Monday, August 22, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On - At the Movies #20 - Shadow of a Doubt (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

Alfred Hitchcock may be one of the best-known directors in the world, but this film – one he often referred to as his favorite of his own films – seems to have been forgotten as one of his best, a masterpiece on par with his more widely known and loved films likeNorth By Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho. To sum up the film’s plot is simple – a man who is possibly a murderer runs from the city police on his trail to hide out in his relatives’ small hometown. There his niece, and also his namesake, begins to suspect that he’s not friendly Uncle Charlie after all. But the plot description can barely begin to convey the feeling of the film and the way it’s shot.
This film, his sixth after moving to the United States from England, can be said to be the first of his American films that’s really his own, after several assignments from his studio on which he managed to put his mark, but didn’t carry through from conception to finished product. Written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, this film is a precursor to such modern portraits of suburban malaise as Blue Velvet, where corruption and evil lurk just underneath the veneer of respectable society. Here, Uncle Charlie arrives by train, faking an illness so he doesn’t have to interact with the train’s other passengers (including Hitchcock in his cameo) and as the train pulls into town the skies fill with black smoke (more accurately – the screen fills with smoke) while a shadow from the train engulfs the Newton family he’s come to visit. His niece Charlotte, also called Charlie by the family, has nearly willed him into existence in their hometown, feeling that things have become stagnant and boring in their small-town life (“A family should be the most wonderful thing in the world, and this family’s just gone to pieces”) and that they need a good shake-up from the urbane, sophisticated Uncle Charlie. She doesn’t realize quite what a shake-up she’ll get and that she may be inviting the notorious Merry Widow murderer into their household. (Patricia Hitchcock noted about her father’s ideas for this film – “He loved the thought of bringing menace into a small town.”) Throughout the film Hitchcock made an effort to strengthen ties between Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie, starting with their names and their positions laying on beds as they’re introduced to the audience, continuing through Young Charlie saying that they’re “like twins” and beyond to when the murderer decides that he may stay on longer than anticipated and Young Charlie threatens him with “I’ll kill you myself,” thereby directly linking her to murderous impulses. It’s a doubling motif common to Hitchcock, where a character’s dark mirror image isn’t too far from the supposedly good character – think of Bruno and Guy inStrangers on a Train or Norman Bates saying “we all go a little mad sometimes” – and he plays it to the hilt here, reflecting Charlie in Charlie at every turn. I could go on about how Uncle Charlie is frequently associated with smoke and shade, but his most sinister moment is once Young Charlie is certain that he’s the killer and her detective boyfriend drives away while Uncle Charlie looms in the background of the frame in full daylight, making the porch of her own home an unsafe haven.
The film is hugely effective as one of Hitch’s best suspense pieces as Young Charlie tries frantically to find out if her beloved uncle may indeed be a cold-blooded killer. But it’s also got Hitchcock’s characteristic gallows humor, with Young Charlie’s dad and his best friend constantly joking about methods of murdering each other, with Young Charlie’s younger sister Ann providing hilarious know-it-all moments, and with Young Charlie’s mother oblivious to any sinister goings-on. It’s also an interesting look at the family unit, where even after Uncle Charlie’s vile speech about “useless” women at the dinner table, his sister is broken-down at the thought of his leaving them to their boring old lives again. It truly is one of Hitch’s best of his many terrific films.

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