“Shadow of a Doubt” - Alfred Hitchcock (1943)

Alfred Hitchcock shifted to the US to make films in 1939, but his earliest American-made films still had mostly English settings. But as with many foreign filmmakers who came to the US, Hitchcock soon evinced his fascination for the peculiarities of American culture, particularly with his Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the shooting for which was begun in the latter part of 1941.  In this story the ordinary life of a typical small-town, middle-class family is disrupted by the intrusion of a beguiling but sinister visitor.  Over the course of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, the idea of an ordinary middle-class person suddenly thrust into unusual and threatening circumstances is standard fare for Hitchcock, but Shadow of a Doubt is rather different from Hitchcock’s other popular thrillers.  In fact the film has some odd strengths and weaknesses that cause viewers’ reactions to vary.

In Shadow of a Doubt, an attractive teenage girl, Charlotte Newton, lives in the idyllic small American town Santa Rosa, California, but she is bored by the humdrum nature of her family life.  She longs for excitement, romance, and something to give meaning and some magic to her life. In particular, she doesn’t want to end up living like her much-loved mother, Emma Newton, whom she sees as mired in housework and trivia.  When she learns that her adventurous, but little seen, uncle Charlie Oakley will be paying a visit to this parochial cocoon, she feels that her dreams for excitement have been answered. 

Charlie is a stimulating and charming fellow who is much beloved by his older sister (and Charlotte’s mother), Emma, who named her daughter (“Charlie” is her nickname, too) after him.  Unfortunately, however, it soon becomes obvious to the viewer (and only later to the local residents) that Charlie is a psychopathic murderer on the lam from the authorities.  So the story concerns the confrontation between Charlie’s seductive, but ultimately evil, charm and Charlotte’s benevolent innocence and decency – perhaps the kind of fare appropriate for a country enmeshed in a war with moralistic overtones.

But there are curious aspects to this story as it is presented.  First of all, there are so many implausible and unrealistic elements to the story that one wonders if one is in the middle of a kind of Shutter Island (2010) type dream world.  (Indeed that element of unreality does add to the expressionistic feeling that is a peculiar attraction of the film.)  Second, there is a question concerning what narrative perspective the film is taking.  It is evident from the earliest frames that Charlie Oakley has dark secrets and is essentially a criminal, and relatively early on we learn that the police are looking out for a serial murderer of rich widows.  So there is no real mystery about Charlie’s guilt. Nevertheless, the focalization of the film is directed towards both Charlotte and Charlie, so the viewer unconsciously tends also to empathize with Charlie’s sense of entrapment.  Thus the viewer follows two narrative threads in parallel: 

  1. Charlotte’s journey of coming to know the truth (and escape its potentially dire consequences);
  2. Charlie’s attempt to escape capture.  That makes Shadow of a Doubt essentially a combination of a youthful “coming-of-age” film and a film noir.
To tell this story, the film’s plot moves through four progressive stages of revealing the truth  about Charlie Oakley.
1.  Uncle Charlie Comes for a Visit.
The first half hour of the film concentrates on the commonplace pleasures of the Newton family in Santa Rosa.  Charlotte’s father, Joseph, works in a bank, her mother is a typical housewife, and she has a younger brother and sister who are animated by typical things that kids engage in.  Charlotte dreams of having her exciting uncle come for a visit, and when she gets a telegram that he is already en route, she thinks that fate has intervened. 

Meanwhile Charlie knows that people are on his tail, but it seems that his pursuers don’t know what he looks like. He thinks it would be better for him get out of town and head for the West coast. On his arrival, Charlie settles into a room in the Newton home and notices that the local newspaper has an article describing the “Merry Widow Murderer”, who is on the loose.  He removes article from the paper, but his observant niece, Charlotte, notices the missing pages in his room.  It’s clear to us that Charlie is the culprit, but Charlotte is only mildly bemused.

2.  Charlie Under Suspicion
The Newton family is approached by two men who want to interview and photograph everyone in the house as part of a “national public survey” about typical American families for some institute. Charlie correctly suspects these men are detectives who are after him and wants no part of the survey, but they do take a photograph of him. Interestingly, Charlie protests against this invasion of his privacy and successfully demands that the photographic film that was used be handed over to him. Although the detectives cheat and give Charlie a substitute roll of film, it’s interesting, with respect to the current age of National Security Agency 24/7 surveillance of everything that you do, that a person’s rights to privacy in those days were more sincerely acknowledged.

The next day Charlie goes to the bank where Joseph Newton works and jovially deposits $40,000 in cash – presumably money stolen from rich widows.  This would be about US$ 600,000 today, which should have raised eyebrows of suspicion from the bankers, but not in this implausible film.

Later Charlotte goes out on a date with one of the detectives, Jack Graham, who admits that he is really a detective in pursuit of the “Merry Widow Murderer” and thinks Charlie is his man.  Now fully spooked about her supposed hero, Uncle Charlie, Charlotte then goes to the city library and reads more information in the newspaper about the murderer. 

3.  Charlie Targeted
Around the Newton dinner table, Charlie gives a venom-tinged speech about how useless rich widows are and how they don’t deserve their money.  For a man under suspicion, this speech is ludicrously over-the-top, but some reviewers have strangely found it be a highlight of the film.  Under emotional stress, Charlotte runs out into the town, and Charlie runs after her.  He takes her to a bar, admits that the’s the Merry Widow Murderer, and urges her to help him escape capture.  For the sake of her dear mother, Charlotte reluctantly agrees.  The pressure heightens the next day after church service when the detectives tell Charlotte that out of respect for her mother, they want to arrest Charlie outside of Santa Rosa, and they tell her to get Charlie to leave town immediately.

4.  Charlotte Targeted
Soon, however, news arrives that another suspect in the “Merry Widow Murderer” case has been killed while fleeing the police. For some reason the police apparently presume that this other person’s flight proved his guilt, and so the murder case will be closed and Charlie cleared. Consequently Charlie is now in no rush to leave town. But Charlie still has a problem, though, since he has admitted his guilt to Charlotte. He arranges for a few potentially lethal accidents to befall the still cooperative and not ready to believe the worst Charlotte, but she manages to survive them.  Finally she convinces Charlie to leave town, but on the day of his departure, Charlie is still intent on killing his niece.  He grabs her and tries to throw her off the train as it picks up speed, but in the struggle, he falls to his own death instead.

Charlie’s guilt is never publicly identified, and after his funeral, Charlotte and Jack Graham are shown talking about how they will keep the secret in order to protect the feelings of Charlotte’s family.

As mentioned, Shadow of a Doubt can be seen as something of an expressionistic film nor, and this is evident from the cinematography.  There are numerous high-angle and low-angle shots of people in conversation, giving a stilted view of the social scenes.  In particular, Uncle Charlie is very often seen from a very low-angle view, making his appearance appear more threatening.  Moreover, there are numerous shots looking up or down stairways that heighten this effect.  But the overall production values are not really up to Hitchcock’s usual standards.   There are numerous jump-cuts (awkward on-axis editing cuts) that distract the viewer.  In addition Dimitri Tiomkin’s soundtrack music is mostly loud, brassy band music that is merely intrusive and only detracts from the film.

The acting has its strengths and weaknesses. Teresa Wright, as Charlotte, is outstanding and carries the film along with her sensitive portrayal of the young girl.  On the other hand, Macdonald Carey, as Jack Graham, is supposed to provide a romantic side to Charlotte’s life (they are presumably betrothed at the film’s end), but I find him hard to take.  I think Charlotte could do better.

Joseph Cotton, in an early starring role as Uncle Charlie, has a memorable screen presence, but he is at times too gothic to be believable.  Just to make sure that you are not so charmed by Charlie that you might believe in his innocence, his true evil nature is heavy-handedly given away at a number of points along the way.  Here are a few examples:
  • Charlie is early and frequently seen arrogantly smoking cigars in the manner of someone self-obsessed and unmindful of others.

  • When Charlie is shown his room in the Newton house, he throws his hat on the bed – traditionally thought to bring on bad luck.  When he is reminded by Joseph Newton not to challenge such folklore, Charlie arrogantly repeats the gesture.
  • When Charlie early on gives Charlotte a ring, she sees that it already has an engraving on it (presumably the ring belonged to one of Charlie’s victims).  Charlotte laughs it off, but the ominous aspects are all to clear to the viewer.
  • When Charlotte grabs the newspaper article about the widow murderer that Charlie had removed from the newspaper, Charlie angrily manhandles the poor girl in order to snatch it back from her.
  • When the “surveyors” from the “institute” (i.e. the hard-to-believe detectives) come to the Newton’s home to conduct their NSA sweep, Charlie’s paranoid reaction is again evidence to the viewer of his guilt.
  • At one point Emma mentions to Charlotte that her brother Charlie had a childhood accident that for a long time left him mentally unstable.  This gives us clear evidence that Charlie has never really recovered and that his psychopathy stems from that accident.
  • When Charlie goes to the bank to deposit his $40,000, he roisterously makes fun of Joseph Newton and the bank president, implausibly calling attention to his unusual behaviour.
  • After Charlie learns that another suspect has been killed, which removes the heat of suspicion from him, he then realizes that Charlotte has heard his confession and could give him away.  As he looks down at Charlotte from an upstairs windows, the camera closes in his hands making a strangling gesture. Even in an expressionistic film, we don’t need this degree of explicitness.
OK, there are some interesting things in Shadow of a Doubt, but this is not one of Hitchcock’s top films.  The idea of an idyllic small town that has unsuspected dark secrets received much more haunting noirish, expressionistic treatment in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). 

1 comment:

Bookhound said...

Your comment about Shutter Island really struck a chord with me. It was odd but when watching it, it nagged at me that it reminded me of another film, and indeed it was Shadow of a Doubt that it reminded me of. How odd...