Skip to main content

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt
(1943)

(SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.

Peter Bogdanovich pinned it down best, I think, when he observed that the film has the most realistic feel of any of Hitchcock outside of The Wrong Man. Indeed, that one is a little too dry and beholden to its (true) source material for my tastes. Shadow of a Doubt, in contrast, observes realism in terms of its behaviours. There’s still room for humour here, around the fringes, and there’s still room for gaps in logic (everything relating to the police investigation is on the unlikely side), but the central dynamic between the two Charlies is gripping and believable, in its own way a cat-and-mouse where everyone else becomes trivial.

Pauline Kael liked Shadow of a Doubt, but rightly reckoned that “it certainly isn’t as much fun as several of his other films”. Elsewhere, Time Out’s Geoff Andrew was onto something when he suggested it was a “sharp dissection of middle American life, in its own quiet way an ancestor of Blue Velvet”. Indeed, Dimitri Tiomkin’s ridiculously upbeat small-town bliss score can only be wickedly ironic on Hitch’s part, while wholesome Charlie (Teresa Wright) wishing for something interesting to happen, only for a serial killer to descend on the household, is exactly the kind of in-over-your-head scenario Kyle McLachlan stumbles upon after discovering an ant-strewn ear.

I’ve never really taken to Joseph Cotten as a likeable lead, so both occasions of Hitchcock employing his services (the other being Under Capricorn) feel shrewd and illuminating. This one particularly so, as Cotten seems positively inspired by Charles Oakley’s easy cruelty and charming veneer. Park Chan Wook updated the proceedings with Stoker, of course, but I’d argue the relationship between Charles and Charlie is more interesting for lacking explicit incestuous undertones (if that makes sense). Wright effortlessly traverses the terrain from bored and precocious teen – “How can you talk about money when I’m talking about souls?”; feigning concern for her workhorse mother while doing nothing to help her – to mature beyond her years in the face of the stark truth of her uncle.

The centrepiece dinner scene finds both lead performers given superb material, as Charlie, onto Merry Widow Murderer Charles, makes it clear she knows. He in turn sees her challenge combatively, delivering a still extraordinary monologue about the widows, the “useless women”, he comes across in the cities: “faded, fat, greedy women”. For one supposedly so collected and calculated, I’m not overly impressed by Charles’ attempts to do Charlie a mischief – a sabotaged step on the stairs to the back door, attempting to asphyxiate her in a garage filling with exhaust fumes – but these incidents, designed to be passed off as mishaps, up the ante of their interiorised locking of horns, with no one else apprised of their conflict. The final altercation on the train, as is Hitch’s habit, is brief and wastes no time in taking us to the end credits, but that’s more refreshing than anything, particularly from the perspective of an era where endless climaxes are endlessly piled on top of each other.

If Cotten and Wright are essentially playing a two-hander for much of the proceedings, certainly in terms of claustrophobic focus, the supporting cast are meticulously chosen, with the possible exception of Macdonald Carey as Charlie’s love-interest detective. Then again, his unremarkable dependability feels about right for the balance of the piece; there shouldn’t be any danger that he’ll muscle in on the attention and take it from Wright and Cotten. Patricia Collinge is tremendously sympathetic as Charlie’s pushover mother (and sister of Charles). Charlie’s choices hinge on the perception that her mother wouldn’t be able to take the awful truth about her brother, and we glimpse the veracity of this in the occasional moment where she perceives something is wrong, yet the enormity of it is quite beyond her grasp (the second time Charlie comes into danger).

The rest of the family and neighbours are also colourful. Henry Travers is the true-crime aficionado father, trading methods of murder with neighbour Hume Cronyn (at this stage in his career resembling a cross between Rick Moranis and Steven Spielberg). This represents the picture’s most consistent streak of levity, but even then, it functions as a morbidly twisted commentary, given Charlie’s proclivities. Edna May Wonacott is also memorable as Charlie’s bookworm kid sister, and Wallace Ford winning as Carey’s easy-going partner.

Charles was based on 20s serial killer Earle Nelson, but that crumb of fidelity fails to make his transposed psychological explanation – he wasn’t the same after he got hit by a truck as a child – feel any less awkward and cumbersome. Charles’ position, a very modern, nihilistic position, is all the more compelling undiluted by explanations (“Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”). It’s curious that Shadow of a Doubt, despite its contemporary setting and being made at the height of the WWII, makes no reference to the war (it’s sandwiched between very WWII fare Saboteur and Lifeboat). Perhaps that bubble it occupies partially explains its box office failure. More likely, it was simply ahead of its audience; there’s an undiluted quality here that, despite the era mores, lends Shadow of a Doubt a very modern feel, certainly more so than anything the director had delivered to that point.






Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds . Juno and the Paycock , set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

Sir, I’m the Leonardo of Montana.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013) (SPOILERS) The title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second English language film and second adaptation announces a fundamentally quirky beast. It is, therefore, right up its director’s oeuvre. His films – even Alien Resurrection , though not so much A Very Long Engagement – are infused with quirk. He has a style and sensibility that is either far too much – all tics and affectations and asides – or delightfully offbeat and distinctive, depending on one’s inclinations. I tend to the latter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the trailers for The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet ; if there’s one thing I would bank on bringing out the worst in Jeunet, it’s a story focussing on an ultra-precocious child. Yet for the most part the film won me over. Spivet is definitely a minor distraction, but one that marries an eccentric bearing with a sense of heart that veers to the affecting rather than the chokingly sentimental. Appreciation for