Shadow of a Doubt, Lookback/Review

Still a disturbing masterpiece, Shadow of a Doubt remained Hitch's favorite film.

Increasingly as a culture, Americans tend to look back on the past with the misty-eyed Instagram effect of nostalgia. For every generation, there is almost something mythical and romantically innocent about times long gone by. That goes for filmmakers too. Last week, Park Chan-wook’s first English language feature, Stoker, enjoyed its Blu-ray/DVD release. Often described as a Korean Hitchcock, Chan-wook embraces these comparisons head on in a Hollywood production that looks for inspiration and guidance from the larger than life Englishman in a dark suit. For whatever else Stoker is, it is a reimagining of one of the most fascinating and underappreciated works in the Master’s catalogue. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), produced at the height of the Second World War, remains the Hitchcock’s most sincere and enduring love letter to all things Americana, including the sand upon which it is built. The movie is the deceptively simple story of two Charlies. The first is Charlie Newton of Santa Rosa, California. Technically named Charlotte, Charlie is a precocious adolescent who is yearning for her life to start. Growing up in the most idyllic of small American towns, the kind where the introverted neighbor comes over every evening after dinner, she’s bored with life. Her father Joseph (Henry Travers) absent-mindedly works the 9 to 5 at the local bank while fragile mother Emma (Patricia Collinge) plays happy homemaker to her family and fusses about the latest Women’s Club meeting. Charlie’s younger sister, Ann (Edna May Wonacott), spends every waking moment buried in books and discovering the secret lives of Ivanhoe or Dracula. To Charlie, the repetitive toils of family are a shroud hiding the banality of existence. Thus, she comes upon the realization that the only thing that can save her from the tedium of a small town is her namesake, beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). When she heads to the nearby telegraphist to plead for his rescuing hand, she is given a telegraph of her own. Charlie the elder is already coming to see the family! Signed “with a kiss for Little Charlie from her Uncle Charlie,” it is a telegraph that confirms the very special relationship between the two.  Uncle Charlie descends upon Santa Rosa like a force of nature. A man who has been around the world for years and who has leads a great life back East (New York, Philadelphia or something like that), he represents the outside modern world to the sheltered and naive. But for the man, there is nothing more appealing than the small, quiet life of Santa Rosa. In Hitchcock’s hands, the city is a Rip Van Winkle community lost in time where every street corner has a friendly and alert cop commanding traffic and every neighbor is the other’s pal. Their world represents Uncle Charlie’s own childhood, long lost from his days on 46 Burnham Street in Saint Paul, Minnesota. When the two Charlies embrace at the train station, it is with the passion and energy usually reserved for the endings of classic love stories. Each represents what the other longs for…until Young Charlie starts uncovering certain inconsistencies about her uncle. While gracious and loving at the dinner table with enough charisma to seduce the entire female population of a small city, he always seems to be hiding something. He tears up newspapers with stories he doesn’t want his family to see. He refuses to have his photograph taken. And then there are his little tirades about how awful the world is and especially the selfish widows in it. Something seems off and increasingly menacing. Yet, as Young Charlie insists during the frivolity of her uncle’s homecoming, they’re no ordinary uncle and niece. They are too much alike and whatever secret one keeps the other MUST know; it is almost a compulsion neither can resist. However, when Charlie discovers the Merry Widow Waltz mysteriously looping in her head matches another namesake, that of a serial killer whose exploits Uncle Charlie has been hiding news reports on, they will both long for the days of lost innocence. Throughout his career, Hitchcock often cited Shadow of a Doubt as his finest work. Even as late as 1972, the year of Frenzy, Hitch told both François Truffaut and Dick Cavett in separate interviews that he regarded it as his favorite film. That may surprise modern moviegoers who best remember the Master of Suspense for classics like Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Vertigo (1958) or North By Northwest (1959). However, it is the massive iconography of those later films that makes Shadow of a Doubt so special. Only Hitchcock’s sixth Hollywood picture, the movie is his most American and unique of those glory years. With nary a blond in sight, the picture works well precisely because it does not look like most iconic Hitch films. There are plenty of stunning visuals in the movie, but there is no espionage or a femme fatale in need of domesticating or slashing. Rather, it is almost a meditation on the ideal American Dream at a time when it seemed most stolen.  Despite being made during the middle of World War II, the movie is subtly set in 1941. This time shift is deliberately hidden and only noticeable when Charlie’s younger brother Roger (Charles Bates) is stunned by a photograph of his grandparents from 1888. “1888?” he sputters with a whistle. “[That’s] 53 years ago!” The beauty of this is two-fold. First, it grounds the movie even more into the American fantasy by existing when the War was a daydream best ignored by most Americans. Santa Rosa is not ravaged by the horrors of the now, but sheltered in the shade of yesteryear. Second, it establishes an even longer reach to the supposedly angelic past. “Everybody was sweet and pretty then, Charlie” the elder says of late 19th century Minnesota. “Not like the world now. It’s great to be young then.” Uncle Charlie romanticizes the America and greater world of his youth, just as many contemporary viewers still reeling from the Great Depression and current war likely were. There was a time when life was simple, peaceful and beautiful. A time where everyone knew the ¾ melody of Franz Lehár’s “Merry Widow Waltz.” Of course, this is also an illusion created by time and rose tinted glasses. Uncle Charlie may carry around photos of his parents from his earliest youth, but even Hitch could tell him about terrible going-ons from that period. After all, his third finished film, The Lodger (1927), is set during Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in 1888 London. Yet for every generation, the era of childhood is a Golden Age which goes hand in hand with American culture like death and taxes. It is the fear of lost innocence that drives the rest of the movie. Hitchcock chose Santa Rosa for its antiquated and wholesome appearance. Far from the madness of Hollywood or the big American and European cities that serve as locales for Hitchcock’s other pictures, Santa Rosa seems untouched by war, depression or even radio. The greatest pain Young Charlie knows is boredom. Despite being age 25 during production, Teresa Wright is beyond perfect for the role of Charlie. Caught between adolescence and womanhood, Charlie wants more out of life than the typical American Dream circa ‘43. Her mother “works like a dog” to put dinner on the table, getting the dishes done and going to bed by 10 o’clock. Charlie knows there must be more to the world than that. She not only wishes for the apparent adventurousness of her uncle’s life; she is attracted to it. Almost an unintended proto-feminist, the very brunette Wright encompasses all the supposed wholesomeness of a teenager along with the budding desires of a young adult. She gets more than she bargained for when Charlie’s train cuts into town like a dark cloud. In the film’s most striking image, young Roger stands in a massive wide shot as the locomotive slowly descends into the station. By the time the conductor pulls to a complete stop, the oblivious youth is completely consumed by the dark shadow of the mechanical leviathan and the billowing smoke of its engine. It is a horrifying image of evil coming to even the safest and quietest corners of American life. When Charlie first arrives, he sweeps the family off their feet. Cotten is hypnotic as the charismatic uncle who casts a shadow far larger than any train. He genuinely is happy to be reunited with distant relations he has not seen in years. Despite saying early in the film that there’s no use looking backward, that is all he can do with his life. In his immediate rearview are cops, Feds and other vaguely officiated sleuths following a trail of bodies.  Beyond that is pretending his sister is not Emma Newton of Santa Rosa, but Emma Spencer Oakley of 46 Burnham Street; Emma of another small town where men wore tuxedos and ladies donned evening gowns. In that town and time period, it may have even been acceptable to romance or marry a niece 20 years his younger. Not that the thought clearly hasn’t crossed Young Charlie’s mind. When her uncle first arrives, she walks around town on his arm to savor every reaction from classmates and neighbors wondering who that tall dark stranger with Charlie is. After Uncle Charlie gives the other family members gifts on his first night home, Charlie feigns disinterest and leaves for the kitchen. As Ann points out, her denial is like all the girls in books who act demure but always end up with the most by novel’s end. When the uncle finally convinces the niece to hold out her hand in the kitchen, he slips a ring on her finger. One with an emerald and the faint engraving of “T.S. From B.M.” Charlie is in awe. Sadly all fantasies, even the sweetest (and creepiest) of girlhood, come to an end. This one dies especially hard when two very bland detectives show up posing as government photographers. Convinced that Uncle Charlie is the East’s notorious Merry Widow killer ( a man who strangles rich, aged socialites), they level all of the responsibility of learning the awful truth on the daughter. Understandably, Uncle Charlie’s sister cannot know, just the thought of him ever leaving Santa Rosa again brings tears to Emma’s eyes. But why not talk to Joseph? Nope, the pressure is on precious Charlie who has her world shattered when she goes to the library and finds the newspaper her uncle destroyed. Sure enough, on the missing page is an article about the “Merry Widow Killer.” The distorted and maddening strings of that waltz warp Dimitri Tiomkin’s otherwise romantic score when Charlie reads the killer’s latest victim was Mrs. Bruce Matthewson…once vaudeville star Thelma Schenley. T.S. From B.M. Uncle Charlie surely does not help his case when he rants at the next dinner about the sinfulness of city women compared to the busy homemakers of Santa Rosa. “Proud of their jewelry, but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.” The way Hitch simply lets Cotten exude the true sociopathy of Uncle Charlie during this confession, shot in a single extreme close-up dolly, remains one of the most chilling scenes of his career. The closer one Charlie gets to the other, the more endangered the lives of both become. Much like the elder’s misanthropy, they cannot help themselves in a dance that tips from one taboo to a far deadlier alternative.  Shadow of a Doubt is a masterpiece of nostalgia and the painful price of knowledge. The world loses its romance and breadth with every passing year and for Young Charlie that realization could not be more painful. Uncle Charlie is of course delusional to think Santa Rosa is any quainter than New York. Consider the after-meal chats between Joseph and quirky neighbor Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn). Each night is about who can come up with the cleaner, more inventive death for the other. Herbie finally arrives for dinner one evening to affably offer Joseph a poisoned mushroom. One imagines such bemusedly nefarious conversations often occurring between Hitch and wife Alma Reville (who coincidentally co-wrote Shadow of a Doubt’s screenplay). There is so much right about Shadow of a Doubt, it is a shame its only minor weaknesses are self-inflictions from the conventions of its unique era. Not only must Young Charlie escape the spell and potentially lethal clutches of her uncle, she also is required to find solace and safety in the arms of a square jawed young man. Macdonald Carey’s Det. Jack Graham fills out that jaw line, but little else. Also 10 years Charlie’s elder, he is hardly any less creepy than the Uncle Charlie infatuation. He is such a wet blanket killjoy, it almost makes you root for the far more charming Joseph Cotten. Let’s not even get into the terrible implications this convention has for Charlie, a strong independent young woman who becomes more helpless and subservient in Jack’s arms than she ever was in Uncle Charlie’s. Please, do not let her become the next head of the disinterested with current events Women’s Club of Santa Rosa! Still, a few dated integers aside, Shadow of a Doubt is a marvelous magic trick from the Master Illusionist. It both reminds us of the futility of looking to the past while simultaneously ensuring we’ll always crave it when in Hitch’s hands. A merry waltz, indeed. Den of Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars


5 out of 5