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.


The (other) Man Who Knew Too Much

While it’s too much to say that the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is “better” than the better-known 1956 version, there are areas where the original is a substantially better work.

The biggest tonal shift is the married couple.  In 1956 they are middle-class Americans, Christian, uptight and oblivious to their surroundings, blundering around foreign countries at a loss.  In 1934 they are wealthy, white-tie sophisticates, world-travelers who drink, trade bon mots with celebrities and joke about sleeping around.  The shift makes the 1934 version both more giddy and more exotic — this couple seems to take the kidnapping of their child in stride, a simple problem to be solved with reserve, pluck and stiff upper lips, and there is plenty of time for banter and hijinx, and instead of recognizing the couple as people we know, we wonder what their private life must be like when they’re not dashing about Europe and participating in skeet-shooting competitions.

surely you have more to say?

The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much could be one of the most influential movies in history, although it may not seem like it at first. 

In the first 20 minutes alone, we see an American couple whose marriage is on the rocks trying to patch things up with a bus ride through Morrocco (which showed up later in Babel) an American doctor and his wife attending a medical conference in a foreign country getting tangled up in international intrigue (which showed up later in the echt-Hitchcockian Frantic) and a hectic chase through a crowded Morroccan marketplace (which showed up later in Raiders of the Lost Ark).  For good measure, Jimmy Stewart also mentions that he was stationed in Casablanca during WWII.  With movies like these flooding the culture it’s amazing that Americans ever leave home at all.

(And of course the whole “assassination at the concert” sequence was lifted for the 70s Hitchcock pastiche Foul Play.)

Is there more?

The Birds

Tippi Hedren plays Melanie Daniels, who is the heiress to a San Francisco newspaper fortune (that is to say, she’s Patty Hearst, ten years too early).  Melanie lives by her own rules.  She skips and saunters through life, plays tricks on squares, travels the world, has adventures, aggresively pursues men and drives a fast car.

She meets Mitch, who is a lawyer and presumptive model of manhood.  Mitch disapproves of Melanie, whom he sees as an annoying menace who deserves to be taken down a notch.

Melanie decides to pursue Mitch, for reasons that remain unclear.  Is she interested in him sexually?  Does she want to “teach him a lesson” somehow, reassert her upper-class authority?  In any case, she decides to play a mild trick on him and is willing to traipse out to his mother’s house in Bodega Bay to do it.

Bodega Bay is, in the world of this movie, “the sticks,” and Melanie is clearly out of her element there.  The nicest reaction she gets from showing up in her fur, her silver sports car and her French roll is that the elderly storekeeper is befuddled and amused by her.  Everyone else clearly hates her.  Annie the schoolteacher is plainly jealous of her (she was once Mitch’s girlfriend and has followed him to Bodega Bay herself, abandoning city life, her boho background and sexual fulfillment in order to, literally, take care of his little sister) and Mitch’s mother acts as though she’d like to pound nails into the back of Melanie’s head.

Mitch doesn’t approve of her, Annie doesn’t approve of her, Mom doesn’t approve of her, the whole town doesn’t approve of her.  In the local restaurant, even the old lesbian ornithologist and the crusty old fisherman, two marginal characters who you would think would have had their share of disapproval from locals over the years, don’t approve of her.  The middle-aged mother trying to protect her kids strongly disapproves of her, even though she’s in a housecoat, in a restaurant, with her two kids, in the middle of the afternoon, on a school day (what was she doing in the restaurant?  Was she running away, taking the kids away from a drunken, abusive father?  That would at least explain her high-strung personality).  Apparently, no matter who you are and what your background is, everyone agrees that the worst thing in the world is a carefree monied blonde.

Why does everyone store up their resentment for Melanie?  Mitch’s mom Lydia, a real piece of work, is a controlling, overprotective, emasculating bitch but no one resents her.  Mitch defends gangsters and strings the simmering, resentful Annie along for years but no one resents him (Annie literally dies protecting Mitch’s little sister and Mitch doesn’t even think to drag her body in from the street). 

About halfway through the movie, birds start attacking.  It’s almost like the town’s resentment and fury against Melanie, the “bad vibes” she causes, reaches a point where the vibes themselves drive the birds insane.  And if the birds attacked Melanie and only Melanie, you get the feeling that would suit everyone fine.  But they don’t, they attack everyone equally.  The storm of resentment breaks and everyone gets caught in it.

I’m watching this movie and Tippi Hedren keeps reminding me of different people.  “The Hitchcock Blonde” is such a cliche at this point it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who she reminds me of.  She looks like Grace Kelly, which makes sense, and she looks like Melanie Griffith, which also makes sense (as she’s her mother, after all).  (Brian DePalma, of course, cast Melanie Griffith as a kind of gutter-version of the Hitchcock Blonde in Body Double.)  She looks like Sharon Stone, who was the definitive post-Hitchcock Hitchcock Blonde in Basic Instinct, she looks like Naomi Watts, who played a version of the part in Mulholland Drive, and she looks like Anne Heche, who played the Hitchcock Blonde part in the remake of Psycho

Then it all snaps into focus: Tippi Hedren is a dead ringer for Paris Hilton.  Suddenly the movie makes sense.  Thirty years before the fact, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie about the world-wide hatred of Paris Hilton.  You might say that, since Paris Hilton did not yet exist, Hitchcock had to invent her.  Substitute “jumping into that fountain in Rome naked” with “having sex on video on the internet” and the parallel becomes complete.

The Birds is about the destruction of the Hitchcock Blonde.  Everyone hates her, so she must be destroyed.  So we watch as Melanie is turned from  a sassy, carefree gadabout to a quivering, crippled catatonic.  Along the way, we see her turned into a compliant girlfriend, a handy housewife, damsel-in-distress and caring mother-figure.  Finally she is attacked, alone and directly, and reduced to nothingness, a victim, a thing to be rescued by man-man Mitch, without personality or point-of-view.

Many complain that the movie ends too abruptly, but if you look at the narrative this way, it ends exactly where it should; the Blonde is destroyed, the narrative is complete.  After the birds violently attack Melanie in the bedroom (!), they don’t do a thing to Mitch (apart from a few warning pecks) as he walks to the garage and gets out the car.  The birds have what they want; they’ve destroyed the Hitchcock Blonde and they’re willing to sit by and patiently watch as she gets driven out of town.  Melanie has a small cut on her forehead but Mom Lydia wraps her entire head in gauze, covering up her blonde hair and making her look more like a cripple.  As a final symbolic act, the sportscar she came to town in, representing her wealth and independence, is commandeered by Mitch, new head of the family, to drive her away.

(And Tippi Hedren named her daughter after this character!)

Note to Universal: this movie is sorely in need of restoration.  The DVD transfer is substandard by today’s measure and the extensive special-effects work has aged terribly.  There’s nothing to be done about the occasional phony-baloney painted backdrops, but not only does the traveling matte look work look awful, the bird-attack scenes with their multiple film-element layers have deteriorated to a disastrous degree.
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