Friday, 3 August 2012

Shadow of a Doubt

"We're not just an uncle and a niece. It's something else"

After watching Psycho for the first time last month and being completely blown away by its brilliance I thought that if I’m going to call myself cineliterate then I need to be watching more of Alfred Hitchcock’s work. While browsing my LoveFilm streaming account I came across Shadow of a Doubt from 1943 and gave it a go. Unsurprisingly it’s very good.

Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Newton (Teresa Wright – Mrs. Miniver) is a teenager, just graduated from High School living in the small idyllic town of Santa Rosa, California with her mother (Patricia Collinge), father (Henry Travers - It’s a Wonderful Life) and younger siblings (Edna May Wonacott & Charles Bates). Charlie is fed up with the mundane nature of her small town life and complains that nothing ever happens to her. Soon after she receives the wonderful news that her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten – Citizen Cane), whom she is named after, will be coming to stay. His visit comes shortly after he is seen hiding out in his Newark boarding house room, spying two men from across the street. Young Charlie is initially delighted by the arrival of her Uncle but she begins to suspect that all is not well with him around.

One of the first things that struck me about this film is that Hitchcock was able to set up a character or location within seconds and with no dialogue. The town of Santa Rosa is first seen from afar, giving you a sense of its small size, isolation and white picket fence type streets. Next is a short montage of scenes featuring the likes of a Police crossing officer, library and shoppers walking the streets. Immediately you know where you are. You’re in 1940s middle class America where everything should be pleasant and friendly. Young Charlie is also set up in a similar way. She is seen lying on her bed with her arms behind her head, thinking. A soft, floating score fills your ears as you are struck by her beauty as well as yearning for something more. I was able to get this in about five seconds before she’d even opened her mouth. It sincerely showcases the director’s great skill.

Another thing I noticed early on was the quality of the acting. The first person to speak is the owner of the lodging house (Constance Purdy) that Uncle Charlie is keeping a low profile in. Purdy looks as though she has never acted before in her life. I’ve seen better performances given by six year olds in school plays. I couldn’t believe how bad she was. There were a couple more performances like that but then in a complete reversal, some of the actors are incredible. Standing out ahead of the rest are the two leads, Wright and Cotten. Wright plays the smart but naive woman just past the cusp of womanhood. At times she seems like perfect 40s housewife material but you always get the sense that she is destined for greater things. She doesn’t overplay her role and is strong throughout. Joseph Cotten is both sinister and charming and able to switch between the two at the drop of a hat. One scene in particular in which he delivers a speech about an aspect of society that he deeply disproves of gave me goose pimples. Cotten ends the speech by looking directly at the camera to his right (we are meant to be young Charlie) and asks us a question. It’s a fine performance with excellent direction and cinematography in that scene especially.

The plot is basic but intriguing. You always have a suspicion as to what is going on but you are never sure how events will pan out. The climax is exhilarating and I really didn’t know which way it would go. It is creepy and full of suspense. One of the most disturbing aspects of the entire film was the relationship between the two Charlies. There is always a tension between them and it often had a sexual edge to it. With the niece Charlie entering womanhood and with suitors sniffing at her skirts it is obvious that she is of the age that men will be interested in her sexually. Uncle Charlie comes along as this powerful older man and looks at her with that sort of glint in his eye. If it wasn’t for the fact that the film was released in 1943 I truly would have expected the film to turn down the incest route. It was deeply unnerving. One of the side plots that I enjoyed immensely were the conversations between Charlie’s father and his friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn – The Seventh Cross). Both were obsessed with crime fiction and had a running battle to devise the best method of killing the other and not get caught. With what’s going on in the main plot this became quite funny and almost surreal at times. 

Talking of 1943 I enjoyed some of the dialogue from that more innocent time. In one scene the younger Charlie’s father is delighted to receive a wrist watch and says “Say, I’ve never had a wrist watch before. The fellas at the bank will think I’m quite the sport!” This made me laugh as the idea that a watch is something to be shown off to colleagues seems so alien to us now. In another scene the family are amazed to have wine with dinner. It is seen as exotic and almost bourgeois. Again, wine with dinner is common place for a lot of people these days. The film also shows its age with a scene in which Uncle Charlie pressures his niece into entering a bar. She tells him “I’ve never been in a place like this before”. Once again the idea that a nice woman would be offended at going into a bar feels strange now.

Overall I really enjoyed Shadow of a Doubt and would recommend it to anyone who was after a decent, edge of the seat thriller. My only reservation is with some of the acting but the leads are excellent. It’s exciting, unnerving and interesting and if Hitchcock considered it his best film then it’s alright by me.              


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