Movie Night With Urbaniak: Shadow of a Doubt

As a break from Spielberg, and specifically as a break from 1941, Urbaniak came over and we dipped into my newly-purchased Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection (otherwise known as “The Fuzzy Box” for its fake-velour container). There was some discussion about what we should watch — should it be something I’ve seen but he hasn’t (like Frenzy or Family Plot), something he’s seen but I haven’t (like Rope), something neither of us have seen (like Topaz) or something we’ve both seen, a proven winner? “Proven Winner” seized the day and we selected 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, with Teresa Wright as the small-town girl with romantic dreams and Joseph Cotten as her favorite uncle Charlie.

Here’s my problem with Hitchcock, and the problem is all mine and not at all Hitchcock’s. When I was in film class back in high school, they showed me Psycho first and pointed out Hitchcock’s brilliant editing, his modernist, sophisticated camera movements, his cruel, ironic detachment and his morbid black humor. This, they said, is Good Hitchcock, and I, the good little student, nodded and wrote down all that, and watched other Hitchcock movies and wisely noted where he employed his brilliant editing, his modernist, sophisticated camera movements, his cruel ironic detachment and his morbid black humor. And so, when a Hitchcock movie had a deficit of any of these things, I consigned it to a list of “Not Good” Hitchcock. I would watch a movie like Sabotage and impatiently wait for the thrilling bomb-on-the-bus sequence, because that’s what I had been taught Good Hitchcock was “about.”

So let me just take this moment to say: God damn you, you stupid fucking film teachers, why would you teach the work of a director like that?
 
That would be like teaching film students the Coen Bros by saying “No Country For Old Men is the Coens at their best, it’s full of silences and suspense and minimalist camera movement,” and then pity the poor hapless generation of film students who then encounter The Big Lebowski and dismiss it as a minor work because it doesn’t have any of those things.

A few years ago, I was watching North by Northwest for the fifth or sixth time and, out of the blue, I suddenly noticed something new: Eva Marie Saint is really sexy. How had this plain-as-day fact of the narrative slipped by me before? Because it had nothing to do with what I had been taught was “Good Hitchcock,” and so I had spent the scenes of Eva Marie Saint’s seduction of Cary Grant looking at, I don’t know, the rear-projection plate probably.

I even went through a long period of time where I felt that Hitchcock maybe wasn’t all he was cracked up to be, that perhaps maybe his movies were only “about” moviemaking itself, that he was just a clever technician with nothing “real” to say about humanity. I’m happy to report that I am wrong in this assessment.

What rescued Hitchcock for me? Well, you’ll never guess, but the answer is screenplay analysis. All I needed to do was set aside the brilliant editing, modernist camera movements, etc, and concentrate on the story being told through analysis of the screenplay, and Hitchcock suddenly became a completely different director. Because, after all, the screenplay is what a movie is, the director is nowhere without it, even though my film teachers, in their auteurist fervor, had taught me the exact opposite.

So Urbaniak and I watched Shadow of a Doubt and yakked about the acting. Most of the cast is very fine, and the leads are quite wonderful. Their performances are informed by the 40s style of acting, but are still rooted in an emotional truth, which is crucial for this movie to work, because let’s face it, it’s actually a very small movie, set mostly in a house in a small town (the same town The Man Who Wasn’t There is set in, although I have a hard time figuring out why the Coens made that decision). Two key performances are off, in the room’s opinion — Macdonald Carey gives an absent, vague, glib performance as a detective looking for Uncle Charlie and Urbaniak un-fave Hume Cronyn is technical, showy and didactic as the nosy neighbor (Cronyn’s role becomes much more watchable when one imagines Bob Balaban in the part instead).

Early in the movie, a black train porter walks through a train compartment and delivers a few expository lines to an offscreen Joe Cotton. Urbaniak and I noted the dignity and composure of the actor and joked that he was probably a huge figure in the black American theater, had probably played Shakespeare and was probably a leader of black American actors, but this is the only kind of role he could get in Hollywood movies. Imagine our non-surprise when it turned out our instincts were exactly correct: Clarence Muse was a polymath actor/writer/composer, activist and leader of black American actors, and almost all of his Hollywood credits involve him playing a character named Porter.

So: about that screenplay.  Charlie Newton, the protagonist of Shadow of a Doubt, is a small-town girl with big dreams.  She wants to escape the bounds of her parochial, complacent small-town life, and just in time her favorite Uncle Charlie Oakley comes to visit.  Now then: note how the protagonist of Shadow of a Doubt is, essentially, passive.  Charlie longs for excitement, but she’s not doing anything to actually leave town.  Instead, she’s going to ask her favorite uncle to come stay — “That’ll shake things up!” she bubbles.  Little does she know that Uncle Charlie is already on his way, because he’s lying low trying to escape some detectives who are trailing him.  Because Charlie’s favorite Uncle Charlie is, in fact, a serial killer, a charming rogue who likes to woo wealthy widows and then slaughter them like cattle and steal their money.

The first two acts of Shadow of a Doubt move along at a brisk clip, but there is very little explicitly “Hitchcokian” about them — no ironic detachment, no modernist camera moves, no brilliant editing.  Why?  What’s the matter, was Hitchcock not inspired?  Well, no, thanks a lot, stupid film teachers.  Shadow of a Doubt is shot the way it is (or isn’t, depending on your point of view) because it’s a very internal story about a protagonist who isn’t even in pursuit of anything.  The story is, simply, a girl who’s just nuts about a guy who she thinks is the bees knees, and who, through Act II, starts acting a little weird, to the point where she thinks maybe this wonderful guy isn’t quite so wonderful.  At the end of Act II, a mere 60 minutes into the movie, the scales fall from her eyes and she realizes the wonderful guy is the exact opposite of wonderful, and the remaining 45 minutes or so (kind of long for a third act, but not so’s you’d notice) are a suspense-ridden chess game of Uncle Charlie trying to act innocent while trying to kill Charlie, and Charlie trying to get the goods on Uncle Charlie so he’ll leave town. 

So if you’re looking for directorial brilliance, try this — make a movie about a passive protagonist, where the narrative hinges about the way she feels about a guy, shoot it all with a minimum of tricks, and have it turn out to be a riveting suspense classic.

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Comments

14 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Shadow of a Doubt”
  1. moroccomole says:

    Oddly enough, even though I’d been a Hitchcock fan for years — my parents would let me put off doing my homework if Notorious or Rebecca came on TV — the first of his films that I actually studied in an academic context was…Shadow of a Doubt. Thankfully, that didn’t ruin it for me. (The teacher of that course, William Rothman, wrote an interesting book called Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze.)

  2. faery_friend says:

    My all time favorite Hitchcock movie. I like Joseph Cotten’s fairly understated performance. He’s perfect in the role. Teresa Wright is great too showing her terror in little ways as she starts to realize who and what Uncle Charlie is.

    Were you aware that this was Hitchcock’s favorite movie? There is a story about it on my DVD version that talks about his granddaughter writing a paper on the movie for one of her film classes. She presents the notion that this was Hitchcock’s favorite movie and the reasons why he liked it. The professor, not knowing who she was, gave her paper a low grade because, according to him, she couldn’t possibly know what Hitchcock liked and didn’t like. The professor felt that this film was so un “Hitchcockian” that it couldn’t possibly be the director’s favorite.

  3. Anonymous says:

    There’s a Hitchcock DVD in the 5 dollar bin at Wal-mart that has like 20 movies on it. I’ve been circling around it for a while now. I’m assuming it’s his silent films but not sure.

    • Todd says:

      There are a number of Hitchcock’s British movies in the public domain — it sounds like this collection has all of them. Beware: print and transfer qualities on those collections is dodgy at best and quite abysmal at worst.

      • craigjclark says:

        I can attest to this having sat through some lousy prints of The Lodger, The Ring and Rich and Strange while catching up on some of his pre-39 Steps films recently.

        • Todd says:

          I had forgotten that Hitchcock made The Ring. What is it in his version, a haunted reel of film? A haunted magic-lantern slide? A haunted flip-book?

  4. black13 says:

    I *think* I’ve seen this one. There’s a plot point about a photo, right? There are no photographs of Uncle Charly, or so he believes, but Charlie claims she has one. Which gets Uncle all upset, and he makes a real effort to find and destroy the photo, but in the end it turns out a baby photo, and there would be no way in heck to identify him from it.

    Right?

    If so, I remember the movie fairly vividly, even though I only saw it once, on TV, decades ago. (We still had a b&w TV set back then. That long ago.)

    And *that* is how you know a movie’s great. When some mention you come across brings back a vivid memory of the movie, even under these circumstances.

  5. r_sikoryak says:

    K. and I also have the “fuzzy Hitch” collection. Shadow of a Doubt remains a favorite.

    As far as Topaz goes… well, um, I remember some cool shots from it.

    • craigjclark says:

      I saw Topaz when a local repertory house had a festival of his Universal films for his centenary. My favorite of the ones I saw was probably Frenzy, but I was also quite amused by The Trouble with Harry, another one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites that many critics consider a minor film.

  6. craigjclark says:

    P.S. – No mention of Thornton Wilder’s contribution?