Hitchcock Collection: Shadow Of A Doubt Review

Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s first fully American film. Not in terms of finance or setting but because it was an intrinsically American piece. Hitchcock was eager to become an ‘American’ director and this was his chance to make something that was very different from his English work. The experience of making it was a happy one and afterwards, Hitchcock always claimed that it was his favourite film. It’s a fascinating piece of work, rooted in two contrasting themes – the homely attitudes and values of small town America versus a heart of infernal darkness which was to become increasingly prevalent in Hitchcock’s work and which, if you believe the psychoanalytic approach to his films, came straight from the distorted psyche of the director himself. The film, which begins as a light-hearted family comedy, gradually changes into a disturbing portrait of madness and chaos which resounds with intriguing ideas about duality and bursts the bounds of the story so that the climactic return to normality is, at best, little more than cosmetic.

The film offers one of Hitchcock’s first and most interesting pair of ‘doubles’ in the shape of young Charlie (Wright), a teenage girl, and her Uncle Charlie (Cotton) who moves around the country – as we soon find out, he is the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’ who has been travelling to evade the police. Charlie, tired of her small town life in Santa Rosa, California, wishes for a ‘miracle’ to happen to get her out of the familial rut and looks with slightly malicious impatience at her father (Travers), mother (Collinge), younger sister (Wonacott) and brother (Charles Bates). As if by magic, a telegram arrives from Uncle Charlie to say he will be visiting. But when young Charlie discovers the truth about her Uncle, she finds that no-one will believe her, even when her life is in danger.

The theme of duality is presented straightaway in the scenes where Uncle Charlie sitting on a hotel room bed and Charlie sitting on her bed are posed in exactly the same position.

The implication is clear. We’re meant to see them as two sides of a personality. Uncle Charlie is the dark, the ‘id’ if you like, while his niece is the light, positive and socially acceptable side. However, Hitchcock deliberately complicates this. Uncle Charlie, as played by the svelte Joseph Cotton, is a real charmer who flirts with all the ladies (including his sister and niece) and fascinates the men with his tales of a life beyond the frontiers of a small town. In many ways, socially as well as sexually, he’s the most attractive man in the film, especially when you compare him to the boorish father, Hume Cronyn’s crime-obsessed neighbour and MacDonald Carey’s incredibly bland representative of law and order.

This is a key theme in Hitch’s work. Evil as devilishly, irresistibly attractive is a thread which runs through many of his films. Had Hitchcock been given his head, this might have originated in Ivor Novello’s ambivalent central character in The Lodger. The same goes for Suspicion when Hitch badly wanted to turn Cary Grant into a heartless killer – something that Brian De Palma gleefully comments on in the denouement to Dressed To Kill when he does something similar (and even more outré) to what Hitch desired. But you can see traces of this originating in Olivier’s Maxim De Winter in Rebecca and Otto Kruger in Saboteur and with Uncle Charlie it bursts into full bloom. In Hitchcock’s subsequent work, our emotions are played with as evil is, by turns, sympathetic (Claude Rains in Notorious), hysterically funny (Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train), suave and stylish (James Mason in North By Northwest) and in almost heartbreaking torment (Anthony Perkins in Psycho). Finally, in his last indisputably brilliant scene, Hitchcock puts us in absolute complicity with the villain as he tries desperately to retrieve his tie pin in Frenzy. Frequently, the bad guys (Walker, Perkins, Ray Milland, Barry Foster) are much more fun to watch than the alleged heroes (Farley Granger, John Gavin, Robert Cummings, Jon Finch). As an aside, something similar happens to the heroes in certain films – Cary Grant in Notorious and James Stewart in Vertigo are made complex and edgy, the latter coming across as some kind of sexual pervert rather than the happy-go-lucky hero we might have expected.

But Uncle Charlie is the first great beautiful demon in Hitchcock’s work and Joseph Cotton clearly relishes the chance to play a truly terrifying man. His entry into the film – lying on a bed, marking time – sees him like a dangerous predator at rest – and it’s not long before he’s evading capture (in a way which seems virtually supernatural) and grinning at his own prowess. When he arrives in Santa Rosa, he is shrouded in a pall of smoke and, for a moment, it really does seem as if the devil has come up from the infernal regions and made it into the heart of America. Cotton plays Charlie as a man on a knife-edge in between sanity and madness, the refrain of the Merry Widow waltz plunging him into some kind of nostalgic reverie. His falls into mania are brief but terrifying, none more so than the speech he gives about wealthy widows. His eyes staring, gradually glazing over with hate, he gives way to a stream of bile about “horrible, faded, fat and greedy women”. Uncle Charlie is a prime example of one of the countless misogynists who people Hitchcock’s world. Some writers have tried to suggest that this was, in fact, Hitchcock’s own hatred of women coming into focus but I think that’s incredibly simplistic. Hitchcock didn’t have a great deal of respect for certain types of women it’s true but he had something approaching genuine awe for his wife and many actresses – including Teresa Wright – have testified of how well he treated them. What Hitchcock clearly is interested in, however, is hatred of women as a theme. Who hates them, why they hate them and how the hatred is expressed.

What spills out of the film, however, and bursts the boundaries of what is a relatively conventional story, is Uncle Charlie’s hatred of the world. If he were merely a misogynist then we could explain him away. But we gradually realise that what powers him and his crimes is an absolute loathing of everything in the world. Young Charlie, the niece who is frustrated by her little life, thinks she understands the desire to get out and change the status quo. But she doesn’t understand Uncle Charlie, as he explains in the key monologue of the film – “You live in a dream, you’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? 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 to it?” This black cloud of misanthropy descending on a small town is so dark and potent that the film doesn’t quite know what to do with it and the ending – a little exchange after Charlie’s ‘accidental death’ between his niece and the cop – doesn’t really do much to clear things up. I think that Hitchcock reveals something very intimate about himself here. Although I don’t think he hated the world – he felt love of family and work too deeply for that - I think in his fears and neuroses he knew a blackness that he could barely express and he knew that the world was not a nice, comfortable and safe place. Throughout his work, you see a constant denial of order and an encroaching chaos and nameless terror. It’s not always there – he knew the value of comedy and sex to stem the flow of horror, as in North By Northwest for example – and sometimes, as in Marnie, it is cathartically expunged. For a time. But it keeps coming back and I think the true motif of Hitchcock is not the smiling, winking host of all those TV shows or Cary Grant cuddling up to Eve Marie Saint in the sleeping car. Rather, it is James Stewart staring in horror at his lover’s body at the end of Vertigo, realising that in losing his fear he has simply woken up to the true nightmare which will never end.

Lest this discussion dwell a little too much on the subtext of Shadow of a Doubt, it should be emphasised that the film is also a lovely, touching portrait of a family living in 1940s California with some gorgeous location shooting that is seamlessly matched to later work in the studio. Teresa Wright is delightful as Charlie and there are delightful things from Henry Travers as her slightly bumbling father and the wonderful Patricia Collinge as her hard-working, endlessly indulgent mother, always excusing and thinking the best of everyone. Hume Cronyn is also splendid in his film debut as the true-crime fanatic who gets closer to a real murderer than he ever expected. There seems to be real affection for this off-beat family and although some of this comes from Thornton Wilder’s original outline, some of it comes from Hitchcock himself. For all his inner demons, he seems to have genuinely loved his family and the knowledge that his mother was dying an ocean away during the making of Shadow of a Doubt adds an edge of real poignancy to Collinge’s character.

In his book on Hitchcock “The Dark Side of Genius”, Donald Spoto attaches great importance to the death of Hitchcock’s mother and claims that it finds its way into every single character in the film. Anyone interested in this psychoanalytic detective work is directed to that book. It’s ingenious and fascinating but like much of the book, it treats Hitchcock as a creature in a glass cage to be analysed without emotion. Personally, I prefer to acknowledge Hitch’s dark side without allowing it to overcome the wit, humour and elegance which informs much of his work and endeared him to so many of his collaborators. There’s a dark side to his work, certainly, but I don’t think that’s quite the same thing and I don’t like the simplistic equation which Spoto makes. Shadow of a Doubt is a witty, stylish and genuinely scary film which demonstrates much more than a man unburdening his psyche on film. It’s the work of a great film artist who is developing his skills in ways which few of his contemporaries could match.

The Disc

Like the other films in Universal’s new “Masterpiece Collection”, Shadow of a Doubt was originally released on R1 some time ago. This new edition has been re-mastered and is a slight improvement over the earlier disc.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The monochrome image is generally very pleasing indeed. There is some print damage in places – occasional scratches are present throughout and particularly in the first few scenes – and occasionally the contrast is a bit muddy. In some scenes I found the blacks a little washed out but this is not a constant problem. Generally, the image is sharp and clear and there is plenty of detail present. The mono soundtrack is eminently clear and a pleasure to listen to. Several reviewers report that some players have lip-synch problems but this didn’t present a problem to me.

The extras have been carried over from the original release. We get a Laurent Bouzereau documentary, “Beyond Doubt – The Making of Hitchcock’s Favourite Film”, which is a little light on analysis but entertaining and informative. Peter Bogdanovich provides some critical perspective and there are interesting contributions from Pat Hitchcock, Hume Cronyn, Teresa Wright and Art Director Robert Boyle. Rather a lot of clips pad out the running time but it’s a sturdy piece. Also present are some interesting archive photographs (showing Hitchcock at his most enormous), a selection of Robert Boyle’s production sketches, a brief set of production notes and a re-release trailer from the 1940s.

The film has optional subtitles in English and French and this extends to the documentary and the trailer.

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Last updated: 01/05/2018 07:49:39

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