To the end Shadow of a Doubt remained Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite among his sixty-odd films. His fifth American film but only the second whose action unfolds in the States (whereas Saboteur, 1942, the first, begins in California and ends in New York, Shadow begins in New York City and ends in California), it already reveals his grasp of his newly adopted country’s social and moral landscape; a BankAmerica tower looms over the heart of the small town where most of the film is set. Armed with the antiestablishmentarianism he had brought over from England, which would assist in his becoming a soft-spoken prophet against American materialism and mammonism, Hitchcock observed also a terrible loneliness in the States—a theme that would eventually lead to his masterpiece, Psycho (1960). Relatively rare in a ‘rootless’ society predicated on individualism, family life—so much more central in Britain—might at best help defend one against this loneliness, when indeed family itself didn’t instigate or exacerbate the loneliness instead. The ‘average American family’ in Shadow of a Doubt, the Newtons of Santa Rosa, California, are but a façade of emotional strength and mental health, built by affectionate love and nostalgia, behind which we find two delightful children and their undelighted elders: a sister self-described as being “in a rut,” aimless and discontent; a father who is unable to assert himself in the household’s mini-matriarchy; a mother and wife who sees herself only as an appendage to others; and Uncle Charlie, her younger brother visiting from New York, who “has secrets” and hides from the police, for unbeknownst to the others he is a serial killer, the ‘Merry Widow Murderer.’
One of Hitchcock’s two finest films of the ’40s (the other is Notorious, 1946) suggests novels by Booth Tarkington, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters—authors who grappled with American loneliness and aberrant behavior. But to arrive at their bracing notion that in the United States the ‘mainstream’ itself is composed of aberrations, Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and the Hitchcocks (the filmmaker and his indispensable partner, wife Alma Reville) created their extraordinary screenplay from a story idea by Gordon McDonnell. Charlie Oakley is a driven and exhausted man. Despising human greed, he seduces and strangles “fat, useless women” who, loving their jewelry only, have acquired their wealth and liberty by outliving the husbands they harried to death. Hitchcock’s heroine—this angel of vengeance’s niece, his namesake—and even Hitchcock share in Uncle Charlie’s protest: Young Charlie refers to “souls” as being more important than money; and Hitchcock shows us one ostentatious widow as Charlie too must see her. But whereas the girl finds her uncle’s sick distortion of a sound moral attitude a wall to shatter her innocence upon, Hitchcock takes a more comprehensive tack, viewing Oakley’s sociopathic antimaterialism as the extreme reactive consequence of the social and corporate preoccupation with wealth and profit—money—that grips the land. The fact that the father of the girl is a bank clerk tightens the motif; for even the Newtons’ modest income comes from money. Moreover, this self-begetting inwardness crosses another motif: that of a complicated inwardness of family life, for which Emma Newton’s heartbreaking adoration of her brother—a bicycling accident that nearly cost the boy his life has extended her childhood sense of closeness with him—provides a powerful instance.
This ‘inwardness’ is more complicated yet; for Emma, by naming her first-born, although a girl, after her brother has helped make her daughter the embodiment of this sibling attachment of hers, pressuring Young Charlie into a similar attachment to—and more: an identification with—this esteemed uncle and, at the same time, somewhat shutting out from his own marriage and family life her husband, Joe, whose spousal and fatherly replacement the largely absent Charlie has become. Marriage sometimes poorly competes with nostalgia; Emma’s infatuation with her past her brother’s sudden visit has woken from dormancy into obsessiveness, and, discounting the mock-couplings of his widow-murders, Charlie himself has remained a bachelor. Hitchcock in no way suggests that Emma and Joe are a marital mismatch or mishap; but Emma’s attachment to her brother has unmistakably imposed on her relationship with Joe a limit to which they have both had to adjust. After all, our capacity to respond to all the claims made on our emotional attention is finite, and the surfeit of attention that Charlie still receives—Emma jokes about how ‘the youngest’ is always spoiled—siphons attention from elsewhere, even as Emma remains devoted to Joe and her children—and all the more so, before Charlie’s visit, ironically, to compensate for his absence. Emma’s fixation on her brother, at its outer reach, is a defense against death—a defense against her mortal awareness; for if her daughter, for her, embodies her brother, it is equally the case that, by his boyhood brush with death, her brother has enforced her knowingness about the frailty of human life. More than anything else this distances Emma from Joe, who, God love the American lug, is in no way a worrier like her but someone instead who explains worry away and tries to take things easily as they come. Indeed, Joe is even immune to the mortal implications of his favorite pastime, wherein he and his best friend, Herb, share imaginary plans on how best to kill one another and get away with it. For Joe, this is a way of relaxing after a hard (and demeaning) day of unimaginative work at the bank; but the playful exercise makes of human death an objectifiable “thing”—a plaything. To Emma, on the other hand, death is a force constantly threatening to deprive her of those she loves.
Her family provides Emma with a means for coping with her fears; but, like most parents, she worries, too, about the safety of her children—and all the more when, unbeknownst to her engineered by her own brother, “accidents” start befalling Young Charlie. Having learned the truth about her murderous uncle, Charlie receives Uncle Charlie as the embodiment of her own mortal fear, which, for her, his presence now triggers. This new view of him in fact completes Young Charlie’s first view of him as he exited the train at its Santa Rosa stop, for he appeared then, to her, “sick”—the prelude to her gradual discovery of how mentally sick he really is.
Charlie Oakley is, in a way, the celebrated American loner and rugged individualist pushed to the extreme of dementia. He suggests to us, as well as his niece, the mortal fear that American myth, cultural and political, works mightily to suppress—a fear that also accounts for American eleutheromania and money-mania. Through Uncle Charlie, moreover, we are pointedly reminded of the ruthlessness that lurks behind much great American benefaction; for, from the wealth he amassed by converting into cash the jewels of his victims, he establishes in Santa Rosa a philanthropic fund that survives both his stay and his life. (His niece kills him when he tries to kill her on a quickening train; Hitchcock shoots the event, among the most memorable of his passages, as though Young Charlie were warding off her uncle’s attempt to rape her.) Young Charlie is the only one of the townsfolk who knows about Uncle Charlie’s secret criminal life; with the detective who exposed to her this life (a man she may marry) she stands outside the church while her uncle is being memorialized within—Hitchcock’s ironic musing at the civic good with which bloody evil is inextricably intertwined, certainly in America and perhaps elsewhere. In response to a scurrilous book, Patricia Hitchcock, the director’s daughter (and the model for the precocious younger daughter in this film), has remarked that her father didn’t really have a “dark side.” Probably true; but he saw the dark side of American life.
And he directed Shadow of a Doubt with great patience, eschewing titillation for the sake of a rich American canvas. Also, his is a film of great technical facility. I especially like, in a scene in the library, an upswooping crane shot that seems to take out from under her Young Charlie’s legs once a newspaper story confirms her worst suspicions about Uncle Charlie and about the jewel he has given her as a gift. Entrancing also is the low-hung, upwardly tilted camera that captures that rooftop spectacle of lights ‘BankAmerica’—the film’s symbolical vortex, a tower seemingly ripping the heavens in sacramental mischief: human greed opposing the Holy Ghost. In truth, though, every shot in the film is fine and fresh, and, with the help of Joseph Valentine’s superlative black-and-white cinematography, the motif of smoke as a moral clouding and peril is developed with especial brilliance. Only one element grates: Dimitri Tiomkin’s pushy music—although the ominous use of the “Merry Widow” waltz is another matter entirely. This tune haunts while underscoring one of the film’s great themes: the seductive though dangerous nature of nostalgia that casts an unblemished glow on the past at the expense of a more complex present that requires our most committed attention if we are morally and emotionally to navigate it. (The repeated dissolves showing graceful couples engaged in ballroom dancing underscore Oakley’s sentimental nostalgia, his longing for an idealized past.)The genius of Hitchcock divests this theme of misleading political attack, for it helps us to see (I am writing in the year 2000) the reactionary kinship between Ronald Reagan’s conservatism and Steven Spielberg’s sentimental liberalism, where the latter replaces the historical past with childhood as the object of adoration, converting it, too, into a pathological fetish.
The acting is splendid—a given in most of Hitchcock. Even if Charlie is conceived a tad naively (we now know so much more about serial killers than Wilder and Hitchcock could possibly have known), Joseph Cotten gives a striking performance. Even better is Teresa Wright, whose Young Charlie the National Board of Review honored at year’s end. Hers is a fetching portrait of innocence as it stumbles lethally into experience. Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn delight as Joe and Herb, serial killers only in their imaginations. Janet Shaw is marvelous as Louise, Young Charlie’s classmate who, working as a waitress in order to survive, finds her youth not the slightest protection against emotional and spiritual exhaustion—an indelible insert of a character glimpsing the lower rung of America’s socioeconomic class structure. But it is Patricia Collinge, Lillian Hellman’s racist Birdie in The Little Foxes both on stage and on film (William Wyler, 1941), whose inspired acting as Emma Newton deepens Shadow of a Doubt’s undertow of melancholy, helping Hitchcock most of all to balance the beauty of kindness and affection against the tragic frailty of human existence.
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