Rapid Response: Shadow of a Doubt

To say “Shadow of a Doubt” is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films is like saying that “Please Please Me” is one of the Beatles best albums. It may not even crack the top 10. And who else can make a movie as good as this one and not have it be in their top 10?

However, this did represent a turning point in Hitch’s already legendary career. “Shadow of a Doubt” was his first wholly “American” film. He made “Rebecca” under the American studio system, but the cast was British and so was the setting. This film starred Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten in a thriller set in the quaint coastal town of Santa Rosa.

And it says on the special features of the DVD that “Shadow of a Doubt” was in fact Hitch’s favorite film. It seems strange considering how personal “Vertigo” is, or how around the ’40s and ’50s he was considered one of the greatest directors of all time, but not for the American films he was making at the time. His British films like “The 39 Steps” were the ones that resonated with critics so strongly.

It opens with a tired and bored Charlie Oakley (Cotten) lying on his bed in a motel, detectives waiting outside for him. Piles of cash are strewn across the room, and the woman that comes into the room to warn him calls him Mr. Spencer.

Then it cuts to the young teenage girl Charlie (Wright), equally depressed and bored in bed, lamenting the sort of repetitious life she leads, as does everyone in the town. And as if by telepathy, she seeks to contact her Uncle Charlie just as he comes to visit them.

She is enamored with him. He lives outside the bubble that Hitchcock so wonderfully immerses us in. We’re drenched in this idyllic suburban lifestyle so early on and for so long that Hitch almost deceives us as to what sort of movie this will be. Take the mother Emma (Patricia Collinge), so willing to allow two strange men enter their home to do a profile on their ordinary family, or the hilariously awful pill of a little girl who reads “Ivanhoe” as her father reads “Unsolved Mysteries” and discusses the best way to kill one another with his next door neighbor.

All of it seems so foreign and unrealistic, and watching it today my father suspected that this was a difference of the times, but my guess is Hitch’s film felt as strange and uneasy in 1943 as it does today.

It’s only in a brilliant scene where Charlie confronts his niece and tells her how naive she is that we’re violently plunged into Hitch’s theme. “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.” This is a thriller about being removed from the world you know or thought you knew only to be rendered depressed, cynical and jaded at everything you’ve now learned. For Hitch to find a way to fit this theme into the fears that an innocent person can be trapped in a helpless, life or death situation as he always does in his movies is brilliant.

In that way, “Shadow of a Doubt” feels very Hitchcockian, right down to the obvious clue and significance of Charlie’s emerald ring. It’s a turning point for the filmmaker, yet every detail is precisely familiar to the films he had made his entire career.

Except Teresa Wright isn’t blonde…

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