Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

As a contemporary viewer familiar with war-time films of the forties, Shadow of a Doubt is a disturbing and relentlessly modern look at the corruption of small town American life. In an era when the movies all but had to portray only positive images of this country, Alfred Hitchcock was testing the limits of decency and morality as defined by Hollywood’s Production Code. Hitchcock takes the all-American family and introduces malice so true it consumes.

The horror is, of course, Uncle Charlie. He visits his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California, and develops a strange relationship with his niece, Charlotte, affectionately referred to as Charlie in honor of her uncle. She soon suspects her Uncle Charlie of being the Merry Widow murderer and is plunged into turmoil over her family obligations and the vulgarity of his acts.

The director’s previous American films had had a distinctly English feel: gothic, elegant, mild-mannered, even Saboteur, the American remake of The 39 Steps. Hitchcock was keen on capturing the America he’d been seeing, and Thornton Wilder was hired to script the original story that was, by Hitchcock’s own admission, his first American film.

Hitchcock would often advise his actors on a technique he called negative acting, where an actor would be smiling at the beginning of a scene and then lose the smile after a dramatic blow, capturing the extremes of human emotion. He was working in archetypes, presenting clearly made movies to mainstream audiences. The structure of Shadow of a Doubt unfolds similarly. When we’re first introduced to the Newton family, it’s a kind of clich├ęd look at bucolic family life. Everybody is nice and genteel and pleasant to an almost cartoonish degree, or at least to a laughable one. This might appear dated when we, less as Americans and more as human begins, know that this isn’t the reality of daily life. But the light atmosphere Hitchcock cultivates in the film’s early scenes heightens the dark aspects of the story to follow, dark like the column of smoke snaking behind Uncle Charlie’s train.

Perhaps the most glaring detail of the film is the Young Charlie’s relationship with her uncle. Throughout, Hitchcock connects the two Charlies with similar visuals, setting up the recurring Hitchcockian theme of doubles. Young Charlie is always saying how alike they are... like twins! There is even a disturbing scene where Uncle Charlie gives to his niece a ring from one of his victims. While the thought is innocent enough I guess, the Uncle slips the ring onto her finger not unlike in a marriage ceremony. In the end, Young Charlie is forced into becoming like her Uncle because of her Uncle. I was always struck by Young Charlie’s line, “Don’t touch me, Uncle Charlie,” after she confronts him with her beliefs. This is the moment when Charlie has lost her innocence. She later threatens to kill her uncle if he doesn’t leave the family.

Originally it seems their relationship was to take an even edgier turn. In Hitchcock’s own story outline, dated May 11, 1942, he writes, “...her (Young Charlie) being attracted to him (Uncle Charlie) is going to possibly upset the humorous state of affairs between the Uncle and the family.” Is Hitchcock detailing their relationship as it exists in the finished film, or is this a direction the director would have liked to travel with his unconventional family drama? It reads to me like the latter, and while it is clear that Young Charlie has very confused feeling towards her Uncle, the family never is bothered by their friendship. Of course the extreme relations would never have been allowed to continue into a second draft of the screenplay back in 1942, but this idea gives us excellent insight into Hitchcock’s lifelong obsession with unusual sexual behavior.

(The outline for Shadow of a Doubt is published in Dan Auiler’s invaluable book, Hitchcock’s Notebooks, which gives a full understanding of Hitchcock’s working methods from conception to release. The book is a patchwork made up of materials covering Hitchcock’s entire career.)

The performances in the film are among the best in all of Hitchcock’s work. In a marked detour from his usual mother figures, Emma Newton (Young Charlie’s mother) is not just the sweet and doting martyr expected of the era. One gets the feeling she’s on the verge of a breakdown, and Patricia Collinge gives a complex and heartbreaking performance that perhaps went beyond the call of the script. Teresa Wright is perfect as Charlie. She expels the structure of the story exactly; acting naive by way of Shirley Temple in the beginning, then tortured and conflicted at the end. Though it is the showiest part, it should not be overlooked: Joseph Cotton as Uncle Charlie, for a 1940s movie killer, is unique. When I first saw the film and even now, I was surprised by how much Anthony Hopkins’ performance of Hannibal Lector mirrored Uncle Charlie, especially when Cotton gives the speech at the dinner table about “those silly wives.” His voice is emotionless and monotone, as if he’s slipping into his compulsion. It’s a remarkable portrayal not only for its time but now. It elicits a response from today’s audiences that maybe they were not expecting from such an old film.

An unsuccessful element of the picture is the recurring image of the dancers’ waltz. It is shown after moments of great tension, almost the euphoric release of a satiated killer. The image can be seen as Hitchcock’s visual attempt at Uncle Charlie’s unstable mind, but I’m afraid the technique is just bewildering. It is not a dated element of the film; I can’t see it working in the 1940s either, but we’ve seen the director use this technique in his silent days. It feels like the weak cousin of the famous shot in The Lodger of the fade-away glass ceiling. Since Hitchcock could not dramatize the footsteps from the floor above in sound, he simply showed us the suspected villain walking over the heads of the innocent family below. The similar theme in Shadow of a Doubt never works as the director intended, and in fact feels like a copout. Instead of showing us the emotional resolution to very intense scenes (the finale on the train, for example) this shot quickly fades up, accompanied by the tune of the Merry Widow’s Waltz.

The Waltz was infused into the dramatic score by frequent Hitchcock composer Dimitri Tiomkin. The score itself is melodramatic and evasive, and indeed Hitchcock’s scores were the typical European sound the Golden Age is remembered for. It is an unsettling sound for this picture, one that distracts too much from the action onscreen without support. It wasn’t until the director teamed with Bernard Herrmann in the mid-fifties that the Hitchcock film found its music. Herrmann’s music would take on narrative dimensions that would have served well a film like Shadow of a Doubt, but taken on its own Tiomkin’s score is very good. He himself is an underappreciated composer from the era, and his score for Hitchcock’s I Confess is actually very good.

Ultimately, Shadow of a Doubt remains one of Hitchcock’s best movies because it is a clear example of the director’s sense of the world. From out of the censored studio era, it’s refreshing that an artist could commit to celluloid a personal, cynical voice. Nothing, it seems, is as it should be in a Hitchcock film, and I’m not talking about genre. While his films are certainly nail biters, I believe the reason Hitchcock was so great was because he understood the human condition and its flaws. Psycho is not a horror film. It’s a complex study of trapped souls. Nor is Shadow of a Doubt simply a suspense film. It’s a story of morality and of people trapped within themselves, almost certainly a parallel of the repressed social conditions. To call Alfred Hitchcock’s films shallow is to ignore the complexity that is bubbling beneath the surface of his facades.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Thornton Wilder
Stars: Joseph Cotton, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge
In English
Runtime: 108 minutes

IMDB link: