Blog Directory CineVerse: Hitchcock casts a long shadow of excellence across this 80-year-old film

Hitchcock casts a long shadow of excellence across this 80-year-old film

Friday, January 20, 2023

Alfred Hitchcock 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 milieu; memorable performances by Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright—perhaps the best of their careers, with Cotton playing against type as Uncle Charlie, a rare villain role in his acting career—and masterfully composed shots imbued with stylized lighting that evoke the very best of the classic Hollywood period and the encroaching influence of film noir.

We at CineVerse took a fresh drive behind the wheel of this cinematic vehicle last week and had plenty to talk about, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here; to hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode celebrating Shadow of a Doubt’s 80th anniversary, click here).

Has the movie stood the test of time? Why is it worth honoring 80 years after its release, and why and how does Shadow of a Doubt still matter?

  • This is a memorable milestone in Hitch’s oeuvre thus far because he infuses cynicism, pessimism, and mistrust into his depiction of a wholesome, clean-cut, old-fashioned sleepy little burg. The pessimism and cynicism about small-town USA are remarkable when you ponder that this is a film shot and released in the middle of World War II, a time when America and Hollywood tried to emphasize positive, morale-boosting messages.
    • David Keyes of The Cinemaphile Blog wrote: “This thoughtful 1943 noir – about a mysterious family man with a dark history – emerges, even now, as a watershed moment…Movies about characters with those sorts of dubious backgrounds had, up to that point, belonged almost exclusively to the world of B-movies, and major film studios dared not touch on subjects perceived as cynical for fear of undercutting broad appeal.”
  • What makes Shadow work so well? Hitch builds mood, atmosphere, and disquiet in a seemingly benign, charming, and comfortable Everytown USA locale. The suspense here is a slow builder, insidiously creeping into a place the characters feel safe, invading a middle-class home and usurping the safety and values of Norman Rockwell-era America. This is apple pie Americana, but with a burnt crust, a critique of assumed American innocence.
  • Several critics regard Shadow of a Doubt as possibly the purest distillation of Hitchcock’s style and common themes and the director’s first American masterpiece; consider that he had already directed five films in the States prior to Shadow. Even though his first U.S. feature, Rebecca, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, much of that glory is shared with producer David O. Selznick. Many feel this is a more personal work that surpasses Rebecca and stands as his finest American feature up to this point in his filmography.
  • It matters that the screenplay was co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Thornton Wilder, a talent purposely chosen by Hitchcock to weave a wistful but twisted vision of a small town that is threatened by a secret dark force. While several people contributed to the story, Wilder was an ideal hand-picked choice by Hitchcock because he was the author of Our Town, a popular play that depicts everyday life in a small American town and that uses minimal props and scenery. Shadow of a Doubt seems cut from this same cloth.

Can you trace any influence this movie had on the cinema or filmmakers who may have been inspired by it?

  • Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), movies that also explore danger lurking in seemingly safe suburban communities, are two inheritors of the plot and design of Shadow of a Doubt.
  • The Stepfather (1987), Bad Influence (1990), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), What Lies Beneath (2000), Seven (1995), and Stoker (2013) are six contemporary examples, and The Usual Suspects (1995) invokes Shadow of a Doubt somewhat in the character of Keyser Soze, who walks with a fake limp much like Charlie emerges from the train with a hobble and a cane.
  • There were also two remakes: Step Down to Terror (1958) and a 1991 made-for-TV feature also called Shadow of a Doubt.
  • It’s noteworthy that Hitchcock admired the low-budget horror films of RKO producer Val Lewton, including Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim (both 1943), which each depict malignancy and menace lurking about in everyday settings with modern Americans and/or small towns.

Hitchcock said that Shadow of a Doubt was his personal favorite among the films he directed. Why do you believe he held it in such high regard?

  • 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 its more idealized vision of domestic bliss found in Santa Rosa, California.
  • Note that, like Hitch’s own mom, the mother character is named “Emma.” Interestingly, Emma represents the last time a major maternal character (the mother of the lead character or villain) is shown in a positive light in a Hitchcock film; most subsequent mothers would exhibit evil or undesirable qualities.
  • Hitchcock shot most of the picture on location in Santa Rosa, the setting of the story; he appreciated the amiable nature of this town and its people, making the shoot a pleasant one.
  • Unlike some of Hitchcock’s other works of suspense, this one has more fully realized characters, especially the two Charlies, who form a symbiotic relationship. Hitchcock was quoted as saying he was particularly 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.”
  • Interestingly, the plot is far from airtight or completely credible. Ruminate on how Uncle Charlie evades capture several times, how improbable it is that a niece would kill her uncle or permit him to leave town in exchange for her keeping quiet about his secret, and how the detectives are dimwitted amateurs who don’t abide by jurisdictional boundaries. Yet, plausibility isn’t what Hitchcock is going for here.

What directorial choices by Hitchcock in Shadow of a Doubt are most impressive?

  • Here, the artist prioritizes subtlety and simplicity over grandiose visuals, sensationalistic storytelling, glamorous starlets or marquee stars, showy set pieces, or gimmicky techniques, which causes us to focus more on the central thematic conflicts and the well-developed characters. Recall how Joe Newton says to his friend Herbie when discussing a detective story, “those writers from the other side get too fancy,” which serves as an in-joke about how this screenplay was kept simple and written by Americans (half true). The plot is lean, the setting is relatively mundane, there isn’t much action, and all the characters aside from Uncle Charlie are middle-class normies who lead uninteresting lives.
    • The personification of Uncle Charlie is a primary fuel that drives the engine here, as he emerges as a fascinatingly complex individual with idiosyncrasies and curious traits that create an unpredictable but colorful character. He’s irresponsible about loose cash and not exactly careful about covering his incriminating tracks, despite saying that it’s the little details that are most important to him. He’s outspoken and verbally insensitive, as when he makes callous remarks about Joe and his job at the bank, yet he’s careful not to reveal too much about his past. And though he’s capable of terrible acts of violence and psychopathic tendencies, he’s beloved and trusted by his family.
    • Peter Bogdanovich said in an interview that Hitchcock never makes his villains cliché, that “he goes out of his way to give this (Uncle Charlie) character as much depth as possible.”
  • Consider Hitchcock’s ability to insinuate disturbing violence, infuse a subversive tone, and suggest the slightest hint of incestuous sexuality without depicting anything graphically. We are never shown Uncle Charlie strangling any of his victims, and the most inappropriately creepy he gets with his niece is when he gifts her a ring and puts his arms around her. Yet the implications and potentialities of these sins churn the waters enough to make it a tense journey for viewers.
    • Recall how often the director places Uncle Charlie in profile, often in a close-up or medium shot. In these shots, he faces left or right, at roughly 90 degrees from the lens and other characters in the shot, perhaps suggesting that there are multiple sides to the uncle’s character, including a side we can’t figuratively or literally see in that moment.
  • As further evidence of the director’s visual savvy, he repeats dreamlike imagery of dancers waltzing hauntingly in Uncle Charlie’s mind, employs a dramatic push zoom to emphasize the ring on Young Charlie’s finger, and uses canted camera angles to suggest a world made crooked by the uncle’s presence. And it’s a nice touch to have Uncle Charlie break the fourth wall by turning to look directly at the camera—at us—in a key shot.
  • As with so many of his works, Hitchcock compounds suspense often by giving the audience more information than the protagonist—in this case, by hinting at a dark side to Uncle Charlie that his niece doesn’t learn about until midway through the picture. He further builds tension by suggesting that exposing the truth about Uncle Charlie will harm the Newton family.
  • Also, the filmmakers cleverly use a comedic subplot to relieve and subtextually comment on the tension: the humorous friendship between Joe Newton and Herbie, who regularly meet to discuss the perfect murder.

What significant messages or themes from Shadow of a Doubt are worth examining?

  • Rot and infection beneath a pristine surface. Santa Rosa is an idyllic small town with friendly traffic cops, residents who know your name, and kids who respect their elders and say bedtime prayers. Yet this village is not as wholesome as it looks since a mysterious stranger came into town. Shadow of a Doubt is about the intrusion of evil into a typical American household via a Trojan horse of sorts. And the unsettling 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 clan—particularly Young Charlie—can become infected with or victimized by Uncle Charlie’s malevolence. Hitchcock said that the overarching theme of Shadow of a Doubt is: “Love and good order is no defense against evil.”
    • Hitchcock makes the viewer second guess the sanctity and unimpeachable ideals of small-town society by permitting Uncle Charlie’s dark influence and negative worldview to seep into Young Charlie’s mind.
    • The uncle tries to taint her perception of the town and the people she loves, telling her: “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.”
    • In the same scene at the restaurant, young Charlie sees as a cautionary figure the morose waitress who serves them—a reflection of what she could become in the years ahead.
    • Young Charlie, a kind, chaste, gentle teenager, also finds a festering and violent animosity within herself that compels her to threaten violence. She tells her uncle: “Go away or I’ll kill you myself.”
  • Twinning, doubling, and doppelgangers. We have two Charlies at opposite ends of the spectrum: one young, one old; one sweet and innocent, one devious and devilish; one from the west coast, the other from the east coast. Visually, the film links them by using symmetrical shots and poses, cross-cutting action that juxtaposes one with the other, and mirrored events like both attempting to send telegrams. The uncle even remarks: “We’re sorta like twins.” Young Charlie conjures up a sinister twin of herself, as well, when she says, “Go away or I’ll kill you myself,” suggesting a darker facet of her personality.
  • A human monster in plain sight. Uncle Charlie is depicted as a kind of horrific psychological vampire. Ponder how he prefers to lie in the dark behind curtains, evades capture by the two gumshoes, doesn’t appear winded from the chase, insists on not being photographed, and seems to possess a telepathic power to communicate with his niece. Later, a character mentions the story of Dracula.
  • Toxic misogyny. Uncle Charlie says: “Women are fools—they fall for anything,” and “The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge. Playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women... Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”
    • According to film scholar Michael Ryan: Uncle Charlie “uses his sex appeal for power and power alone. Not even for money-- which he acquires from his serial murders only to dismiss it. What he wants is to be superior to the human race and control everyone, especially women. He is absolutely isolated. He seduces only to conquer— and destroy.”
  • Subversion and perversity. Hitchcock subtly suggests a sexual conflict between the two Charlies. She tells him: “We're not just an uncle and a niece. It's something else. I know you. I know that you don't tell people a lot of things. I don't either. I have the feeling that inside you somewhere, there's something nobody knows about.” Also, remember how the uncle gives his niece a ring as a gift and places it on her finger in a manner slightly similar to a wedding proposal. And after she learns the truth about him, she appears more as a jilted lover betrayed by him than a disappointed niece.
  • Shadows and doubt. The film is aptly named, as we see shadows fall across the screen as foreshadowing elements, such as the darkness that falls across the train when it pulls into the Santa Rosa depot and the black billowing smoke it belches out; the high contrast lighting sometimes used in scenes with Uncle Charlie; and the visible doubt that creeps into Young Charlie’s face in several later scenes.
  • Suppression is the lesser of all evils. Young Charlie must squelch her urge to kill or unmask Uncle Charlie to preserve the appearance of normality and wholesomeness that Santa Rosa requires to maintain stability, reputation, and purity. Remember that Uncle Charlie’s crimes go unpunished and unexposed; he’s given a hero’s funeral at the end, which prevents the town from being forever stained.
    • Slant Magazine critic Fernando Croce posited: “Shadow of a Doubt is about awakening, the simultaneous darkening and enlarging of the world…Young Charlie must muffle her knowledge as to not disturb the order of things…Hitch’s habit of taking us to the edge of the abyss and then returning us with a wink, so often resulting in unconvincing happy endings, here seals one of his most pitiless visions of a monstrous cosmos admitted only to be denied.”
  • Dark secrets and skeletons in the family closet.

Are there any problematic elements that don’t pass muster 80 years later?

  • Younger sister Ann seems a bit too precocious and articulate to be believable.
  • We see Uncle Charlie pass over a stack of forty $1,000 bills to the banker, a denomination that has long been out of circulation. Today, that would be like carrying $689,000 in your pocket adjusted for inflation.
  • More problematic are silly plot movers like Young Charlie being afraid to tell her parents or the authorities that her uncle is trying to kill her and the detectives agreeing not to arrest him in town to spare a scandal.
  • One obvious creaky component is the black porter on the train, yet another example of a classic Hollywood film in which characters of color were often limited to tiny roles as servants to whites.

What is Shadow of a Doubt’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • This is a film that truly picks up steam as it progresses, hitting a higher gear by the midway point, which is when Young Charlie discovers the unsavory facts about her uncle and we witness her sunny disposition depart, replaced by distrust, fear, and hatred. Earlier, the niece had expressed disbelief and exhibited naivete about her uncle’s seemingly shady side, but as the tale progresses she demonstrates savvy intuition, healthy skepticism, cautious agency, and bravery in standing up to Uncle Charly. All of these qualities help her survive and keep the town’s purity and incorruptibility intact. It’s this transformation of Young Charlie that serves as one of Shadow of a Doubt’s greatest gifts.
  • Thematically, this is an exceptional loss of innocence and coming-of-age story in which a wide-eyed, gullible girl comes to realize that the world isn’t simply black and white—it has layers of gray that can cloud your judgment. She learns that some of the people populating this sophisticated world—including trusted kin—may harbor evil secrets and terrible sins that can leave a harmful residue on loved ones. Young Charlie is forced to grow up quickly and shield her family from this danger, even stifling the truth at the very end when unsuspecting townspeople gather to mourn her uncle’s death. Fortunately, despite her pseudo telepathic connection to Uncle Charlie and the fact that, as he says, “the same blood runs through our veins,” Young Charlie ultimately won’t be corrupted by his hate or negativity, and she’ll have her family and a partner in the detective to remind her that the world is full of good people.
  • The way Hitchcock and his collaborators slowly but consistently erode Young Charlie’s veneer of blind bliss and familial exuberance, thickening her skin for the harsher realities and lethal dangers to come, makes for a captivating character study. The uncle may be the more fascinating figure in Shadow of a Doubt. But the niece’s conversion from an innocent adolescent to an awakened young adult burdened by the unspeakable—a shameful family secret she’ll probably need to take to her grave—help elevate this film to masterpiece status in the eyes of many.

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