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Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Movie

Shadow of a Doubt
(1943)

 

I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt‘s qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.

Peter Bogdanovich pinned it down best, I think, when he observed that the film has the most realistic feel of any of Hitchcock outside of The Wrong Man. Indeed, that one is a little too dry and beholden to its (true) source material for my tastes. Shadow of a Doubt, in contrast, observes realism in terms of its behaviours. There’s still room for humour here, around the fringes, and there’s still room for gaps in logic (everything relating to the police investigation is on the unlikely side), but the central dynamic between the two Charlies is gripping and believable, in its own way a cat-and-mouse where everyone else becomes trivial.

Pauline Kael liked Shadow of a Doubt, but rightly reckoned that “it certainly isn’t as much fun as several of his other films”. Elsewhere, Time Out’s Geoff Andrew was onto something when he suggested it was a “sharp dissection of middle American life, in its own quiet way an ancestor of Blue Velvet”. Indeed, Dimitri Tiomkin’s ridiculously upbeat small-town bliss score can only be wickedly ironic on Hitch’s part, while wholesome Charlie (Teresa Wright) wishing for something interesting to happen, only for a serial killer to descend on the household, is exactly the kind of in-over-your-head scenario Kyle McLachlan stumbles upon after discovering an ant-strewn ear.

I’ve never really taken to Joseph Cotten as a likeable lead, so both occasions of Hitchcock employing his services (the other being Under Capricorn) feel shrewd and illuminating. This one particularly so, as Cotten seems positively inspired by Charles Oakley’s easy cruelty and charming veneer. Park Chan Wook updated the proceedings with Stoker, of course, but I’d argue the relationship between Charles and Charlie is more interesting for lacking explicit incestuous undertones (if that makes sense). Wright effortlessly traverses the terrain from bored and precocious teen – “How can you talk about money when I’m talking about souls?”; feigning concern for her workhorse mother while doing nothing to help her – to mature beyond her years in the face of the stark truth of her uncle.

The centrepiece dinner scene finds both lead performers given superb material, as Charlie, onto Merry Widow Murderer Charles, makes it clear she knows. He in turn sees her challenge combatively, delivering a still extraordinary monologue about the widows, the “useless women”, he comes across in the cities: “faded, fat, greedy women”.

For one supposedly so collected and calculated, I’m not overly impressed by Charles’ attempts to do Charlie a mischief – a sabotaged step on the stairs to the back door, attempting to asphyxiate her in a garage filling with exhaust fumes – but these incidents, designed to be passed off as mishaps, up the ante of their interiorised locking of horns, with no one else apprised of their conflict. The final altercation on the train, as is Hitch’s habit, is brief and wastes no time in taking us to the end credits, but that’s more refreshing than anything, particularly from the perspective of an era where endless climaxes are endlessly piled on top of each other.

If Cotten and Wright are essentially playing a two-hander for much of the proceedings, certainly in terms of claustrophobic focus, the supporting cast are meticulously chosen, with the possible exception of Macdonald Carey as Charlie’s love-interest detective. Then again, his unremarkable dependability feels about right for the balance of the piece; there shouldn’t be any danger that he’ll muscle in on the attention and take it from Wright and Cotten.

Patricia Collinge is tremendously sympathetic as Charlie’s pushover mother (and sister of Charles). Charlie’s choices hinge on the perception that her mother wouldn’t be able to take the awful truth about her brother, and we glimpse the veracity of this in the occasional moment where she perceives something is wrong, yet the enormity of it is quite beyond her grasp (the second time Charlie comes into danger).

The rest of the family and neighbours are also colourful. Henry Travers is the true-crime aficionado father, trading methods of murder with neighbour Hume Cronyn (at this stage in his career resembling a cross between Rick Moranis and Steven Spielberg). This represents the picture’s most consistent streak of levity, but even then, it functions as a morbidly twisted commentary, given Charlie’s proclivities. Edna May Wonacott is also memorable as Charlie’s bookworm kid sister, and Wallace Ford winning as Carey’s easy-going partner.

Charles was based on ’20s serial killer Earle Nelson, but that crumb of fidelity fails to make his transposed psychological explanation – he wasn’t the same after he was hit by a truck as a child – feel any less awkward and cumbersome. Charles’ position, a very modern, nihilistic position, is all the more compelling undiluted by explanations (“Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”).

It’s curious that Shadow of a Doubt, despite its contemporary setting and being made at the height of the WWII, makes no reference to the war (it’s sandwiched between very WWII fare Saboteur and Lifeboat). Perhaps that bubble it occupies partially explains its box-office failure. More likely, it was simply ahead of its audience; there’s an undiluted quality here that, despite the era mores, lends Shadow of a Doubt a very modern feel, certainly more so than anything the director had delivered to that point.

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