Blog Directory CineVerse: Charlie that good and evil

Charlie that good and evil

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Alfred Hitchcock once called "Shadow of a Doubt" his favorite among all the pictures he directed. And it's easy to see why: here is a film endowed with richly layered characters, a brooding atmosphere of infiltrating evil contrasting against a bright and cheery family millieu, memorable performances by Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright, and masterfully composed shots imbued with stylized lighting that evokes the very best of the classic Hollywood period and the encroaching influence of film noir. Here are the major observations reached by our CineVerse group about this standout effort from the Master of Suspense:


The plot isn’t very credible: Uncle Charlie evades capture several times, it’s hard to believe the niece would either kill Uncle Charlie herself of permit him to leave town in exchange for her keeping quiet about his secret, and the detectives would appear to be dimwitted amateurs who don’t abide by jurisdiction boundaries.
Yet, plausibility isn’t what Hitchcock is going for here, despite shooting on location in an actual small town. He’s aiming more for mood, atmosphere, and disquiet in a seemingly benign, charming, comfortable milieu of everytown, USA. The suspense here is a slow builder, insidiously creeping into a place the characters feel safe, invading the middle American home and usurping the safety and values of Norman Rockwell-painted America. This is apple pie America, but with a burnt crust, a critique of assumed American innocence.
This is a memorable milestone in Hitch’s oeuvre thus far because he infuses cynicism, sarcasm and doubt into his depiction of wholesome, clean-cut, small town America. He makes the viewer second guess the sanctity and unimpeachable ideals of the small town by letting Uncle Charlie’s dark influence and negative world view seep into Young Charlie’s mind.
o She hears what he says about the world she refuses to see: “You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell.”
o Young Charlie sees the morose waitress waiting on them at the bar as a cautionary tale—a reflection of what she herself could be in the years to come.
o Young Charlie, a sweet, innocent, harmless teenager, also finds a festering and violent hate inside herself that makes her threaten to murder Uncle Charlie. 
The screenplay was co-written by “Our Town” playwright Thornton Wilder, purposely chosen by Hitchcock to weave a wistful vision of a small town that is threatened and twisted. As critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “Our Town also has a horrifying undertone. People hold down jobs, weather disappointments and endure lives that are sometimes intolerably dull.”
o Note that, despite the veneer of a domestic middle class utopia, there are disturbing layers of non-normalcy going on in Young Charlie’s family: the father likes to talk murder and morbid fantasies with his neighbor, and the mother spoils her son with an almost incestuous energy.
Biographer Donald Spoto called this film “the first spiritually autobiographical film of (Hitchcock’s) career.” To provide context, the director’s mother grew gravely ill back in England while the screenplay was written, with her son not able to visit due to the challenges of traveling abroad during World War II. During production, she passed away, and Hitchcock poured a lot of his heart and soul into the movie, especially the idealized vision of domestic bliss and maternal comfort shown in Santa Rosa, California.
Unlike some of Hitchcock’s other works of suspense, this one has more fully realized characters, especially the characters of the two Charlies, who form a symbiotic relationship. Hitchcock was quoted as saying he was especially fond of this movie because “it was one of those rare occasions where you could combine character with suspense. Usually in a suspense story there isn’t time to develop character.”

Essentially, the innovative idea at work here is to introduce a murderer into the average American home, according to reviewer Brian Eggert. And the insidious nature of this relationship is that the murderer is a relative who shares the same blood and genes as the decent, morally upstanding family members whose home he has infiltrated.  This suggests that every other member of that family—but particularly Young Charlie—can become infected with, or at least victimized by, Uncle Charlie’s evil.
Twinning, doubling and doppelgangers are a recurrent motif in this film. There are two Charlies at opposite ends of the spectrum: one young, one old, one sweet and innocent, one devious and devilish, one on the west coast, one on the east coast. Visually, the film links them together by using symmetrical poses, cross-cutting action that juxtaposes one with the other, and other techniques. The niece even declares that “we’re sorta like twins.” Young Charlie also conjures up a sinister twin of herself when she says, “Go away or I’ll kill you myself,” insinuating a darker second side of her personality. Likewise, there are parallel and repeat images used in “Shadow,” including shots of the train coming (earlier) and the train leaving (later); him lying in bed, her lying in bed; her going out with the detective to a bright diner vs. her going to a dark bar with her uncle; the two run-ins with the traffic cop; Uncle Charlie hurting her arm, etc.
A human monster in our midst is another central tenet of “Shadow of a Doubt.” Uncle Charlie is depicted as a kind of horrific vampire. Consider how he prefers to lie in the dark behind curtains, evades capture by the two gumshoes, doesn’t appear winded from the chase, he insists on not being photographed, and he seems to possess a telepathic power to communicate with his niece. Later, a character is told to tell the story of Dracula.
Subversion and perversity is another theme: Hitchcock subtly suggests a sexual conflict between the two Charlies: she describes their connection as “not just an uncle and a nice,”, and he gives his niece a ring as a present. She appears more as a jilted lover betrayed by him than a disappointed niece after she discovers the truth about him.
The film is aptly named, as shadows and doubt are also important themes: literally, we see shadows fall across the image as foreshadowing elements, such as in the shots of the train and the dark billowing smoke it belches out; high contrast lighting is sometimes used in scenes with Uncle Charlie; and we see doubt cast across Young Charlie’s face in several later scenes. 
Suppression is the lesser of all evils: Young Charlie must suppress her urge to kill or expose Uncle Charlie and give into her dark side in order to maintain the veneer of normalcy and wholesomeness that Santa Rosa requires to maintain order and purity. Consider that Uncle Charlie is given a hero’s funeral at the end, which prevents the town from being forever stained.

Orson Welles “The Stranger” and David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” two other movies about danger lurking in seemingly safe suburban communities.
“Step Down to Terror,” a 1958 remake of this story
The low-budget horror films of RKO producer Val Lewton, whom Hitchcock admired, including “Cat People,” “The Leopard Man” and “The Seventh Victim,” which each depict malignancy and menace lurking about in mundane neighborhoods and towns.

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