Hitch on the Hump: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

In many sources, Shadow of a Doubt is lauded as being Hitchcock’s favorite film. The man himself had something of a differing view and said, “I wouldn’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture; if I’ve given that impression, it’s probably because I feel there is something, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about.” I can kind of understand what he means. This film is a work grounded in the quiet moments and devoid of any actual gruesomeness occurring on screen. While it is not Hitchcock’s first film in America, it may well be his first fully American film. In some ways, it is a sort of metaphor for Hitch coming to the US, his films showing in small town theaters, and then finding their way into the American consciousness.

Charlie Newton (Theresa Wright) is a young girl dissatisfied with her mundane life in Santa Rosa, California. She has a nice enough family, a bank teller father, a loving mother, a brainy little sister, and a bratty little brother, but her life feels like it is missing something. When her Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton), her namesake, comes to visit, she feels like a miracle has happened to bring happiness to her whole family. Yet she soon begins to think that Uncle Charlie is hiding a secret, at first she thinks it’s something that would be “secret and wonderful”, but when a detective (MacDonald Cary) hits town investigating Uncle Charlie, who is under suspicion of killing three widows, the young girl begins to have her doubts. So young Charlie Newton begins to piece together clues and wonder what kind of trouble her uncle has brought to her small town.

When Hitchcock was looking for a setting for his film, he and screenwriter Thornton Wilder traveled to many cities before they found the perfect little village nestled on the edge of California wine country. Wilder is someone who knew quite a bit about small towns, after all, he was the scribe behind the stage classic Our Town. After finding many American writers hesitant to work with him, Hitch was deeply pleased that Wilder would agree to work with him. The original kernel for the story came to Hitch by way of Margaret MacDonnell, the head of David Selznick’s story department. Her husband, Gordon MacDonnell, a novelist, had the idea, and MacDonnell gave it to Hitch who took the skeleton of the idea to Wilder to be fleshed out.

After Thornton finished the script, Hitchcock was very pleased yet wanted for some more comedic moments to be put in. Wilder suggested MGM writer Robert Audrey, but Alfred found him more inclined to the serious and instead drafted Sally Benson, writer of the novel Meet Me in St. Louis and later in life, she penned the Elvis flick Viva Las Vegas. During the production, there were some more changes made to refine the tone and direction of the script, and Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife, made these.

With so many hands in the script, it could have turned out to be a complete mess, but the cast of Shadow of a Doubt turn in some excellent performances although a couple could be better. The film nearly comes off like an early attempt to make the killer the main character, and Joseph Cotten surely commands the screen anytime he arrives. However, I still never felt like he was the focus of the picture. His Uncle Charlie is an incredibly complex character. When he arrives in town he seems very open and warm, and it is a credit to his acting how he can change on a dime. There are times where he seems very sinister, and even some passing moments when his character struck me as being creepy in that pedophilic way. I might be reading a bit much into his portrayal, but the familiar way he treats Young Charlie Newton as well as the distance the younger children keep from him make me feel like this might have been the implied intent. Cotten, who had come off working with Orson Wells in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, would go on to do quite a bit of genre film work later in life appearing in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Mario Bava’s Baron Blood (1972), and Sergio Martino’s Island of the Fishmen (1979).

The real focus of the film is Theresa Wright’s Young Charlie Newton. I think it would take me many viewings to really grasp the character because of the layers the actress gives to her performance. Wright had just come off a co-starring role opposite Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees when she signed on to Hitch’s film. It would be only her fourth film role. She would continue to work steadily, mostly in television, until 1997 when she took on her last role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker. Back in 1942, on Shadow of a Doubt, Wright’s Charlie is a sensitive young woman who is looking for something in her life that she feels is missing. When her Uncle comes to town, she feels like she might have found it and goes so far as to say that the two of them are “like twins”. Like her Uncle, Young Charlie Newton is a little bit creepy with her talk to a “psychic connection” to her Uncle and the near obsessive way she thinks of him. When she finally meets the detective on the case and falls for him, there seems to be a change in the tone of her character. Perhaps what she was really looking for was love, but did not know where to find it in her small town. It was quite a performance for such a young actress, and one that I will indeed be returning to in years to come.

The supporting cast is full of great performances as well, but the film really belongs to Cotten and Wright. I was especially excited to see a young MacDonald Carey show up as the detective on Uncle Charlie’s trail. Carey is an actor I have fond memories of when he played Tom Horton on Days of Our Lives. My mother and I used to watch he soap when I was younger, and it was Carey’s patriarch who voiced the iconic line that kicked off the show, “I’m MacDonald Carey, and like sands through the hourglass these are….”. His performance is not he best in Shadow of a Doubt, but I did enjoy the exuberance that he went about it.

This film was also the screen debut of legendary actor Hugh Cronyn. Perhaps most recognized by younger audiences from his role in Cocoon (1985) or *batteries not included (1987), Cronyn who was only 31 at the time played Young Charlie’s father’s friend Herbie. At first, he was told he was too young for the role, but Hitch was insistent that with makeup Hugh was perfect. I have to agree, one of the highlights of the film were the discussions that Mr. Newton and Herbie have about how to kill each other. The connection the two men have over their love of mysteries was very amusing considering that they were involved in one and did not know it. It was quite the debut and I look forward to seeing the work Cronyn does in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

All of the performances and the tautly crafted script coalesce into a suspenseful tale that follows the style that Hitchcock preferred. As the movie kicks off, you know Cotton’s Charlie is wanted for something, that he’s scared to be caught, and that he’s making a getaway. What isn’t spelled out until well over the halfway point in the film is why. The suspense if kept going throughout with several instances of rhetorical silence that are enhanced by the camera work. The Director of Photography on this film was Joseph Valentine who Hitch had previously worked with on Saboteur (1942) and would team up with again for 1948’s Rope. Valentine had a long résumé by the time he worked on those films with 1941’s The Wolf Man, 1940’s My Little Chickadee, and the 1933 Bela Lugosi film Night of Terror to his credit. Much was accomplished in Shadow of a Doubt to bring the titular shadow into realization on the screen.

Perhaps the most striking image comes when Uncle Charlie comes into town on a train and the billowing black smoke from the stacks nearly blots out the sunny California day. I also rather liked how the scene where Theresa Wright’s character learns of her Uncle’s secret was shot. She is in a library and as she gets up from reading a paper the camera moves above her and it appears she is beset on all sides by shadow. It’s a perfect image to convey the emotions of the small town girl whose life had been intruded on by evil. All of these scenes are coupled with Dimitri Tionkin’s score, and it is full of the swelling strings that you would expect from a suspense film. Tiomkin penned tons of memorable scores in his time, but compared to his work on Giant (1956), D. O.A. (1950), or the theme to Rawhide which he penned, Shadow of a Doubt seems a bit rote.

Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s least preposterous films. All the events in the film were easily believable and nothing is played for over the top effect. This is what makes the film work. It was the evil of the big cities (after all Uncle Charlie is referred to as a “New York Man”) invading the pastoral domain of Middle America. The film works in the quiet moments, and the actors are strong enough to bring those moments to life. So was it his best film, well, I hesitate to make such a claim, but it is a wonderful work. I can definitely say beyond a shadow of a doubt that you should all check it out.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJuly 2, 2009 at 3:18 PM

    teresa wright was 24 when this was made and she wasn`t a bad looking little bird, not an incredible bird but still a reasonably tasty little bird.


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