Correct me if I'm wrong, but only physical objects cast shadows, not ephemera. No matter. Judge Mike Pinsky reviews one of Alfred Hitchcock's best but least-remembered films.
Our review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray), published December 11th, 2012, is also available.
"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 a feeling that inside you somewhere, there's something nobody knows about."
Universal adds another fine disc to their Alfred Hitchcock signature collection with one of Hitch's better efforts: the complex relationship between a dreamy young woman looking for a way out of her small town routine and her emotionally tortured uncle who hides the secret that the real way out of any small town may be too sinister to imagine.
Facts of the Case
Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) waits in shadows, as still as a corpse in his seedy room. Sinister men lurk outside in the street, and he feels the world closing in. Suddenly, he flashes on his salvation: he books a ticket for Santa Rosa, California, and sneaks out the door.
In Santa Rose live Charles' sister (Patricia Collinge) and her family. A friendly, homey, American family, including Charles' favorite relative, his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright). Young Charlie feels her home life is dull and disconnected, her family crippled by emotionless routine, and she longs for her cheerful Uncle Charlie to come and save her.
But Uncle Charlie hides a dark secret in the middle of this ordinary American town: he is a serial murderer on the run…
By 1943, Alfred Hitchcock was firmly entrenched in American film, having made five pictures in three years. But none of those five films really felt "American" to Hitch (even Saboteur, which utilized American landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, could easily have been transplanted to England). What was it about America that fascinated Hitch? Perhaps it was the curious mix of romantic fantasy and pragmatic empiricism. Perhaps it was the warm feel of its small towns contrasted with the menace of its congested cities. In any case, Hitch turned to Thornton Wilder, best known for Our Town and his insights into the dark heart of small town life, and together they brainstormed the initial draft of Shadow of a Doubt. The result was one of Hitch's most personally satisfying films.
And a quite different film for Hitchcock than what would come in the years to follow. The film seems at ease with its location shots, showing off the friendly, shady nooks of Santa Rosa. The performances by Cotten and Wright are subtle and underplayed, allowing for a more intimate look at the psychology of a serial killer and his relationship to others. Very different from the bolder strokes which would characterize Norman Bates a few years later. Hitchcock's use of the doppelgänger, so evident in Rebecca and Strangers on a Train is handled deftly in order to develop the psychological tension between the characters, as opposed to being used as a mere plot device.
Uncle Charlie is a killer, but not remorseless or unempathic. There is a rage inside him, marked by both nostalgia for the romantic past (he sees images of a "Merry Widow" waltz from time to time) and a desire to erase the tired remnants of that past, the empty widows ("fat, wheezing animals" to him) that drift through the world. Unlike Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (in the film of that name), who marries and kills rich widows as a gesture of class warfare, Charlie's crimes mark a disgust of himself and his desire to absolve himself of responsibility for the world: "What's the use of looking backward? What's the use of looking ahead? Today's the thing. That's my philosophy."
The sleepy town of Santa Rosa seems almost at odds with this philosophy at first: a quaint haven of perfection. But no one seems to want to live in its reality: Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) and his best friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn in his film debut) play at pulp murder mystery plots, little Ann Newton (Edna May Wonacott) immerses herself in Ivanhoe, and even Charlie dreams of adventures with her exciting uncle. But Uncle Charlie sees the outside world differently: "You live in a dream. You're like 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 ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something."
Joseph Cotten is skillfully cast against type by Hitchcock, bringing a superficial cheerfulness to Uncle Charlie, which can turn on a dime to efficient cruelty. This is easily one of the most complex performances of Cotten's career. Teresa Wright aptly handles Charlie's sense of betrayal, fear, and ultimately determination to hold her own against her dangerous uncle. If anything in the film is thinly developed and unconvincing, it is the romantic subplot between Charlie and Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), the police detective shadowing Uncle Charlie. Hitchcock seems disinterested in the relationship, tacking it on to fulfill audience expectations. He is clearly more fascinated by the perverse, almost sexual tension, between the two Charlies. In later years (try Vertigo or the British cut of Strangers on a Train), Hitch would eschew Hollywood formula and dive headfirst into the Freudian implications only toyed with in this film.
Universal's presentation of Shadow of a Doubt, part of their signature Hitchcock collection, comes with all the goodies we have come to expect from this series. There are plenty of production photos and publicity stills, showing off looming shadows. Hitch's expressionistic techniques are quite evident here and in some parts of the film (his use of shadows, striking camera angles). A series of production drawings is also included, featuring moody charcoal sketches of key locations. A dark and scratchy trailer from a re-release of the film appears as well. But as always, the best supplement is the documentary, a highly informative and well-produced 35-minute piece called "Beyond Doubt." Most of the surviving principals are interviewed on their experiences with the film, and much of the material is pulled together by Hitch's daughter Pat, who tells us that Shadow of a Doubt was her father's favorite film because "he loved the idea of bringing the Menace to a small town."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, Universal's print is not in the best of shape. It seems slightly grainy, almost fuzzy in spots, and certainly not as sharp as other Hitchcock films of the period. A slight flicker is evident from time to time, and there are numerous small scratches in both the film print and the soundtrack. None of this is enough to ruin one's enjoyment of the film, but I wonder if Universal might have been able to do more to digitally clean up this film for presentation. I have no criticisms of the film itself (apart from the unconvincing romantic subplot): this is easily one of Hitchcock's best films of the 1940s.
Much is made of Hitchcock's irritation with location shooting and his coldness toward actors in later years, but Shadow of a Doubt shows both familiar themes—sexual and social impropriety, a sharp critique of nostalgia—with a different side of his work: subtle, psychologically revealing performances and an honest look at the dreams and reality of small town America. This disc should be an essential component in any Hitchcock collection.
This court orders that Uncle Charlie be remanded to the custody of the local mental health clinic to deal with his self-loathing, as he is a danger to himself and others. All others involved are released on their own recognizance. Universal is ordered to perform community service in the form of more excellent Hitchcock supplements as penalty for releasing a print of this film in less than pristine condition.
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