Alfred Hitchcock Goes Suburban with “Shadow of a Doubt”

30 08 2010

“What it boils down to is that villains are not all black and heroes are not all white; there are grays everywhere.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock often called his 1943 picture, “Shadow of a Doubt,” his favorite film, and it’s not hard to see why. It allowed him to work with a spectacular cast, to tell a quintessential Hitchcock story, and to collaborate with top-notch writers as well as a cast member who would become a close associate.

Critics have called “Shadow of a Doubt” Hitchcock’s first truly American film, and while “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Saboteur” are both set in the U.S., those both feel like a British director’s observation of the country; with “Shadow of a Doubt,” Hitchcock no longer holds the country at arm’s length. From the opening scenes filmed on the grimy docks of Newark, NJ, looking out at the Pulaski Skyway, we move to the idyllic town of Santa Rosa, California, Hitchcock demonstrates a new familiarity with the U.S.

The story revolves around the Newton family: Joe, the father, a banker played by Henry Travers; his wife, Emma, played by Patricia Collinge; young adult daughter Charlie, played by Teresa Wright, as well as two younger siblings. It’s summer, and Charlie, recently graduated from high school, is bored and wishing for adventure. Just as she decides to telegraph an invitation to her Uncle Charlie, played by Joseph Cotten, the family receives word that Charlie is planning a visit. She is thrilled, and takes the news as evidence of how close she and her uncle are.

Not long after his arrival, though, Charlie begins to wonder what’s going on with her uncle. His charming nature often turns moody; he shows a cynical side that almost frightens Charlie, launching into a dinnertime diatribe against idle, wealthy widows and the world at large. He’s also extremely wary of two men who come to visit, claiming to be conducting a survey for the government. The younger of the pair takes Charlie into his confidence, explaining that he is actually a detective on the trail of “The Merry Widow Murderer” — and that her uncle may be the murderer.

Charlie doesn’t believe it at first, but soon starts to see some clues, including a ring her uncle gave her with the engraved initials of one of the killer’s victims, and the Merry Widow Waltz, which seems to be stuck in several character’s heads as the film goes on. And when Uncle Charlie realizes that she is figuring out who he really is, he takes action, first by sawing through a step in an exterior stairway so that Charlie nearly falls to her death, and then trapping her in a garage with a running car.

After she survives both attempts, Uncle Charlie decides he has to leave town. He meets a train, but before it leaves Santa Rosa, he shows Charlie and her siblings his accommodations. The young brother and sister run back off the train, but Charlie is held back by her uncle until the train starts moving. They struggle in a doorway as he tries to through her out of moving train, only to fall himself into the path of another oncoming train.

“Shadow of a Doubt” was conceived by Gordon McDonnell, an employee of David O. Selznick, but much of its tone came from screenwriter Thornton Wilder, who captured the ordinary life of smalltown American as he had in his classic play “Our Town.” Hitchcock enjoyed the chance to introduce an element of evil into this idyllic setting, and the screenplay continued to develop after Wilder had joined the war effort under the guidance of Sally Benson, who wrote the story “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and Hitchcock’s constant collaborator, Alma Reville.

Teresa Wright also noted that Patricia Collinge, who played her mother, contributed to the screenplay. Collinge wrote for “The New Yorker,” and when Wright expressed concerns about a scene between Charlie and the detective in which they profess their love for each other, Hitch was happy to let Collinge rewrite the scene so that their affections were only mentioned, letting the threat of the Merry Widow Murderer remain their primary topic of discussion.

“Shadow of a Doubt” also marks Hitchcock’s first collaboration with actor Hume Cronyn, who would go on to appear in “Lifeboat” and episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Cronyn cowrote the screenplays for “Rope” and “Under Capricorn,” and remained a close friend of Hitch’s through the director’s life. Here, he works primarily with Henry Travers, his coworker at the bank; the two share an obsession with murder mysteries, continually talking about the best ways to kill each other, providing darkly comic relief to Charlie’s ordeal.

The film contrasts the beauty of smalltown living with the threat posed by Uncle Charlie, and in fact he exposes his niece to darker parts of the town than she had seen before. At one point he drags her into a bar to try and stop her from exposing him. The place is full of rowdy sailors on shore leave, smoking, drinking and pawing at women; they are served by one of Charlie’s classmates, who seems beaten down and much older than her seventeen years.

Of course, the town of Santa Rosa itself is a character in the film, from the slightly dingy house the Newtons live in to the busy intersection presided over by a beat cop, from the local bank to the public library, it is all American towns, replate with gossip, provincialism and secrets. While the film idealizes the setting, Uncle Charlie and Emma Newton are nostalgic for their own childhood and the street where they grew up. Hitchcock enjoyed filming on location, capturing life in a small California town in a way that presages “The Birds.

Later, when the detectives receive word that their other suspect had been killed, Uncle Charlie assumes momentarily that he’s off the hook; he leaps up the stairs into the house, full of joy, only to realize halfway up the stairs that he is still under suspicion, slowing his ascent and turning to see his niece, framed in the doorway, looking up at him. Like Cary Grant in “Suspicion,” Joseph Cotten is convincing whether he’s being charming or menacing. Cotten would collaborate with Hitchcock again in “Under Capricorn.”

Up next, Alfred Hitchcock makes one of his strongest statements about war in “Lifeboat,” from a tale by another great American writer, John Steinbeck.


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