection with the deaths of several wealthy old ladies, and thus begins a fairly straightforward thriller in which the suspense is fuelled by the simple question of whether this out-of-town visitor and much-loved member of the family really is leading a double life as a cold-hearted murderer. A couple of detectives investigating the case show up at the Newton house posing as surveyors, and in a barely-credible twist one of them, Jack (Macdonald Carey), becomes romantically involved with teenage Charlie (even proposing to her at one point). Meanwhile Uncle Charlie’s actions become shiftier and shiftier as the truth threatens to surface. Young Charlie’s attitude to her uncle changes as she pieces together several clues and receives information from the police. At first she idolizes her uncle, but this turns to suspicion and then to outright fear, all helped along by some significant recurring music and images. (These, cleverly, also build up the idea that some kind of psychic link exists between the two Charlies.) Hitchcock intensifies the threat posed by Uncle Charlie expertly, revealing to the audience a cold-hearted man who will do just about anything within his means to keep his secret hidden, including sabotaging staircases and poisoning family members with carbon monoxide. The cad!
For me this isn’t up there with the very best of Hitchcock’s work, but Shadow Of A Doubt is still an enjoyable thriller, and considering the relative lack of action it’s very tense at times. Much of this is due to the way the director and screenwriter Thornton Wilder allow the viewer access to certain key information about Uncle Charlie early on which pretty much spells out his guilt; subsequently the ignorance of the Newton family is milked for all it’s worth, with quite a few loaded lines spoken by the characters who remain largely oblivious to the fact a potential killer is in their midst. The threat hangs over them at all times, and Hitchcock makes the most of the premise of a psychopathic murderer showing up in an otherwise idyllic American small town; the train carrying Uncle Charlie to Santa Rosa, in one memorable and portentous shot, arrives under a thick cloud of black smoke.
It’s quite a dark film at times, not least in the way it presents a single malevolent force disrupting Rockwell-esque small town lives. There is little humour contained in the story and the main character is suitably unpleasant, especially when the net starts to close in around him. He refers to the importance of familial relationships but these are purely for self-serving reasons, and his true attitude to his sister and her family is subtly exposed by Hitchcock and Cotten during the second half of the movie. Playing the archetypal charming monster, Cotten’s performance is comparable with the very best in Hitchcock’s long list of films, and he captures the character’s duality well – saying all the right things round the dinner table one minute, eyes shifting nervously from side to side the next.
The main problem I have with Shadow Of A Doubt is the lack of an iconic (or even memorable) set piece. The very best of Hitchcock’s films (or, at least, my own personal favourites) have at least one of these: the crop duster and Mt. Rushmore scenes in North By Northwest, the gathering of the birds and their first attack on Bodega Bay in The Birds, the Royal Albert Hall climax in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the shower scene in Psycho, Vertigo‘s rooftop chase, and so on and so on. Yet there’s nothing truly special, or memorable, to lift Shadow Of A Doubt above and beyond the great number of well-acted thrillers of the war years, which is a shame; even the ending is a bit of a damp squib. I also think the pacing is way too slow at times, there are quite a few plot-holes and any mystery is pretty much non-existent after Uncle Charlie’s dark side is revealed to the viewer very early on. The explanation for his repeated acts of violence is disappointingly trite, too.
If you’re after a Hitchcock suspense thriller that’s a little more understated than others, this would be a good choice. It’s also relatively unknown, despite a number of critics and fans hailing it in recent years as a classic. Personally, I don’t think it is anywhere near that level, but it’s worth watching for Cotten’s performance alone and it certainly has its moments. Unfortunately those aren’t very often and – I can’t believe I’m about to type this in relation to a Hitchcock film – that means Shadow Of A Doubt is a little boring at times.