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Today’s the thing, that’s my philosophy – Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt

Anyone who has studied cinema is likely to be familiar with Shadow Of A Doubt: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film is the lead study in Bordwell and Thompson’s ‘Film Art – An Introduction’, with the opening section of the book relying upon the Hitchcock film to introduce a number of key film theory ideas. The film itself tells the story of the return of a nefarious uncle to the bosom of his warm-hearted out-west family, the man on the run from a menace implied in the films opening moments. Joseph Cotten is the man, who goes by the name of Charlie Oakley and is quite the departure from the roles the actor is most fondly remembered for. Teresa Wright is the co-lead, as the named-for niece of Charlie, Charlotte Newton. While initially liberated by the sudden arrival of her uncle, Charlotte’s excitement soon turns to suspicion, that greatest of Hitchcock feelings, and the situation spirals out of control.

Shadow Of A Doubt opens with an image that David Lynch would pay homage to some years later with the opening moments of Mulholland Dr., as a group of people dance while the “Merry Widow” waltz plays out. As is the case with the Lynch film, Shadow Of A Doubt is a movies movie, a post-modern exercise that dissects the medium from the inside out. We cut from the credits to the far less glamourous sight of a Philadelphia brownstone, presented by way of a dutch angle, before meeting Uncle Charlie who is laying uneasily still in the middle of a bed (an image that would later be recalled as his namesake sits in a similar state). As the landlady of the abode pulls down the window blind it recalls a coffin closing, our vampire put to rest. The diegetic score, provided by an orchestra is already huge and only builds further and higher as the sequence progresses. One understands immediately that something is not right here, with the subdued climax being the first of many such instances of this kind of behaviour in the film. Sound is one of the key traits of Shadow Of A Doubt, and one of the most powerful devices employed here by Hitchcock. Shadow Of A Doubt is a noisy film in general, with the chatter of kids, the sound of traffic and the various noises produced by the locomotive making for a packed sound track. The recurrent image of the dancers is brought to centre-stage again as the film closes, with the sight of the waltz being played out as Charlie falls to his death, and while its not literally spoken one cannot help but think of Uncle Charlie’s earlier insistence that “The whole world’s a joke to me” as he falls victim to fate. It’s a brutal end to a work far ahead of its time. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

One of my favourite things about the work of Alfred Hitchcock is his ability to present space and place. The San Francisco of Vertigo feels like a real city, the slow driving sequences expanding the scope of the locale impressively. And thats without even mentioning the single-location worlds of Rear Window, Rope and Lifeboat. Hitchcock’s playground for Shadow Of A Doubt is the perfect idyll of Santa Rosa, a location defined by its white picket fences and modest yet familiar town square. One particularly memorable sequence involves Charlotte in a mad dash across the town to the library, hoping to reach it before it closes for the day. The scene is presented almost in real-time with the diegetic music building in the fashion of a scene from a love story, as a besotted pair chart city and landscape in an attempt to be reacquainted.The geography of the town is matched by that of the house, one in which there are an unusual number of exits, including one from the top floor of the residence. While no doubt common place at the time of the films production, and lending a hand in creating some dramatic tension, this use of space serves well as an analogy for the burgeoning family unit, with the on-set of adolescence leading to fractured relations between parent and child. The family is clearly a key theme within Hitchcock’s work, with the  directors own warm relationship with his family (as detailed in Patrick McGilligan’s landmark biography of the man) played against by many of those familiar relationships he presents on screen.

With Charlie Oakley Joseph Cotten brings to the screen one of its great monsters. Quirks assist the aura (No photos of him exist, he deals in broad sweeps, resenting the little details), with his declaration that “The world’s a hell what does it matter what’s in it?” actively helping his niece, his hyper disillusionment overshadowing her own perception of the world considerably and affording her perspective, essentially snapping the girl out of her stupor. He brings with him chaos, an anarchy that arrives in Santa Rosa via train and leaves in a similar way, itself perhaps a great analogy for the American movies and the west coast of America in general. The closest thing we get to the urban decay of the city that Charlie has left behind is in the form of the man-made fog of the smoke filled bar that Uncle takes niece to. The spiral of Charlie Jr. is akin to the nightmares unravelling in much of Hitch’s later work, a happenstance meeting with a former schoolfriend turned waitress a vision of our protagonists potential fate. Wright’s turn as the troubled girl is fantastic, predating and predicting the disillusionment of the post-World War 2 baby-boomer generation. She comes across like a legitimate teenager, akin to someone from a John Cassavetes film or the sort of girl that Harvey Keitel might date in an early Martin Scorsese picture. 

Shadow Of A Doubt, and it’s skewed Americana fairytale nature makes for the perfect bedfellow to another directorial work from a British ex-pat. Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter, famously that particular actors sole directorial outing tread a similar line, with the two films transplanting Brothers Grimm-ities on to tales of the the New World. The almost allegorical nature of the names of the two main players, coupled with a hint at the supernatural via telepathy and superstitions help to flesh out these ideas. As mentioned briefly afore, Shadow Of A Doubt also happens to be one of the great early deconstructions of the cinema. One of the films strongest undercurrents involves Henry Travers’s patriarch of the Newton family and his friend Herb (Hume Cronyn) discussing the intricicies and specifics of commuting a murder, purely hypothetically of course, with their commentary in turn providing apt discussion over the film itself. Hitchcock was deconstructing the genre 50 years before the post-modern 1990′s.

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2 Comments

  1. Terrific post. I like your image comparing Uncle Charlie to a vampire; he in effect is one. Although he’s welcomed by his niece to Santa Barbara as bringing necessary vitality, he really drains young Charlie, if not of literal blood, then of her innocence.

  2. tinkyweisblat

    May 19, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Great analysis. I actually like Shadow a lot better than Night of the Hunter, since it has more subtlety……

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