Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Favorite Things: Shadow of a Doubt (Repost)

One of my favorite movies is Hitchcock's 1943 Shadow of a Doubt.

Apparently, it was one of Hitchcock's favorites, as well, although there are lots of people who have never seen it. It is not as famous as other of Hitch's films, like Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, or To Catch a Thief. Each of those had bigger names or, in the case of Psycho, overtly more famous scenes (Janet Leigh's slashing murder in the shower, combining sex and blood, mmmm).

I have always found Shadow of a Doubt terrifying, creepy, and a fine mix of comedy and skin-crawling suspense.

The scriptwriters are worth noting. One was Alma Reville, Hitchock's wife. She was his editor and assistant director, but one of the writers not only on this film but on Secret Agent, Suspicion and The Paradine Case for Hitch. The other two are more intersting to me, personally. One was Sally Benson, the author of Junior Miss (a novel that became a successful play and radio program, one of my period favorites when I was a pre-teen, about the wholesome experiences of a young girl in high school....), as well as the filmscripts for Anna and the King of Siam, Little Women, The Singing Nun, Come to the Stable, and (hilariously!) Viva Las Vegas, yes--the Elvis film! If you know these films, you recognize them as generally wholesome, optimistic, upbeat films. Her most famous filmscript is undoubtedly Meet Me in St. Louis, the Judy Garland/Margaret O'Brien musical.

...and Shadow of a Doubt? Her first film credit.


The other writer is Thornton Wilder--yes, the author of Our Town. Only five years after writing Our Town and winning the Pulitzer Prize for it, Wilder co-pens this disturbing view into the emotional corruption of a happy suburban girl.

The participation of Benson and Wilder in this film actually intrigues me and freaks me out.

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright are marvelous as the central duo, young Charlotte, known as Charlie, and her maternal Uncle Charlie. This is one of Hitchcock's films based on visual/metaphorical duets, like Strangers on a Train or Vertigo, where two characters mirror each other's emotional, psychological, or physical acts. Charlie is a young woman from a nice middle-class family who lives in Santa Rosa, California; she has no job, seems to have graduated from high school, and appears to drift without direction or purpose--in the most pleasant and charming manner. Uncle Charlie, in his niece's eyes, is a sophisticated, handsome man-of-the-world for whom she has been named and in whom she seems to see a kind of shadow self (male, older, wealthy, unattached) who can do the things and go all the places she fantasizes about. In reality, however, Uncle Charlie is the Merry Widow Murderer who marries and strangles wealthy widows, using all that charm, all those good looks, all his focus to seduce and kill.

The script opens with a remarkable dual sequence showing, first, Uncle Charlie in ugly East Coast Philadelphia, living in a tenement, pursued by government agents, and apparently sick to death of life. The rooming house with its gossipy landlady, the slum streets, and the overhead angles make the city look as filled with exhausted, as broken down, and as empty as Uncle Charlie does. Then we fly to Santa Rosa, young Charlie's city, where everyone smiles, the town sparkles, and golly, there are trees and big houses with shady porches. But Charlie is bored, distracted, and irritable with her lovely, simple family.

The problem is that once young Charlie and Uncle Charlie get into the same house, something's got to give. Charlie sets out to learn her uncle's secret--not knowing there is one and how bad it is. She simply wants to know more about the man she admires and emulates.

The film follows both of them, young Charlie as she discovers the ugliness behind her uncle's handsome facade and Uncle Charlie as he tries to evade government agents and his niece's questions. He tries to kill her three times--unsuccessfully. He reveals the nastiness inside himself--but only to her. He takes her to a bar, where she has obviously never been; this is a great scene, a kind of spiritual initiation for young Charlie into Uncle Charlie's world.

I love this film for its creepiness, for its weird mix of the obliviously happy/normal Santa Rosa folks and the self-aware/transformed people (like young Charlie, the government agent who is our romantic hero, and Uncle Charlie himself) who have been infected by the negative stuff of the 20th century (serial killing, consumer envy, urban blight). There is a scene that suggests that Uncle Charlie's "disease" comes from a fall he took on a bicycle when he was six or so, smacking his head and nearly dying. As his sister, young Charlie's mother, notes, "After that there was no holding him." Before, Uncle Charlie had been a bookworm, a reader, a quiet, well-behaved boy; after, an adventurer, a rover, a physically active boy who detached himself from their household. I like that this is hinted at but not some easy Freudian explanation of where a serial killer comes from; the scary thing is that Charlie himself doesn't seem to have any kind of conscience or guilt about his murders, simply the desire to enjoy its fruits and to stay out of jail... which seems more about freedom and preserving his reputation than fear of authority, either civil or religious. Uncle Charlie is almost, nearly a prophet: he looks at the modern world and seems corruption rather than progress, disease rather than stout health, and self-absorption rather than optimism. But he is, of course, corrupt himself, and murdering silly, lazy women isn't actually justifiable because they're, well, silly and lazy.

Wilder's participation in this is most interesting to me, because this seems the flip side of the simple optimism and flag-waving patriotism most people see in Our Town, without looking more deeply into the playwright's message. I have always thought that Wilder used that play to send a message about complacency and knee-jerk self-satisfaction; I think he does the same here.

It is a brilliant, chilling film with many individually fine performances, including and especially Patricia Collinge as young Charlie's mum and Uncle Charlie's older sister. The sequence in which she bakes a cake for the government agents is marvelous, highlighting the character's obliviousness to what is happening in her house under her nose. Because it is so "normal" Uncle Charlie's performance is scarier, in many ways, than the one-off horror of Psycho.


1 comment:

  1. I love this movie too and agree that it's just as if not more creepy than Psycho, albeit in a subtle way. My favorite Hitchcock film, though, is The Lady Vanishes. So funny.


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