Friday, June 14, 2019

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

USA, 108 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville, Gordon McDonell
Photography: Joseph A. Valentine
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editor: Milton Carruth
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford, Edna May Wonacott

In my attempts to make the case that Fritz Lang's M is flawed and overrated, too much a propaganda exercise pushing for return of a death penalty in Germany in the early '30s—hey, we all have our blind spots—I used to counter claims it was the best serial killer movie of all time by calling attention to Shadow of a Doubt, director Alfred Hitchcock's first movie set exclusively in the US and also reportedly his own favorite of all the movies he made. In 1986, Henry made the whole argument moot, of course (though not all fans of M see it that way), and in hindsight I would have to say that Hitchcock's conception of a serial killer and his society is nearly as romanticized and off-key as M, though both movies also have many things right about the curious brutal phenomenon of modern life.

M focuses on the sexual perversion, general skulking pathetic qualities, and the heinousness of the crimes, preying on children, whereas Shadow of a Doubt makes Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, typically great even in an unusual role for him) more of a preening Nietzschean superman type, openly, almost compulsively scornful of social institutions such as banks and churches. A soul of darkness. He's the one you'd think more likely to send postcards to newspapers and police. But Uncle Charlie is actually a good deal more circumspect and ultimately perhaps rational, going to great pains to hide his identity and in many ways committing his crimes for the money. He's closer to Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley than Jack the Ripper. The genius here is to set this serial killer down in the middle of California small-town Leave it to Beaver land.

Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, is a certain bright star of Shadow of a Doubt, bringing Americanness into the script by the wheelbarrowful—he gets an especially warm thanks in the credits from Hitchcock and crew and he probably deserves it. The casting is another bright star: Cotten remains one of the best in everything he does. Teresa Wright was at the peak of her powers as plucky American innocence personified (think Nancy Drew), here playing the eldest daughter of the family, named for her uncle. Wright is great in everything I've seen her in from the '40s, notably The Best Years of Our Lives and Mrs. Miniver, and she is great here. Henry Travers (the angel in It's a Wonderful Life) is her father and Hume Cronyn (an early classic hey-I-know-that-guy) is a neighbor. They're introduced as "literary critics" because they are fanatic readers of mystery stories in pulp magazines. They spend the movie as comic relief on the sidelines, trying to dope out the perfect murder.

I especially love Patricia Collinge's performance as Emma, the mother of the family (besides her daughter Charlie, who is at least 17, there are also two much younger children ... you get the sense this might be a marriage necessitated by pregnancy with the later children coming when they could be afforded ... it's certainly an odd detail). Uncle Charlie is the youngest brother in Emma's family and Emma absolutely, heartbreakingly adores him for the connection he offers to her severed past. She's so happy to see Uncle Charlie and so sad when he suddenly has to leave. Trying to sort out her feelings, she has one of the most haunting lines in the movie, a throwaway as the screen goes to black at the end of a scene, "You sort of forget you're you. You're your husband's wife..."

But Uncle Charlie is no good, as eventually even his niece at least comes to see. Charlie and Charlie genuinely seem to have some kind of eerie psychic bond as the movie shows it, but the extremes of this picture, which are comparable to those in Blue Velvet, underline the peril of that connection. "The whole world's a joke to me," Uncle Charlie says in a way that sounds like he means it. Perhaps the most startling naked revelation he spews happens at a typical family dinner, out of nowhere: "The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead. Husbands who spent their lives making fortunes, working and working, and then they die and leave their money to their wives—their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the best hotels every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge.... Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women."

It's at least a certain kind of x-ray into one conception of a serial killer, a more literary one. There might even be a few too many of these amazing moments of unconsciously giving oneself away in Shadow of a Doubt. But they are wickedly on point, every time. These people can't keep secrets from one another for more than five minutes, and are often saved only by the amazing obtuseness of some of the others around them, notably Father (which is comic relief) and Mother (which is terribly moving). If anything it's a dramatic inversion of the situation comedy. It looks the way sitcoms will look in the '50s and it's about a situation in the way sitcoms would be (and the way Patricia Highsmith would write her Ripley stories too). But this situation is terribly dangerous. FBI investigators are on hand as a bizarrely intrusive element that's almost as disturbing as Uncle Charlie if you think about it too much, though one of the agents, love interest Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), is clearly a real swell guy.

The suspense just takes care of itself when the story and players are this good. As a Hitchcock exercise, it almost feels like it directed itself. It's brilliant.

Top 10 of 1943
1. Shadow of a Doubt
2. I Walked With a Zombie
3. Jane Eyre
4. Ossessione
5. Day of Wrath
6. Cabin in the Sky
7. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
8. Sahara
9. Phantom of the Opera
10. Douce

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