Shadow of a Doubt

Posted on September 22nd, 2010 in 1940s, Film Noir, Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph Cotten by Colin

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There are people who will tell you that Hitchcock never made a true film noir, and they cite the presence of countless personal motifs littering his work as evidence that what we’re watching is a “Hitchcock movie” as opposed to noir. That’s a point of view I can understand, even sympathize with to some extent, but I still feel that there are a number of Hitch’s movies that do fit snugly into that category. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is a prime candidate for inclusion due to the dark heart that beats beneath the deceptively bright surface, and the ambiguous attitude it displays towards the villain.  

The opening is typical Hitchcock, starting with a cityscape and then zeroing in shot by shot to the window of a grotty tenement. Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is reclining on his bed, but is interrupted when his landlady comes to inform him that two strangers have been asking for him. It’s made clear that Charlie is being sought in connection with criminal activities. The exact nature of these crimes are only alluded to at first, but the viewers suspicions are allowed to build gradually until it’s finally revealed that Charlie is the killer of a series of wealthy widows - The Merry Widow Murderer. Of course, this isn’t just a standard did-he-or-didn’t-he, hunt-for-a-killer picture; the doubt of the title refers not so much to the viewers as to the villain’s family, and to his niece in particular. In order to find some respite from the relentless manhunt underway, Charlie goes to stay with his sister’s family in Santa Rosa, California. This unexpected arrival is a source of celebration for the sister and especially the niece, also called Charlie (Teresa Wright) in his honour. Young Charlie is on the cusp of adulthood, and bemoaning the fact that her family’s life has descended into a monotonous series of drab non-events. The appearance of the Uncle whom she idolises promises to inject some energy and excitement into her sleepy, small town existence. This certainly seems to be the case at first, as she parades her uncle around town like a trophy or a returning hero. Gradually though, this innocent adulation begins to be eroded by the seemingly insignificant occurrences that begin to pile up. When two detectives masquerading as reporters (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford) turn up Young Charlie has her suspicions confirmed. In a marvellously filmed sequence in a deserted public library, the full extent of Uncle Charlie’s crimes is revealed as his niece reads the truth in a newspaper, the camera standing in for her eyes as she has the ground yanked out from under her - the camera pulling back and away to leave her small, isolated and burdened with knowledge in this shrine to learning. The dilemma facing Young Charlie is that she cannot act upon this information without destroying her family, and especially her emotionally fragile mother (Patricia Collinge). The situation is complicated even further when she realizes that her outwardly affectionate uncle can’t afford to let her walk around knowing what she does. 

Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) literally looking down on the world.

Shadow of a Doubt is commonly referred to as Hitchcock’s favourite film, and it’s easy to see why that would be the case. It’s a dark ode to Americana that’s reminiscent of Capra, an outsider’s view of an idealized world. Hitchcock’s Santa Rosa is not, as I’ve heard it suggested, the home to dark secrets but a wholesome community into which darkness steals (from it’s true origin, the urban center) before being duly expelled. Most of Hitchcock’s trademark visual style is on view, from high tracking shots to zooms and unnerving close-ups. The whole movie is chock full of memorable scenes and shots so it’s hard to pick out favourites. However, two sequences stand out for me: the first is Uncle Charlie’s arrival in Santa Rosa, the train rolling into the spotless station and pumping out a huge cloud of noxious black smoke to represent the evil it carries within; the other (less frequently mentioned) scene takes place when Uncle Charlie has just heard that the authorities have effectively cleared him. As the relieved man struts into the house and bounds up the stairs with a renewed vigour, he pauses halfway up, turns slowly, and sees the slight figure of his niece framed in the doorway below. It’s at this point that we know he’s going to kill her, he has no other alternative - it’s a subtle yet chilling moment that never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, even after countless viewings.

Joseph Cotten had that kind of easy charm that meant he wasn’t chosen to play the heavy in too many films. He uses his natural affability to good effect here and is entirely believable as a man who seems to make friends everywhere he goes. It also makes our knowledge of his true nature all the more shocking and adds some real punch to those moments when he lets his mask slide a little. All in all, you can’t help but have a sneaking admiration for him - sure he’s evil, but his evil has such an urbane and attractive sheen that it almost wins you over. Playing against that and holding onto viewer sympathy is a big ask, but Teresa Wright pulls it off. She matures perfectly as the story progresses and the threats to her safety escalate. By the end the viewers are faced with their own dilemma, not really wanting to see harm come to either uncle or niece. The main support comes from Patricia Collinge as the vulnerable and trusting mother. It’s her trust in and deep adoration for her rotten brother that gives real substance to the film, and it’s to her credit that the part retains the requisite emotional pull without becoming cloying. Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn are cast mainly as a kind of macabre comic relief, needling each other of an evening about the best way to bump the other off. If I have any real criticism to make it relates to Macdonald Carey’s detective. It just feels like padding in a film that doesn’t require any; if his budding romance with Teresa Wright was included to strengthen the notion of her growing up then it’s unnecessary, that aspect being more than adequately covered by the meatier sections of the picture.  

Universal’s UK release of Shadow of a Doubt on DVD is a very satisfactory one, showing little damage and staying sharp and clear for the most part. There’s a nice selection of extras including the trailer and galleries. Best of all is a half hour documentary on the making of the film that has contributions from Teresa Wright, Hume Cronyn and others. I won’t try and argue that this is Hitchcock’s best film, but it is a very accomplished work. It serves as a study on the loss of innocence and the darkness that lurks behind a polished facade - and it’s a highly entertaining movie.

Journey into Fear

Posted on May 16th, 2010 in 1940s, Film Noir, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten by Colin

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I mentioned recently how films set on trains or in creepy old houses are some of my favourites, I should have also included ships and boats while I was at it. Mysteries and thrillers benefit enormously from these confined settings: the sense of claustrophobia is heightened, and then there’s the knowledge that the hero can only run so far. Journey into Fear (1943) has its hero boxed up on a decaying old freighter in the middle of the Black Sea, surrounded by a gallery of grotesques and living in fear of his life. For a film that runs only a little over an hour it’s packed full of memorable scenes, images and characters that tap into a strong noir vibe.

Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten), an engineer employed by an American armaments company, is in wartime Turkey on business. He’s a typical everyman character and, by his own admission, not a very exciting person. When the company’s local rep decides to take him out for a night on the town, Graham finds himself abruptly swept away into a world of intrigue, assassination and terror. It all begins in a night club where Graham narrowly avoids death. The local man, a fawning and obsequious type by the name of Kopeikin (Everett Sloane), has dragged the reluctant Graham into this slightly seedy cabaret, plying him with liquor and women. During an illusionist’s act, for which he has ‘volunteered’, a shot rings out in the darkness and the magician takes the bullet surely meant for Graham. Before the outraged and confused engineer even has time to draw breath he’s hauled off to a meeting with the chief of the Secret Police, Colonel Haki (Orson Welles), who has him bundled aboard a stinking old tub to spirit him safely out of the country. This is the pattern the movie follows, there’s always someone else making decisions for the increasingly bewildered Graham. Of course he tries to wrest the initiative but, in classic noir fashion, he’s always a victim of fate rather than a master of his own destiny. The scenes aboard the ship are full of menace, emphasised by the low angle shots and the deep, dark shadows that seem to follow Graham everywhere. The threat looms even larger when a short stopover allows the assassin Banat (Jack Moss) to come aboard. This character hasn’t one line of dialogue throughout the film but it’s that chilling silence and the bland countenance masked by pebble glasses and a vaguely ludicrous hat that add to his creepiness. When Graham finally disembarks he makes a break for freedom, but fails to get very far. This does, however, set up a thrilling climax atop a hotel ledge in the pouring rain that ties up most of the loose ends.

Joseph Cotten making another unwelcome discovery in Journey into Fear.

Journey into Fear is an adaptation of one of Eric Ambler’s finest novels with the screenplay credited to Joseph Cotten. Being a huge and unashamed admirer of Ambler I’m always pleased to see his work represented on the screen, and this movie retains much of the flavour of his writing. Aside from the scripting credit, Joseph Cotten turns in a good performance as the baffled engineer who’s always on his guard but never quite sure who to trust. His plight is one that’s frankly hard to swallow, and there’s a nice little scene where he tries to convince the ship’s captain of the danger he’s in only to have the grizzled old codger laugh in his face. Dolores del Rio (who had a relationship with Welles) first appears as a leopardskin clad dancer in the early night club scene and maintains that feline aura throughout as she slinks around sexily in pursuit of our hero. The rest of the cast (largely drawn from the Mercury players) mainly turn in small but memorable cameo roles. In particular, Jack Moss, who was in fact Welles’ accountant, turns the blood cold every time his ungainly bulk lumbers into the frame and his impassive assassin remains one of the highlights of the movie. Orson Welles plays another of those larger than life figures that seemed an extension of his own personality to great effect in the few scenes where he appears. His trademark slow-quick-slow delivery and the darting eyes that twinkle mischief one minute and glower thunderously the next are ideal for the shady yet menacing Colonel Haki - incidentally, the character of Colonel Haki is one that showed up again in Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios. In truth, Welles’ massive presence dominates the film and his fingerprints are to be found all over the production. Although Norman Foster is credited as director it’s clear to anyone familiar with his work that Welles, at the very least, exerted a huge influence over the shooting. For example, the climactic chase along the slick hotel ledge in the storm uses the kind of dizzying overhead angles that Welles was fond of.

For a number of years now Warners have been promising that a DVD with a restored print of Journey into Fear is on the way in the US, however it still remains a no show. The French company Montparnasse have released the movie in R2 though, and there’s really not much wrong with that edition. The print used is actually in pretty fair shape with good contrast and sharpness, sure there’s the odd scratch and speckle here and there but nothing to fret over. There aren’t any extras save a brief introduction (in French naturally), but if it’s a good print of the movie itself you’re after then the Montparnasse release is very definitely acceptable. Journey into Fear is a stylish little noir film that benefits from the Welles touch and has the quirkiness that’s often found in films he graced with his presence. The pace may feel a little rushed at times but I prefer to think of that as emphasising the urgency of the situation and the danger the hero finds himself in. It certainly gets my recommendation. 

The Last Sunset

Posted on April 29th, 2010 in 1960s, Westerns, Kirk Douglas, Robert Aldrich, Rock Hudson, Joseph Cotten by Colin

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The Last Sunset (1961) is a film that seems to have all the credentials, all the ingredients that go towards making a top flight production: a highly talented director, a fine cast, and a script by a top writer. In spite of all this the final result is a movie that doesn’t quite gel and one that delivers a lot less than it initially promises. As is usually the case when a film proves disappointing, the fault lies with the script. There are some interesting elements which are introduced and then disposed of before they’ve had a chance to play out fully. Generally, this leads to both clutter and a lack of focus. In the end, we’re left with a film that’s not exactly bad but one that could and should have been a whole lot better.  

The opening credits play over a dogged pursuit across a southwestern landscape, down into Mexico where the bulk of the action will unfold. O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is the black clad fugitive, a killer who carries a derringer instead of a six-shooter. Hot on his trail is Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), a lawman with a personal interest in seeing his quarry brought back to Texas to hang. O’Malley is heading for a ranch run by a faded Virginia gentleman with a fondness for the bottle. The rancher, Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten), happens to be married to O’Malley’s old sweetheart Belle (Dorothy Malone) and it’s soon evident that he’s continued carrying a torch for her for years. The two men strike a deal whereby O’Malley will help Breckenridge drive his herd up to Texas, but he also claims he’s going to take his new partner’s wife off him. That in itself could have provided an interesting scenario, but the script has no intention of remaining so simple. Stribling’s arrival leads to an uneasy truce with hunter and hunted agreeing to pool their talents in order to ensure the success of the cattle drive before settling their own scores. With both newcomers being clearly interested in the charms of Belle the scene looks set for a juicy three-way contest for her affections. However, that’s not to be for Breckenridge soon departs the scene after being gunned down in a cheap cantina. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that moments before his death the audience is treated to revelations about Breckenridge’s shameful past. So, two potentially rich plot veins are left unmined. Instead we’re treated to the seemingly interminable drive to Texas with too much talk and too few sparks. It seems that the producers were aware that they were in danger of bogging the plot down, so three shifty and unscrupulous cowboys, who plan to get in on the white slavery racket, are introduced (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and James Westmoreland) to try to spice up proceedings. Again the opportunity is lost as these characters are killed off before they have the chance to make an impression. The script still has one hole card in reserve though, and it’s a real stinger. Nevertheless, in keeping with the rest of the picture, this gets handled poorly too. The problem is not with the nature of this final reveal, it’s suitably shocking, but the fact that we learn about it too soon. I won’t go into details here lest I spoil things for anybody, but the timing really draws all the tension and drama out of the climactic duel and leaves us with a flat and predictable ending.

Kirk Douglas

With a combination of Robert Aldrich directing and Dalton Trumbo writing, I don’t think it’s unfair to have high expectations. For whatever reason, neither man was at the top of his game on The Last Sunset. Trumbo’s script meanders all over the place and flatters to deceive, with too many plot turns and too many undeveloped ideas. Aldrich allowed the momentum to flag after the first half hour or so and he never really recovered it after that. There are some nice shots, a well filmed sequence during a dust storm, and an attempt to claw back some tension in the climax through quick cutting but none of it adds up to enough to save the film. On top of all this the performances of the two leads are nothing to write home about either. Douglas seemed to be trying for the kind of deadly rascal that Burt Lancaster pulled off in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz but it doesn’t really work for him. Hudson just didn’t convince at all as the driven lawman and he comes across as merely bland. Dorothy Malone and Joseph Cotten were altogether more successful as the Breckenridges; the former exuding a worldly sexuality that made the attention of her various suiters highly credible, while the latter provided a fine portrait of a broken and guilty man. Maybe if Hudson’s character had been the one to snuff it in the cantina we would have got a more compelling film. It’s also a shame that Jack Elam and Neville Brand had to disappear so soon since such character actors were capable of raising the quality of any production.

The Last Sunset was given a release a few years back by Universal in R1 in the Rock Hudson - Screen Legend set. The transfer is a fine anamorphic one and, apart from the odd speckle, there’s not much wrong with it. Colour and sharpness are both strong with good detail. There’s a trailer for the film provided but that’s it as far as extras go. This movie couldn’t be classed as anyone’s finest hour but it’s not a complete dud. There are a handful of worthy performances and the adult theme that becomes apparent as it draws to a close mean that it deserves a look. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t be an ideal introduction to the work of any of the principals.