Sunday, October 6, 2013

Movie Review: Shadow of A Doubt

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1943.

When I first saw Shadow of A Doubt, about ten years ago, I was a little underwhelmed. It was slow with a lot of corny elements. My second viewing a few years later impressed me more as the craftsmanship became apparent: music, lighting, plotting. Yesterday's third time was most certainly the charm. There might not be a scene, even a shot, out of place in this masterpiece. When you stop to consider what has to come together before, during, and after shooting, one might be amazed that any good movie gets made at all, but when you see a great movie made without the luxuries of massive budgets, staff, and time, well you just need to tip your hat to one of the greats. That Shadow of a Doubt works on so many levels and then equally well as a whole is a true directorial triumph.

The whole film pivots off the relationship between dear Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) and his darling namesake, Little Charlie (Teresa Wright.) From the outset Hitchcock develops symmetries between the two. Eager to spice up the family routine, Little Charlie writes her uncle to beg him and visit, only to find at the telegraph office a message that he's on his way. (Hitchcock mirrors this by introducing both characters rising from bed.) Both characters also deplore the ordinary. Little Charlie bemoans in adolescent pangs to her father about the dullness of the family routine, while Uncle Charlie waxes on bitterly over dinner about the "fat, wheezing animals" he sees going on about life with no purpose.

Yet while Little Charlie really is an average girl, pretty, pious, and law-abiding, her uncle is not. Uncle Charlie drips with scorn for the world, calling it a "foul sty" and a "hell." One of Hitchcock's best scripts, though, doesn't pile explication or psychologizing jargon onto Uncle Charlie, but rather mythologizes him and elevates his worldview to the level of a philosophical dichotomy. While serving her baby brother breakfast in bed, Charlie's sister remembers how once he, as a child, rushed headlong with his tricycle into the street, nearly dying, and how their mother wondered after whether he'd ever be the same. The apparently insignificant detail is a prompt: did Uncle Charlie simply respond to evil with evil, or was it already in him? (Compare the maturity of this consideration to the heavy-handedness of the similar Rope.)

Surrounding the Charlies' discontent and contempt for the ordinary is that ordinary world of fathers working nine to five jobs, mothers baking and keeping house, precious siblings, and bedtime prayers. It is the leisure of these opening scenes, nearly twenty minutes, which gives weight and import to Uncle Charlie's arrival, itself a miniature masterpiece of introduction. First, the bilious black soot chuffing forth from the train foreshadows the evil that Uncle Charlie brings to the small town. Next, Uncle Charlie hobbles off the train like a consumptive, leaning on his cane and with his jacket draped over him. With the train pulling away and slowly catching sight of his favorite niece, Charlie stands upright and slings his coat over his shoulder. Like his first words to them, in his telegram which said he was "lonesome for you all," his first appearance is a lie.

The pace doesn't quicken, though, upon Uncle Charlie's arrival. Hitchcock instead lets his evil seep into little Santa Rosa. At first Charlie all is all avuncular good will and cheer with gifts for the family and business for the bank. Then we find a conspicuous inscription on the ring Uncle Charlie gives to his adoring niece. Did he really get rooked by the jeweler? He then takes some awkward pains to hide a newspaper article from the family and again issue with his sister's promise to let some pollsters interview the family, a conversation which leads to the backstory of his childhood accident and thus sets up his reveal.

Poison? Strangulation?
Mixed in with these plot points we find subtle hints that Uncle Charlie doesn't fit in. He lives for the present only, he says, while everyone else with their routines lives constantly cleaning up yesterday's mess and setting up tomorrow's. When he visits the bank to make a deposit, he doesn't mind jesting about bankers and corruption, even though he's clearly making everyone there, who takes their job seriously, uncomfortable. Amidst these gradual revelations is a classic Hitchcock touch of preparing the climax in parallel. In Shadow of a Doubt, Little Charlie's father and his friend share an interest in crime fiction and after dinner the two theorize about the perfect crime. Blunt instrument? Poison? A little nudge down the stairs? On the one hand these details sew the theme of murder parallel to the plot and prepare the climax, but on the other they mirror our questions about Uncle Charlie: how can Uncle Charlie do the evil which fascinates their father? Where's the line between thought and deed?

The more you look at the apparent similarities between the two men, the more frightening the movie becomes. The fear of Shadow of a Doubt is the terrible truth that you can't know what's in another man's heart. We ignore the fact and welcome others into our lives, smoothing over our fears by taking outward signs to mean that someone is one of us.  Emma welcomes her baby brother because he's family, and her husband welcomes him because his wife and the children love him. Little Charlie welcomes her special uncle, with whom she swears she shares a special link. The town welcomes him as one of their own, praising his speech although "foreigners seem to make the best talkers" and even declaring him "one of us." Is he?

Once the pollsters out themselves as detectives and confess that and why they're dogging her uncle, Little Charlie is determined to clear him. In the movie's most tense scene she travels to the library for a copy of the paper that Uncle Charlie tried to hide. That's right: the most tense scene is a trip to the library, and no one's even chasing her. Yes, it's about to close, but the only driving force behind the scene is her desperate need to clear Uncle Charlie, and that's quite enough. Dmitri Tiomkin's score here begins with wandering winds as Little Charlie is curiously thumbing through the trash for the clipping but moves to soaring and swooning strings as her doubt grows and finally erupts into a throbbing orchestra and racing chords on piano as she darts across busy streets to find the truth at the library.

No sooner does Little Charlie learn the truth, though, than is Uncle Charlie's name cleared when another man not only takes the rap, but dies in the process. Determined to drive off her uncle, who is now determined to settle in town with a clean slate, Little Charlie begins a game of cat and mouse, dropping hints about his crimes through dinner. Uncle Charlie, though, realizes that one last person knows of his guilt, and that he'll be totally free if he just kills his favorite niece. These scenes work so well for a few reasons. First, Uncle Charlie is set up as such a good fellow that we know no one will believe any accusations about him. Second, the crimes play out like the hypotheticals the father and friend had speculated about, so we have the crimes on the mind when they come. Third, Little Charlie is smart and aware. She knows how her uncle looks to everyone and even the detectives now that his name has been cleared.

That Uncle Charlie is in the clear for the finale is a touch of genius because it forces the confrontation onto the two main characters instead of involving police and authorities for whom we don't care. Just as we've finally peered into the depths of Uncle Charlie's evil as we saw him attempt to murder his niece, he's fully fooled the whole town with a great speech. Our and Little Charlie's special knowledge forces us into the intimate world between the two Charlies, a relationship which has moved from adoration to violence. We feel the intimacy and imminent danger at once in a scene of masterful subtly which is also the true finale. At a party after his speech, Uncle Charlie toasts to his niece, who descends the stairs wearing the ring which links him to his crimes. Once a symbol of their love, it is now one of their antipathy and his evil.

This intimate knowledge is not only a dramatic splash of contrast to the townspeople's ignorance, though, but also a parallel to the theme: who is Uncle Charlie? Who is anybody? In the final scene, when the whole town shows up for Uncle Charlie's funeral and the priest declares that they've, "gained and lost a son," we suspect a fact beyond our inability to know, the haunting one which has been coming to and fro all along in the film's waltzing motif and Uncle Charlie's own advice: that we might not want to.

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