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“Do you know that the world is a foul sty?” Shadow of a Doubt turns 75

This week marks the 75th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s slow burning, small town tale Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Often noted as the director’s personal favorite of all his films, it came at a time in his career when his feet were still solidifying in the American movie industry; he already had a strong arrival stateside with the gothic, Oscar-winning Rebecca (1940), but had not yet gotten into the mid-1940’s groove with Ingrid Bergman’s sly, sexy performances in Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946). Shadow of a Doubt takes place in sleepy Santa Rosa, a Northern Californian town dipped in the New England flavor of playwright Thornton Wilder, who was brought on to write the script. Wilder had just completed his famous and enduring Our Town in 1938, and Hitchcock tainted that quaint, rustic vibe with mystery and uncertainty. This combination of suburban fright had an influence on classics to come, like Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955) a decade later, and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) far later on.

    The opening sequence in Shadow of a Doubt now plays back very much like a test run for the opening of Psycho (1960), which Hitch made 17 years later. A series of moving shots throughout a city dissolve into each other until we are in the room of a boarding house, our co-protagonist Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, twiddling a cigar in his hands. The old housekeeper comes in, they have a discussion about money, and it ends with Charlie opening the window blinds. Psycho starts in the same dissolving manner until we are inside a hotel room with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a torrid couple also talking about money. At one point Sam jarringly pulls the venetian blind cord down, patterning Charlie’s action from so many years earlier, as well as the arm action of Norman Bates’ stabbing motion (Anthony Perkins) later on in Psycho. It is almost impossible not to imagine that a director as meticulous as Hitchcock didn’t notice these similarities, although that does not mean there is some kind of very intentional meaning in likening the sequences to each other.

What is much better known is Hitch’s growing use of doubles in his cinematic vocabulary. This fascination reached its peak in 1951 with the many pairs in Strangers on a Train, but was just getting started in Shadow of a Doubt. The most obvious pairing is, of course, the two Charlies: in addition to Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie there is also “young” Charlie, the niece played by Teresa Wright. She is introduced to the camera in the same way as her uncle is, lying on her bed in suburban Santa Rosa, displaying a teenage angst not often focused on in 1940’s American cinema.The two Charlies share a synchronicity in thought and action, or as young Charlie calls it, “telepathy.” The doubling motif in Shadow of a Doubt climaxes–as does the tension of the film–when niece and uncle happen upon the bar named Till Two, where Charlie the elder orders a double brandy and they ruminate over their psychic twinhood.

What makes Hitchcock’s story of two Charlies a unique classic is how the film relies primarily on tension and awkwardness between characters and among the Newton family. There are no over-the-top bloody scenes or cops and robbers exchanging gunshots. The scariest scenes take place in and around the suburban home–on the rickety back stairway, in a garage filling with exhaust fumes, and indeed, right at the dining room table. After what the audience already has the inkling of–that Uncle Charlie is the “Merry Widow Murder”–is revealed to young Charlie in a dramatic headline insert, this man who has become the antagonist gives what is likely the most pessimistic and bleak monologue in American cinema up to that point. As Uncle Charlie sits at the dinner table, the camera slowly moves in on him as he states,

Cities are full of women, middle aged widows, husbands dead. Husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes. Working and working, and then they die and leave their money to their wives. Their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry, but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women… …are they? Are they charlie? Are they human or are they fat wheezing animals? What happens to animals when they get too fat and too old…

Uncle Charlie breaks the spell, concluding–”Well I seem to be making my speech right here.” It is almost as if none of the other family members were even listening to what the man at the head of the table was saying. After all, Joe, the father (Henry Travers), is always distracted by hypothetical murder plots that “help him to relax.” The only one listening to Joseph Cotten’s magnificent monologue is young Charlie–and of course the audience.

Once the Charlies are sitting more inconspicuously at Till Two, the elder continues his diatribe:

You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares… How do you know what the world is like? Do you know that the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses you’d find swine? The world’s a hell, what does it matter what happens in it? Wake up Charlie, use your wits, learn something.

The struggle for the upper hand between Uncle and niece is similar to the epic climax of Star Wars, when Darth Vader attempts to lure Luke Skywalker to the dark side. However, in Shadow of a Doubt Uncle Charlie doesn’t say “I am your father,” but rather, “We’re like twins, you said so yourself.” Coming out in the midst of American involvement in World War II, perhaps the film’s mood was prodded on by a political pessimism similar to this contemporary moment 75 years later. It is also due to Hitchcock having a personal preoccupation with the macabre–like the father Joe and their neighbor Herbert (Hume Kronyn)–that made the director a leading figure in the gruesome horror business. Shadow of a Doubt may also just be an example of the 1940’s existential zeitgeist; Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness was published the same year.

   Shadow of a Doubt begins like Psycho, and the ending sends a message that is similar to the latter as well. After Uncle Charlie’s death, falling from a fast moving train, young Charlie and her unlikely love interest, police detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) stand outside the church, reflecting on the recent happenings. Jack, talking about The World in general, eventually says, “Sometimes it needs a lot of watching… (The World) seems to go crazy every now and then… like your Uncle Charlie.” What sounds a bit like a meandering final dialog gains significance when related to Norman Bates telling Marion Crane that, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Shadow of a Doubt and Psycho are possibly Hitchcock’s two darkest and most pessimistic films in a career that explored the dark side in over fifty feature length pictures. The latter is most likely the more popular and widely seen of the two, so if Shadow of a Doubt is on your to-see list, its 75th anniversary is a perfect time to sit down and experience the horrors of small town USA.

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Joseph Dwyer is an assistant web editor at Diabolique, where he concentrates on the Legacies of Sade and Watching the Watchdogs columns. His major interests are freedom of speech, desire, and dissent in horror/cult cinema. He lives in Oakland, CA, and has academic degrees from the San Francisco Art institute and Hampshire College.

One comment

  1. Anyone who brags about not being moved by most contemporary art is a fool. Or, hopefully, it is a joke.

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