A Movie A Day: SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) Go away, I'm warning you. Go away or I'll kill you myself.
Published at: July 11, 2008, 1:44 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today we jump from 1950’s classic noir D.O.A. to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller SHADOW OF A DOUBT via composer Dimitri Tiomkin.
Hitchcock has long said this was his favorite of the films he directed. It may be Hitch’s favorite, but it’s not mine.
Whoa, whoa! Hold on! It’s a great film with some incredibly memorable work by both Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie and the beautiful Teresa Wright as his niece, Young Charlie. The photography, the suspense, the structure are all wonderfully executed, so I’m not saying this is a let down of a flick, just saying of the Hitchcock I’ve seen it’s not my favorite. That’s still STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.
But there’s one thing about this film that I personally disagreed with, one decision that I think keeps it from being the best the movie can be.
You have a film about a mysterious man, money damn near falling out of his pockets. You know he’s being pursued, but you don’t know why.
On the other side we we have a young girl frustrated at how her mother is being worked to the bone. She feels her family needs a miracle to pull them out of a middle class hell. In short, she’s bored. She feels her miracle could be her Uncle Charlie, so she decides to send a telegram to him and ask him to come to shake the family out of their doldrums.
This is the first instance of an almost supernatural connection between Uncle and Niece. He’s already sent a telegram alerting the family that he is on his way and plans to stay a while.
Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie with as much charm as you’d expect from ol’ Joe. He shows up and his problems follow him, so in a backwards way Young Charlie gets what she wants.
It’s this point where I was hoping that Hitch would keep the ambiguity of Cotten’s character going until the end. Wright begins to uncover pieces of a story involving a strangler of rich widows and her doe-eyed adoration of her Uncle changes to suspicion.
Hitch has often said the secret to his suspense is the theory that you show the audience the bomb under the table, so I’m not surprised he confirms Cotten’s evil early in the story, but a part of me really wanted to see the ambiguity… did he or didn’t he?... live until the final moments.
I say this because he does pepper in reason for doubt. There are two men being pursued by the authorities, so they don’t even know for sure who it is. At the same time you can still have Cotten hit out with creepy speeches with possible double meanings. He has a great speech at a dinner table here that really does turn your blood cold (especially the end of the speech… the camera has been slowly pushing in to Cotten’s profile to a close-up as the speech is told and at the very end, he looks to his neice, but that essentially has him looking directly at the camera, at us).
But that’s not what interests Hitch and I understand that. He didn’t want the audience deciding whether or not Cotten is a bad man, he wanted the audience squirming knowing a bad and evil man is in this innocent community. I get that and that’s why I don’t hold anything against the flick. There’s no doubt this is quite clearly the movie Hitch wanted to make.
In fact he brought famous American playwrite Thornton Wilder in to give the first pass on the script in order to paint as realistic a picture of small town Americana as he can, so he could introduce this darkness into the setting.
Hitch’s supporting cast is incredible, especially Henry Travers as Joseph Newton, head of the family, and his best friend, Herbie Hawkins, played by the great Hume Cronyn. What I loved about these guys is they are big murder mystery fanatics and are constantly pow-wowing about how to kill each other and get away with it. It’s funny, but there’s also a degree of creepiness in their adoration of the perfect murder while in the presence of someone who has gotten away with it. Cronyn especially (in his first screen role) is great as the soft-spoken, but obviously sweet best friend.
The whole family is great. Teresa Wright as Young Charlie gets top billing and deserves it. She is absolutely gorgeous in the movie and plays the change from idol-worshipping her Uncle to suspicion to figuring out just who he is with great ease. She’s a lead you want to follow, in other words. The young kids, including brainy bookworm Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and Roger (Charles Bates), are good for a laugh, too. Ann especially being more adult than any other character in the story at the age of 9 or 10.
Patricia Coolinge especially deserves some praise as the matriarch of the household, sister to Charlie and the one thing that keeps Young Charlie from turning her Uncle over. Sometimes we get BS excuses like “it’d kill your mother to see me turned in. I’d get the chair…” and just have to either accept them fully or let them derail the story for us. Except here you buy it fully because Coolinge is so vulnerable and so blessedly blind to what her brother is, you do get the feeling that if her illusion of who her brother is is shattered, then she really will shatter with it. That’s a helluva thing to pull off and she does it.
Hitch Cameo Alert: He’s got a handful of spades playing cards on the train at the beginning of the flick.
Final thoughts: Cotten gives a classic performance and Hitch’s goal for ultimate suspense is realized. The film is filled with enough likable characters to fill 10 movies and everybody is at the top of their game, including Hitchcock. I would have loved to have seen the story told in a slightly different way, but ultimately that’s not the goal of the creators of the picture, so I have no right to let that distract me from what they intended to put up on the screen.
The schedule for the next 7 days is:
Friday, July 11th: THE MATCHMAKER (1958)
Saturday, July 12th: THE BLACK HOLE (1979)
Sunday, July 13th: VENGEANCE IS MINE (1974)
Monday, July 14th: STRANGE INVADERS (1983)
Tuesday, July 15th: SLEUTH (1972)
Wednesday, July 16th: FRENZY (1972)
Thursday, July 17th: KINGDOM OF HEAVEN: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (2005)
I know that next Thursday’s movie seems like a departure… but it is connected to Frenzy and it will be the only big studio movie on the list from the last 15 years… I bought Ridley Scott’s director’s cut on DVD the day it came out and it’s been what? Two years? Two years sitting on my shelf, waiting to be watched. I’ve heard it takes an okay movie into a great movie, so I found a way to squeeze it onto this list. Don’t worry, there won’t be any others like this… at least that I know of.
Tomorrow we jump to THE MATCHMAKER, following Thornton Wilder over to a less dark and suspenseful movie universe.