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For my 40 year birthday I am treating myself to a classic Hitchcock thriller. This was expected to be a highlight and I was not disappointed.
“Shadow of a Doubt” is in my book the first Hitchcock film that is truly Hitchcock as he ended up being known. In a way this is the embodiment of all that is Hitchcock. There were good ones before, “Rebecca” to mention one, but finally in “Shadow of a Doubt” it all comes together.
I should warn of spoilers here, I am not holding back and really, it ruins all the fun if you have not seen it.
We have a family living in blissful ignorance of the menace that has arrived. The family is so standard that it could be just about anybody living in any small town. They are not rich, nor poor, have three children, a house wife and a husband working in a bank. The teenage daughter is bored and brooding and her younger siblings are… exactly like younger siblings.
Into this family enters the younger brother of the wife. Charlie (Joseph Cotton), or Uncle Charlie as I will call him henceforth is carrying a secret. We know, from the introduction, that he is on the run, but that is about it. He has got this menacing stare, but is able to put on a very affable face.
The family greets him as the long lost son and especially the teenage daughter Charlie (Teresa Wright), henceforth known as Miss Charlie, are excited to have him around. But slowly, slowly we and especially Miss Charlie find out that there is something terribly wrong with Uncle Charlie….
The main focus of the film is on the play between the two Charlie’s. They are presented almost as twins, as a kind of soul mates. When Miss Charlie first finds out that there is something mysterious about Uncle Charlie she is excited and feels this is her secret as well. What she gradually finds out is not entirely pleasant, but then the bond is already created and she struggles between loyalty and suspicion. Eventually she is the only one who actually knows what he really is and the contrast to ignorance of the rest of the family and especially her mother’s adoration for Uncle Charlie is almost grotesque, as if Miss Charlie lives in a parallel world to the rest of the family.
The menace is exquisite and the isolation of Miss Charlie is very tangible and so is the danger she is now subject to. For us as viewers the suspense is top class as we feel this. She knows or thinks she knows that Uncle Charlie is bad ass, but she can turn nowhere. Not to the family who A. would not understand and B. would be devastated if they found out. She also cannot turn to the police because she already withheld information to protect Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie knows she is alone and he knows she knows something of who he is and he is capable of killing in cold blood.
Hitchcock has used some of the themes before. The isolated woman who is hunted and cannot turn anywhere was used in “Blackmail” and to some extent in “Sabotage”. In both cases the girl has a detective boyfriend who in the end is able to help her, but not so in “Shadow of a Doubt”. When Miss Charlie finally turns to the policeman he is gone and nowhere to be found and she must face danger alone. In a sense that makes Miss Charlie a stronger character than her predecessors out of necessity. A hint of that we see when she is laying on the ground after being poisoned by car exhaust, Uncle Charlie bent to her to ask her if she is saying something and Miss Charlie glowers at him saying firmly “Go away!”. She is ready for the fight.
We also get the relief theme from “Rebecca”. They caught the “real” guy back East, so Uncle Charlie may not be the baddie after all. Only where the girl in “Rebecca” experience real relief that Max de Winter is not a murderer after all, Charlie knows that the relief is fake. For her that just makes her even more alone.
While the sneaking, creeping suspense is very well engineered with every remark seeming to carry hidden and sinister meaning there are also a number of elements that does not work as well. The suspense is played for full effect and that means that some of the actions or the lines become a bit contrived. The only reason person x said that at this time was so person y would become extra nervous. Really it should not bother me, that is the way suspense is created, but here Hitchcock goes out of his way to create normalcy so you expect people to say and do normal things.
Another element that grated on me was the out-of-nowhere love story between Miss Charlie and Mr. Graham, the detective. I know movies are not made for long courtships, but this one takes the price. Also the timing is kind of off. A policeman ruffles a girl, accusing her uncle of being a villain and, voila, they fall in love. Hmmm…
Fortunately these reservations mean little to the overall effect of the film. We get to see a girl transformed from bored teenager, through scared victim to adult woman over the course of a film and we have a villain radiating menace that would make Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre envious. And that from a guy who was so likeable in “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”.
I think I will soon see “Shadow of a Doubt” again. It is very much worth it.
This was a really strange role for Cotton to play, as he had a habit of playing upstanding men, but he nailed Uncle Charlie. The normalcy element, for me, is what makes this film so creepy.ReplyDelete
Agreed on both. He was a better villain than I expected, I really had no idea he had it in him. And yes, this home could be just anybody's home. The wife was a bit flimsy, but she is also head over heels seeing her younger brother again.Delete
Good review. I like this one quite a bit, too. It is an effective thriller and I agree on how well Joseph Cotten conveys menace.ReplyDelete
Very effective. It caught me unawares as I was actually settling down for an hour and a half of tedium after the first ten minutes. But slowly it grew on me till I could not let it go.Delete
It's all about the evil of Joseph Cotten in this one for me. There's a menace to him under that exterior that is truly great.ReplyDelete
He does not need to do much, no? Just give that *look*.Delete
This was one of his few roles as the bad guy, no?
Can you please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org ? I'd like to include you in a discussion related to the 1,001 Movies list and I do not have an email address for you. Thanks.ReplyDelete
You should have gotten a mail from me by now.Delete
I just emailed you. I got an automated Out of Office reply, so if you were not planning on checking your work email until August 28th, you may want to read this email at least.Delete
My son is inbetween kindergarten and will start his new one on the 27th, so I am staying home dad in the meantime. I did see your mail last night.Delete