Over at Past Offenses this month, Rich Westwood is hosting a celebration of the best mysteries of 1943. Anybody who wants to can select a book or film from that year and put something together. I’m grateful to Rich for providing a forum for folks to share their views and opinions, and I’m especially glad that he includes films here. Sometimes I simply cannot find a book that I want to read and have more luck with a good movie. Wherever possible, I have focused on the films of my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock, and 1943 provides me with a doozy of a film, one of the director’s best: Shadow of a Doubt.
Hitchcock arrived in America in 1939 to make his first U.S. film, Rebecca. He was already the most famous and successful director in his native Britain, and Rebecca reflected his various preoccupations around innocence and guilt, love and marriage, although this time it was filtered through the obsessive control of producer David O. Selznick. This relationship would prove to be a difficult one for Hitchcock, who chafed at too much control from the powers on high, and he did everything he could to part ways with Selznick at the earliest opportunity. Although Hitchcock was given the idea for Shadow of a Doubt from the head of Selznick’s story department, he was lent out to another studio to make it, which gave Hitchcock the artistic license he needed to craft a masterpiece.
Shadow of a Doubt is also the first Hitchcock film to feel like an American original. While it contains many of the ideas he had explored in his earlier work, it is markedly different from those films about an innocent man on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. It is set in a typical U.S. small town (Santa Rosa, California) and focuses on a typical, mid-century nuclear family: father, mother, three children, friendly neighbors who drop by, church on Sunday, the whole picture of normalcy. Hitchcock wanted the town to reflect that illusion of the ideal life, and he turned to playwright Thornton Wilder, whose 1938 depiction of this sort of place, the play Our Town, had won the Pulitzer Prize, to craft the adaptation of the original story. The two men visited Santa Rosa together and interviewed many townspeople to gather local color and give the film the realism Hitchcock desired.
This is one of those rare Hitchcock films where the main character is female. Charlotte, the oldest daughter of Joseph and Emma Newton, is called “Charlie” after her favorite relative. Played to perfection by Teresa Wright, Charlie is bored with her “idyllic” small town existence. When you are bored in a Hitchcock film, you tend to get your comeuppance in the form of extreme peril. This does not mean that Hitchcock promotes the idea of “be careful what you wish for.” His main characters usually are in need of a change, if only to have their eyes opened to a hidden truth, and because Hitchcock deals in the suspense genre, that change tends to come at great risk.
In this case, danger is just a train ride away. Emma’s younger brother, Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is coming for a visit. Charlie is beloved by the town and by his family, especially by his older sister Emma and his namesake niece. Charlie also happens to be a psychotic serial killer, “The Merry Widow Murderer,” and the police are closing in. Two undercover cops arrive in town, one of them young and attracted to younger Charlie. He warns her that her uncle is one of two suspects in this series of crimes, and the horrified girl finds herself slowly coming to understand the truth about her uncle. (In true Hitchcock fashion, Charlie must replace the first man in her heart, one she grew up with and mistakenly idolized, with a younger, more appropriate suitor who will become her lover/husband.)
Hitchcock loves to play with the concept of doubles: the idea that the good guy and the bad guy are, in many ways, mirror images of each other, sometimes in looks but always in the sense of moral ambiguity. Think Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train or Jeff and Lars Thorwald in Rear Window! The doubles are encapsulated brilliantly at the top of Shadow of a Doubt through parallel shots of Charlie and her uncle on their respective beds and through the way the two characters are filmed throughout, either side by side or facing each other. Athe connection extends to the film’s score, as Charlie the killer travels across the urban landscape, trying to get away from the police, all to the strains of the Franz Lehar’s “Merry Widow Waltz” while, in a psychic nod to her double, young Charlie can’t get the same tune out of her head.
It takes a while, but once she accepts the truth about her uncle, Charlie’s first instinct is to protect her family, especially her mother. Yet as long as she covers for Charlie, she is an accessory to his crimes. In another case of doubles fitting together, psychotic Charlie commits the crimes, while his niece feels all the guilt.
In a classic Hitchcock scene set at the Newtons’ dining table, Uncle Charlie reveals his motivation for his killing spree. As he ponders what speech to give during a local meeting, he asks Emma what his audience will be like. She describes them as small town women much like herself. Charlie likes the hard-working, useful wives and mothers he grew up with, but his views on their urban counterparts are chilling:
“The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows. Husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes – working, working! And then they die and leave the money to their wives, their silly wives. What do these wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, everyday 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.”
Horrified, young Charlie cries out, “But they’re human beings just like we are.” In an iconic Hitchcock moment, Cotten, who has been filmed in profile, slowly turns to face the camera and, looking straight at us through cold, dead eyes, says, “Are they?”
(That trademark look appears over and over again in Hitchcock’s films. My favorite example occurs in Rear Window, but this moment comes close!) The tension then mounts as Uncle Charlie decides he wants to stay in Santa Rosa and tries again and again to eliminate the one obstacle to his safety – his “beloved” niece. Yet each attempt only strengthens young Charlie’s resolve to save herself, her family and her town from this monster she once loved.
In the course of the film, Hitchcock includes many of his trademark icons, from the use of stairs as a path toward danger and/or knowledge (here they signify both) to the director’s fascination with trains, one of which plays a significant part in the film’s climax, to his own cameo appearance, which I will leave you to find for yourselves. And Hitchcock leavens the mounting suspense with his mordant sense of humor, particularly in the conversations between Charlie’s father and his neighbor and best friend, Herb, played to perfection by the legendary Hume Cronyn. With his mild-mannered demeanor juxtaposed with his obsession over violent crimes and committing the perfect murder, Herb comes across as a benevolent Norman Bates.
Alfred Hitchcock claimed on several occasions that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite film. It ranks high on most fans’ lists, scores 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is both a work of startling originality and a fine example of the quintessential Hitchcock film.