Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Film Review - Shadow of a Doubt

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, a film celebrated as one of his best motion picture projects made in America, had its origins in the killing spree of the true ‘Merry Widow’ murderer Earle Leonard Nelson. Nelson murdered twenty people, including an eight-month old child, in just a year and a half before he was captured in Canada and hanged for his crimes.

Having made himself a household name with his career defining performance in Orson Welles’s celebrated motion picture drama Citizen Kane, Joseph Cotton was just the marquee lead actor Alfred Hitchcock needed to fill the role of Uncle Charlie, a man who hides a dark secret. He is a cunning and manipulative individual, whose near-fatal bicycle accident as a child left with a permanent mental scar, viewing the world with hostility and fear. One can even go so far as to suggest that Uncle Charlie is the American equivalent of Satan, Prince of Darkness. After attending Church, the young Charlie is confronted outside by her uncle, “How was church, Charlie? Count the house? Turn anybody away?” “No,” she exclaims, “room enough for everyone”. “I’m glad hear that,” he retorts, “Show’s been running such a long time, I thought maybe attendance might be falling off”. Regardless of the ‘twin-ship’ they share together, the opposing sides of the two Charlies can be seen clearly in this regard.

The balance between good and evil is a prime subject of Shadow of a Doubt, exemplified through the director's perpetual use of pairs - the two Charlies, the two detectives, the two 'questionnaire' men, the two church scenes, the two garage scenes, the two train sequences (as Uncle Charlie arrives in Santa Rosa and then departs), the two attempts on young Charlie's life, the two murder suspects, and, most cleverly of all, the 'Til Two Bar.

Hume Cronyn made his motion picture debut as the collective mother’s boy Herbie Hawkins in Shadow of a Doubt. Additionally the film sparked a lasting friendship and partnership with director Alfred Hitchcock who brought him aboard future projects including Lifeboat, Suspense (a 1950s television program Hitchcock was requested to help put together), and Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as requesting his assistance in contributing to the scripts of Rope and Under Capricorn. Henry Travers is best remembered today as Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angel Clarence in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Neither one contributes much in the way of advancing the storyline but they do provide some dark yet still light-hearted humor to the script. Bored with the melancholy of small town American life, they banter about how one might be able to commit the perfect murder, each coming up with more diabolical ways to one-up the other. Herbie is preoccupied with setting a detective novel (leaving clues and the like so as to write a book about his exploits) while Joseph is more obsessed with getting away with murder then producing a book about it. This of course is all the more perfectly ironic given that there is an actual murderer in their midst and they are too absorbed with their ‘game’ that they are too ‘blind’ to see Uncle Charlie for who he really is - the Merry Widow Murderer.

Although it is a shame, a near travesty really, that Shadow of a Doubt should be nominated for an Academy Award in one solitary category, it was at least selected for the category it deserved the most recognition in, Best Original Screenplay. By the time principle photography began on Shadow of a Doubt in 1942 nearly six or seven individual writers had contributed to its screenplay (only four were credited onscreen). Among them were Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife), Sally Benson (whose later contributions would include Meet Me in St. Louis and Anna and the King of Siam), Gordon McDonell (who came originally came up with the story), and, most famously, Thorton Wilder, playwright of Our Town. Wilder’s contributions to the script were arguably the most significant, solidifying the basic superstructure of the storyline which exposed the almost seedy underbelly of this small New England town, a dark side to Grover’s Corners if you will.

Surprisingly Alfred Hithcock’s Shadow of a Doubt delves into a few unconventional issues. Among them, one often overlooked by modern audiences (a perplexity given that it would have been more noticeable to audiences today then it was back when it was first released), is the incestuous relationship between Uncle Charlie and his young teenage niece who is named after him. Sadly the overwhelming presence of the Hays Office during this time eliminated any prospect other then merely suggesting such a sexually fueled kinship but it is enough to make anyone a bit unnerved, more so when Uncle Charlie’s dark ‘secret’ is finally exposed. The scene in which Uncle Charlie gives young Charlie a gift, an emerald ring, despite his niece’s objections to being given anything other then his presence at their home, in the privacy of the kitchen is the most evident example of this. This of course means to suggest that two have been betrothed (a suggestion reaffirmed by young Charlie’s kid sister who in response to hearing young Charlie hum the ‘Merry Widow Waltz’ to herself, “Sing at the table and you'll marry a crazy husband”), something which makes the scene in which Uncle Charlie attempts to kill his young niece (the broken stairs, the running car in the garage, and attempting to throw her off a fast-moving train) all the more poignant. In addition, Shadow of a Doubt confronts issues of superstition, among them mental telepathy (young Charlie knowing exactly when Uncle Charlie was coming to visit them in Santa Rosa, California) and bad luck (Joseph’s warning to Uncle Charlie not to toss his hat on young Charlie’s bed and the green emerald – a sign of bad luck – Uncle Charlie gives to his niece).

Shadow of a Doubt is one of the select few Hitchcock productions in the time leading up to and after the United States’ entry into World War II that he chose not comment, allusively or directly, to the political goings on of the world, although one scene can suggestively be interpreted as making a pointed commentary. Specifically in one scene Uncle Charlie teases Joseph, the young Charlie’s father, about working in the bank saying, “Can you stop embezzling a minute and give me your attention? What’s a little shortage in the books at the end of the month? Any good bank clerk can cover up a little shortage, isn’t that right, Charlie? We all know what banks are. They look all right to an outsider, but no one knows what goes on when the doors are lock”. This is exactly the sort of material that would have been ripe for censorship during the Hollywood Blacklisting. While director Alfred Hitchcock was concentrated during the 1940s on picking out the evils of Nazism and fascism in Europe, it would be much later in the 1950s when he tackled the political implications of Communism. This could very well be the first instance of this.

Shadow of a Doubt not only stands as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s definitive best, but in general in represents solid filmmaking, plain and simple. Carefully orchestrated, leaving no detail untouched, it has intrigue, mystery, dark humor, brilliant performances, and a good ol’ slice of hometown Americana which makes it simply irresistible.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A-)