Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

*This post is in participation with The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot*

I think we all have that one relative whom we think the world of. In our eyes, especially at a young age, this person is infallible. They're everything we want to be when we grow up, outstanding examples of everything we should strive to be, and we can't possibly imagine them having any sort of fault or secret. Which is what makes it so difficult, as we get older, to learn that they were, just like the rest of us, tragically human. Personally speaking, I have that relative: I never really thought of him as my favorite, but that didn't hurt any less when, as an adult, he failed me in a terrible way.

In Shadow of a Doubt, that relative is Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), the man that young Charlie (Teresa Young) was named for and looks up to. In fact, everyone in her family - and the entire town of Santa Rosa, apparently - have nothing but the utmost adoration for him. However, Uncle Charlie isn't nearly what he seems - in fact, he may be the Merry Widower, a serial killer who murders rich old widows and steals their possessions. Charlie seems to already be harboring suspicions thanks to her uncle's odd behavior, and two detectives following him from New York certainly aren't helping matters.

When people list the great films of Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt rarely pops up in that discussion. And certainly, this doesn't belong in the same rarified air as Vertigo, Psycho, or Rebecca (in terms of quality, it's more in line with, say, Rope). However, working from a script from acclaimed playwright Thornton Wilder (Our Town, the high school literature staple of American theatre), Sally Benson, and Alma Reville (from an original story by Gordon McDonell), Hitchcock's typically strong visual style is present at every turn here.

The most obvious choice for Best Shot comes early in the film, as Uncle Charlie's train pulls into the station in Santa Rosa where his relatives await him. A dark plume of smoke pours out of the train, a harbinger of the doom to come (according to Hitch himself), and the train's shadow is cast over Charlie's younger brother. It's an extremely prominent and gorgeously designed visual, so I was tempted to make it my selection, but I also felt like maybe it was just a tad too obvious.

My biggest complaint about this film is that Uncle Charlie's guilt is never really in question, from the audience's point-of-view. The big revelation that, yes, he is the Merry Widower is not necessarily a surprising revelation; though there's doubt as to his identity among the characters in the film, Hitchcock pretty much telegraphs Uncle Charlie's crimes from the very first frame he occupies, and is pretty unrelenting in making sure we're aware of his guilt. To be fair, Cotten's performance anchors the audience both in his guilt and, oddly in those early scenes, in making us want to be wrong about him. However, when he makes his speech about the women of New York at the dinner table, the words from Wilder, et. al.'s script and Cotten's performance eliminate any doubt:

The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands, dead husbands who've 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 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. Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?
Yeah, he's definitely your killer.

But even if there's no shred of doubt among the audience, the characters have theirs. Charlie has been suspicious, but refuses to believe that her uncle is a killer. However, she goes to the library - at the behest of Detective Jack Graham (MacDonald Carey) - to find a newspaper that Uncle Charlie hasn't gotten to first. It's there that she discovers what she's refused to believe: all the evidence points to her uncle as the Merry Widower, and it all falls into place in her mind. Which leads to my choice for Best Shot:

The camera pulls out into a long, overhead shot, with Charlie diminished in the empty library. The closeness she once felt for her uncle - the supposedly unbreakable bond that they held - has been shattered. She couldn't feel anymore distant from him now, and the camera's retreat reflects that in a powerful way.

Other great shots:

Hitchcock was famous for always making a cameo in his films; that's him on the left, riding the same train as Uncle Charlie. He's revealed to have every spade in the deck in his hands, too, the lucky devil.

One of the film's dark running gags is Charlie's father and his coworker, Herb, being fans of pulpy crime novels and entertaining ideas of how they would kill one another. It almost feels like a wry commentary on how we get so obsessed in crimes that become tabloid sensations, as we speculate "well, if I did it..." Doesn't it?

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