Still working through the Alfred Hitchcock boxset (see yesterday’s blog), today’s offering is a little gem, not one of his best known efforts but a minor classic all the same. Prepare for a family crisis of murderous proportions, as we look at…
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Charles Oakley is in trouble. Holed up in New York and evading the authorities, he sees shady figures loitering across the street. Where can he run to? Is the game finally up? Maybe not, as he remembers his family living in the sleepy California town of Santa Rosa, and makes a last ditch effort to get there. Perhaps this is the fresh start he needs; after all, who would chase him to the other side of the country? And why would his sister’s house, all of whom dote on him, think he’s done anything bad? Plus, it’s the home of his favourite niece, a young girl named after him, and with a similar mind to his own. It’s the perfect place to hide. What could possibly go wrong?
The set-up to Shadow of a Doubt is simplicity itself. At first, ‘Uncle Charlie’ is welcomed with open arms by his nearest and dearest. He charms the socks off them all, showers them with gifts and attention. The town appears to be too ideal, with citizens who know everyone else and a policeman smilingly directing the traffic. It shouldn’t be better than this. Yet slowly, Oakley’s deeds begin to catch up with him, and his unwillingness to be totally honest about himself, his past and business, which at first are taken to be personality quirks, grate with ‘Young Charlie.’ What does her uncle have to hide? Why does he tear a page out of the local paper and hide it? What’s the deal with him not wanting to be photographed?
A simple, straightforward premise indeed, but put it into the hands of a Master and it blooms into something far darker and lasting. Like many of Hitchcock’s finest works, it takes place in a limited space, in this case Santa Rosa, and the Newton family household. The small backdrop allows the movie to turn into a detailed character study. Oakley and Charlie are the most fully fleshed of the players, but everyone is given an element of depth, from Mr Newton’s (Henry Travers, best known as the innocent angel, Clarence, in It’s a Wonderful Life) love of crime fiction, and the desire of his wife (Patricia Collinge) to return to the idyllic past of her youth, right through to younger daughter Ann (Edna May Wolacott) and her naive mistrust of Oakley. Assiduously intelligent and bookish, Ann recognises something wrong in her Uncle from the start, but doesn’t know what it is and wisely keeps her distance. It’s made explicit that this is a nice home, the sort of place that’s open and trusting to the world. Mr Newton’s friend, Herbie (Hume Cronyn, in his first film role) can walk into the house whenever he likes, usually to discuss murder methods based on his latest, crackpot theory.
Into this world walks Uncle Charlie, and from the moment he does it’s his lengthy shadow that takes over. Joseph Cotten is Oakley, taking perhaps the best, most complete role in his distinguished career, and playing him as a subtle study in evil. There’s much that’s likeable about his character, and for a time the family have little reason to question the explanation he gives for what he’s been doing, not to mention the large amounts of cash he has on him. But he comes with an edge. From the moment he steps off the train at Santa Rosa, darkness creeps into the bright town. A small boy is enveloped in the locomotive’s shadow. Oakley appears, limping and helped off the train, but once it pulls away, he uses his walking stick as a cane, and strides brightly along, his impediment forgotten. No one seems to notice the anomaly, no one that is apart from Charlie (Teresa Wright), who greets him with an open smile but a slightly quizzical look. She’s spotted something awry, but in her joy at meeting her Uncle, it passes. For now, at least.
It’s the sparring of wits between the two Charlies that provides Shadow of a Doubt with its backbone. The other family members, all with their own agenda and traits, aren’t in any kind of position to discover his secret, and it’s left to young Charlie to figure things out. On his first evening in the house, she puts it to him that they’re like twins, and Hitchcock goes to some length to emphasise this, down to early comparative shots of the pair lying in similar positions on separate beds. By chance, the bored Charlie is busy composing a telegram to her Uncle, imploring him to visit her, just as she discovers that he in turn has contacted the telephony office to announce his imminent arrival. As Oakley’s behaviour leads Charlie to question him further, it becomes clear that she is the only one who has enough time and interest on her hands to unravel his secrets. And unravel she does, starting with the discovery of a page he has ripped from the evening newspaper. Once Oakley sees that she is about to stick her nose into his affairs, he grips her, hurting her arm, and Charlie’s suspicions are raised. The visit of two government officials who wish to photograph the house and its occupants provokes yet more concern. Though the pair appear to be snoopier and pushier than Charlie might expect, Oakley goes out of his way to avoid them, demanding the film from their camera when they ‘acccidentally’ get a shot of him.
Ultimately, Charlie goes to the local library, a beautiful, moss-covered structure, and demands to be allowed in even though it’s nearly closing time. Poring through an unblemished copy of the day’s newspaper that Oakley ruined, she comes across a story on the missing page that describes the ongoing search for an east coast killer, known as the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’ due to the fact he has slain and robbed three widows. Charlie knows. The clues add up, and she knows. As she slowly leaves the library table, the camera pans back, as though taking a stunned intake of breath, but it also makes her look small, like she is far too insignificant to face the possible protagonist of these killings. Shadows lengthen around her, a little like evil closing in.
It’s here that the movie takes a darker turn. Up to this point, the focus has been on jovial, familial banter, but now it develops into a battle of wits between Oakley and his niece. The scenes between the pair make for fascinating viewing. Uncle Charlie is ever obscured, his face shaded by the brim of his hat apart from the pinpricks of his penetrating eyes, whilst the girl is in the light. Interestingly, it is only in her scenes with Detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), who’s on Oakley’s trail, that she is in the shadow, as though she has been tainted by her Uncle’s darkness. At times, the action is intercut with shots of people performing the waltz, appropriately enough to ‘The Merry Widows.’ It has been suggested elsewhere that this is to do with Mrs Newton longing for a more innocent past, memories that are dredged up by her brother’s appearance. I think it’s more representative of Oakley and Charlie, locked in a mental dance with each other to the end.
At first, you would put your money on Oakley emerging more or less unscathed. He holds all the cards, and is in a position of considerable power over his doting niece. Charlie doesn’t even get suspicious of his gift of an emerald ring to her, one that has been monogrammed with initials of other people (who later are revealed to be part of the murder case). However, it emerges that he has underestimated her badly. In fact, Oakley turns out to be far from brilliant as a criminal mastermind. He gives away clues at every turn, like the ring, the ‘cured limp,’ the way he refuses to be photgraphed. At the dinner table, he delivers a damning verdict on rich widows - ‘You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women’ - that leaves Charlie arguing, in some shock, that they’re still living, breathing people. In a moment of true, dawning horror, Oakley turns slowly to her, and to us, glaring sideways into the camera’s eye and asking ‘Are they?’
Later, Oakley takes Charlie to a bar, and outlines his dark view of the world in no uncertain terms - ‘You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell’ - that leads to her running out in terror. The trust has vanished. Clearly, Charlie hasn’t been persuaded by her Uncle’s argument, by his attempt to talk his way into her acceptance. And he’s left with the one option he feels is open to him, the one way he still holds some power over her. The introduction to this final act is dramatised in one perfect scene. Walking up the stairs in his sister’s home, Oakley turns and looks down at Charlie, now framed in the doorway and staring back. There’s a look almost of pity on his face, possibly some regret, as he realises the only possible path left open to him, to end this problem, is to get rid of it, to kill Charlie…
I’ve made little secret of the fact I love this film. It works cleverly on a number of levels; first as a well-told mystery yarn, with plenty of nicely rounded characters and enough things happening to keep any viewer spellbound. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Personally, I don’t believe the view of certain critics that Oakley’s opinions on women somehow reflect Hitchcock’s own. The hero of the film is female, after all. It does, however, offer a misogynist perspective, as well as depicting Uncle Charlie as a portrait of casual evil. By the end, there isn’t much about him that’s appealing. Everything he’s done - from chatting blithely about the past with Charlie’s mother, to complementing the ladies who come across him in Mr Newton’s bank - is with a malign purpose in mind, a cold, calculated attempt to inveigle himself within the town’s society. The fact that nearly all the people he meets universally deal with him affectionately says a great deal about how we treat badness - it can be seductive and charming, and it’s very difficult not to fall for it on those terms. Oakley is a complicated character. Compare him with real villians of the time, and you can see how much sheer depth he has next to the way America portrayed Adolf Hitler, depicted within the propaganda industry as a cartoonish thug, practically a figure of fun. It would have been easy for Hitchcock and Cotten to come up with another moustache-twirling villian; instead they devised a multi-layered human being, who demonstrates both the reasons we are sometimes suduced by malevolence, as well as the eventual display of evil itself.
Like the Saboteur disc, Shadow of a Doubt comes equipped with a number of bonus features. ‘Beyond Doubt,’ a 35-minute documentary about the making of the film, goes mainly into Hitchcock’s motives for creating it and what he hoped to achieve at the end. Most revealing is a comment from his daughter that this was the favourite of all his directorial outings; it isn’t hard to see why. By all accounts, everyone involved in Shadow of a Doubt had a really good time making it. Teresa Wright recalls her easy relationship with Cotten, which probably helped when trying to portray an intimate relationship on the screen. Alongside the obligatory trailer, there are some studio photographs from the production to enjoy, along with a set of lavishly detailed storyboards that show the extent to which Hitchcock relied on conceptual drawings when coming to film his little masterpiece.