Shadow of a Doubt

Where? Where did my innocence go? How? How was a young girl to know?
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1943
Director: 
Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: 
Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey, Henry Travers
The Setup: 
Young woman becomes aware that her beloved Uncle may be a killer.
Discussion: 

I don't know why, I am just not interested in writing about this movie. It's been a few weeks now since I've seen it and, eh, I am just nonplussed all round, even though it was, you know, GOOD, and had a dirty sexual subtext and everything. And I had a reader write and ask me specifically to watch and review it, and that kind of flattery TOTALLY works. But still--eh.

Anyway, so this was later said to be Hitchcock's favorite among his own films. We see that it stars Joseph Cotten, Theresa Wright of The Little Foxes, and is the film debut of Hume Cronyn. It has a screenplay largely written by Thornton Wilder. As the credits play, we have the first sight of what will become a recurring visual motif of a bunch of rather identical couple waltzing around in circles, endlessly.

We then have some nice pans across these industrial landscapes with abandoned cars and suchlike [shot outside of Newark, New Jersey, and it very much looks like it]--so we're seeing that we're in the realm of the downtrodden. We transition to kids playing stickball, close in to a window, then see a man laying on a bed inside that window. It's just classic Hitchcock visual storytelling. This is Cotten as Charlie, and he has a bunch of cash at his bedside, and two guys looking for him outside. He realizes that the heat is on, and decides to go to sleepy little town Santa Rosa, CA, where he can hide out with his sister and their sweet n' innocent suburban family.

We now introduce the house in Santa Rosa, and what's interesting is it follows the same pattern as our intro to Charlie: We see the outside of the house, close in on a window, then see someone laying on a bed inside. In this case, it is a different Charlie; his neice, who is maybe around seventeen, and is nicknamed Charlie after her uncle, whom she just adores. For some reason. She also has a braniac younger sister, Ann, who is always yakking on and on about everything she knows, and a mother one would be hard-pressed to describe as shrewdly intelligent. She is quite enthusiastic about everything being in its place and all things just so super sweet and nice. Add to this the dottering dad who provides firm moral support when the time comes, and you have your standard Leave It To Beaver, Norman Rockwell classic pure n' innocent upstanding American family--which is exactly what this criminal is going to step into and mess with.

This is all set up in this astonishingly long scene of family drama, in which a a telegram waiting for mother at the post office is treated as though the President were going to be staying in their guest room. Then there's this weird thing where Charlie Neice is going to the office to send Uncle Charlie a telegram asking him to come visit, when what do you know, she GETS the telegram that he IS going to visit. She takes this as evidence she and Uncle Charlie share some sort of spiritual connection. She also changes her name to Madame Zolta and opens a small palm-reading business in town. Just kidding about that last part.

So Uncle Charlie shows up. Neice Charlie is just so excited by every aspect of his being, and it won't be long before you're saying "Um, maybe TOO excited." Because she pretty much won't leave him alone and stands too close and keeps yammering on about how they're connected "like twins." He gives her a ring--with initials that don't match engraved in it--and they stand a trifle too close after he has given it to her. The scene closes with another view of the whirling couples.

The next day there's some intrigue surrounding an item in the paper. Uncle Charlie takes the paper and rips the item out, then makes a paper house out of it to cover his deed. The kids pretty much freak that anyone should have touched Father's paper, which he likes to read when he gets home in the evening. Boy, we really are in Norman Rockwell land. Then Dad's friend Herb, played by Cronyn, comes over. They have a morbid little game in which Herb thinks of the most diabolical crimes and murders and challenges Dad to figure them out. Later Neice Charlie is just trying to be the sweetest neice in the whole world, but ends up getting in too close to Uncle Charlie and he gets angry at her. She goes to bed, disturbed, and there's a short shot of Uncle Charlie in bed, blowing smoke rings.

Now I have to say, by this point, thirty minutes in, I was still saying "I can't even tell what genre this is." Because recall that we have no evidence so far that Charlie has done anything wrong, and those guys waiting for him at the beginning looked pretty nasty. So I wasn't sure what was happening there, whether Uncle Charlie was good or bad, and then such long sections of the movie would divert into pure family melodrama and gentle [i.e. unfunny] comedy for long periods, I really just didn't know what to make of this at all. Not to mention that Hitchcock's accomplished style is going fairly strongly here, making the film seem 50s or 60s, when in fact it was made and takes place in 1943. Luckily answers are soon forthcoming.

SPOILERS > > >
So the two thugs from back east locate Uncle Charlie, and cock up some story about how they want to interview some prototypical American family, which will require them coming in and photographing the house and interviewing everyone. Charlie will have no part in it. Then Jack, one of the thugs, asks Neice Charlie out! And she goes! Because you see, it was an earlier America of stricter moral fiber, in which it was fine for a thirty-year-old man to go out with a maybe [hopefully?] eighteen-year-old girl. Anyway, he reveals hmself to be a detective on the trail of a killer, who may be either Uncle Charlie or this guy Maine, who other detectives are pursuing. I have to tell you, the detectives were presented in such a sinister light at the beginning, it took me a while before I even believed they really were detectives!

But here's where things change. Neice Charlie runs to the library before it closes, with some hugger-mugger about her crossing the street too fast, meant to reinforce the innocent bubble this town represents. She looks up the article Uncle Charlie tore out of the paper, and it says police are looking for the "Merry Widow Killer," who kills widowed old ladies and takes their money! The big shocker is--the initials engraved in the ring Uncle Charlie gave her match the name of the last victim! Then--we see the whirling couples again!

Now, more than an hour in, is where things start heating up--as much as they will, that is. First, let's take time out to observe that Neice Charlie's mother, while being an 100% wholesome and well-mannered woman without a trace of malice in her, also needs a mallet to the face, STAT. She's so obstinate about how the eggs have to go in BEFORE the flour or how she simply WILL not allow the living room to be photographed without fresh flower arrangements or whatnot, while also being so reolutely clueless about what is happening in her own home... it's truly amazing she has not been murdered in a blind rage thus far.

Anyway, it's time for Niece Charlie's innocence to be ripped away, and fast. First Uncle Charlie takes her into an adult bar [meaning for those over 18, not a strip place or anything] where they have a tense conversation where Niece Charlie indicates that she has suspicions. There are a few more tense moments, which allows Hitchcock to whip out many early examples of his classic compositions, such as the one at right. Then--the other suspect in Maine is pureed by an airplane propellor! And it looks like HE was the Merry Widow killer, and the case is closed by the police. Leaving Niece Charlie at home with Uncle Charlie, who is indicating that he means to stay a while.

Now Uncle Charlie tries to kill Niece Charlie in two separate ways--two separately boring ways--and she survives, but realizes the stakes are getting high. In here I have written in my notes "Mom is just a well-meaning flat-out idiot." Anyway, Uncle Charlie abruptly decides to leave town. He demands that Niece Charlie get on the train with him, and tries to throw her off, but--wouldn't you know!--he ends up falling off. There's a last little coda in which Niece Charlie confides to her detective boyfriend that Uncle Charlie "Thought the world was a horrible place... he couldn't have been very happy," and the detective reassures her that it's not so bad, Uncle Charlie was crazy. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END

So while it was all as carefully constructed and fleshed out as Hitchcock always is, I also found it fairly tedious. Please understand I'm saying this was MY reaction and not the fault of the film. But it's slow and while you could argue that it needs to spend all that time on the drearily wholesome antics of the sweet n' pure early American family, great, but I, here in 2011, don't want to sit through that. I blame Thornton Wilder for that bit. Then the film is just difficult to get ahold of--as I said, I was quite deep into it wasn't even sure what genre I would call it, and it just has a very unusual shape and rhythm. Which may also be a result of it being earlier than it seems, since Hitchcock's style seems to very modern.

Luckily it does have all sorts of untidy sexual subtext. Niece Charlie obviously has some sort of excitement over her Uncle that isn't purely wholesome. The movie is well-constructed enough that you can speculate as to whether that developed as a reaction against how VERY wholesome her daily environment is, and the subliminal knowledge she probably has in the back of her mind that Uncle Charlie is a BAD MAN. I'm sure it's intentional that we go for a while thinking Uncle Charlie may be an innocent man on the run, and the detectives are evil thugs, so our experience watching the film and gradually reassessing the characters echoes Niece Charlie's own. And all the other stuff is set up to show how Uncle Charlie comes into this bubble of pure innocence [the town, the family, Niece Charlie's consciousness] and threatens to corrupt it. I believe the repeating motif of the waltzing couples to indicate this endless repetitive churning of social convention in which everything is in its place.

So it's expertly laid out and brilliantly constructed. It's also a bit dreary to sit through. It's slow and there's just too much wholesomeness for me. I don't find it charming at all. Hitchcock movies often take a few viewings to warm up to, as one starts to get admire them more as constructions than stories one might get involved with, and I'm sure that would be the case here, only I'm not interested in sitting through it again. Perhaps you might feel differently.

Should you watch it: 

I suppose, though there are any number of Hitchcock films I would watch first.