Friday, August 14, 2015

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville
DP: Joseph A. Valentine
Editor: Milton Carruth
Score: Dimitri Tiomkin
Producer: Jack H. Skirball
Starring: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Patrica Collenge, Macdonald Carey
Distribution: Universal Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 48 min.

Shadow of a Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock's favorite of his own films (at least, at the time of an interview in which he said so).  In many ways, it's exemplary Hitchcock; it is centered around a man with twisted attitudes toward women, it carries themes of crossed identities, it features bored people with a casual and oblivious interest in violent crimes, and the characters are all burdened with ambiguous suspicions for one another.  However, it stands out among Hitchcock's films for working with a much younger main character and for being remarkably sympathetic to one of Hitchcock's most sinister and violent villains.  Though it takes on the aspect of a psychological thriller or film noir, Shadow of a Doubt is really a coming-of-age story, one whose powerful performances and subtle script allow Hitchcock to pair each thrill with a stark sense of melancholy.

After the opening credits, the film opens with a sequence of shots depicting Philadelphia.  The first is by a river, with a large, black bridge dominating the top of the frame like an enormous shadow hovering overhead.  The camera pans away from that to see smoke rising into the air in the distance, then cuts to a burned-out wreck of an old car.  Then, disorderly children playing in the middle of the road.  Finally, we're introduced to a major character: Charles Oakley, played by Joseph Cotten.  He's told that two men are looking for him, so he leaves his home, and after a brief chase scene, he loses them. At this point, it's not yet clear who this man is, why he's being followed, or who is following him. Still, he's vaguely sinister; the way he loses his pursuers so easily, combined with the way the camera integrates him into his environment, makes him an extension of a world the film had already established as dark, grimy, and off-kilter.

He calls for a telegram to be delivered to someone in Santa Rosa, California.  In the same way Philadelphia was established, Santa Rosa is first revealed with a series of introductory shots.  Santa Rosa is different from Philadelphia; the skyline is open and bright instead of being dominated by imposing, shadowy structures, children behave themselves, and the town seems to enjoy the support of thriving infrastructure.  The portrayal of Santa Rosa as an idyllic American everytown in Shadow of a Doubt is more characteristic of one of its screenwriters, Thornton Wilder, than of Alfred Hitchcock. However, when we see the main character for the first time, she wears a sad expression.  The main character is Charlie Newton, played by Teresa Wright.  She's the niece of the character we saw earlier, Charles Oakley, who is her namesake.

Not only do Charlie Newton and Charles "Uncle Charlie" Oakley share a name, they're revealed in the exact same way: The camera dissolves from the windows of a residence into a dark bedroom, inside which a character is reclining on a bed with a morose look on their face.  In Charlie Newton's case, we find out very soon that she's unhappy because she feels that her family is destined to be unfulfilled and uninteresting as long as they remain in such a small, boring town.  She wishes a "miracle" would come their way.  She gets her wish when she hears that Charles Oakley is coming to stay with them for a while; her uncle from a city as big as Philadelphia is, to her, far more fascinating than anything in Santa Rosa.

Hitchcock doesn't play around with what were supposed to think of Charles Oakley's arrival in Santa Rosa.  When his train rolls in, it blocks out half the frame and a billowing cloud of smoke shrouds the entire platform in shadow.  There's even an ominous swell in the score.  At this point we still don't know exactly what Oakley's motivations are, but we know that he's lied to his family - he hasn't come to Santa Rosa to see them, he's come to flee from whoever was pursuing him in Philadelphia.  

This isn't to say Oakley doesn't appreciate his family.  In fact, he idealizes them, seeing in them an innocence that comes with living in a small and uneventful town.  Unlike him, they're unaware and thus unaffected by the urban grittiness of Philadelphia.  Both Charlie Newton and Charles Oakley profess to dislike money on principle, as the materialistic value of money is opposed to the spiritual value of other things.  

The film juxtaposes the innocence of Newton and her family with Oakley's secretive tendencies.  Hitchcock finds both to be rooted in wrong-headed idealism.  Charlie Newton says she can tell that Oakley is hiding something, but approaches him with excitement and cheerful curiosity; however, when she approaches the truth, she finds things she doesn't like.  And when that happens, Oakley's kindness toward her starts to fall apart.  This results in a scene in which Oakley exposes his horribly pessimistic beliefs on Newton, pushing her away from examining the world, saying: 

"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, what does it matter what happens in it?  Wake up, Charlie, use your wits.  Learn something."

This is what makes Shadow of a Doubt a coming-of-age film; a young person gets their first exposure to the conflict that exists outside the framework of their family and community.  But there is something much more disturbing than that at play in the film: The idea that the ostensible stability of Santa Rosa breeds complacency in community members that enables malevolent people to take advantage of them.  This places Charlie Newton in a difficult situation.  Oakley says his evil stems from his contempt for certain kinds of people, and he manipulates and exploits Newton's family under the pretense of protecting them.  Newton's challenge is to prevent herself from becoming like Charles Oakley - it's no mistake that they share a first name.

Hitchcock underscores his themes of realizing corruption within the self and its relationship to corruption in the world outside by, as mentioned before, framing Charles Oakley as an extension of his shady surroundings.  He also does this by playing with shadows.  In one scene, Charlie Newton is made to confront a terrible truth that shatters her beliefs about her own family.  The camera slowly pans up and reveals her shadow, warped and elongated to the point that it reaches across the whole room.  

Much like Hitchcock's later films Vertigo and Psycho, the film reveals its most major twist about halfway through, leaving the second half an exercise in drama and suspense.  Though the narrative structure of the second half of Shadow of a Doubt more closely resembles that of Psycho, it's closer in tone to that of Vertigo.  It's vaguely sad, and builds a slowly mounting sense of dread more than it breeds tension or fear.  Attempts are made on Charlie Newton's life, but the attempts are weak and half-hearted, as if the killer lacks conviction. Patricia Collinge's performance is especially powerful in one of the final scenes when her character's future collapses.

Shadow of a Doubt is not one of Hitchcock's most famous works, but it has been influential; it's been considered a precursor to other films that portend something dark and sinister lurking under the surface of idyllic American suburbs, most notably David Lynch's 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet.  It's also one of the favorite films of director Guillermo del Toro, who may have taken inspiration from its tenacious female protagonist for his 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth.  It's also possible to see shades of other Hitchcock films in its criticism of suburban complacency (The Birds), its themes of the function of community (Rear Window), and it's unassuming-yet-unstable villain (Strangers on a Train, Psycho).  Though it lacks the subtlety and formal polish of some of Hitchcock's later work, Shadow of a Doubt is still a testament to the acclaimed director's skill, and is one of his most affecting films.  

(Warning: The trailer contains spoilers)

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