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AICN Movie Club - SHADOW OF A DOUBT

Published at: Sept. 12, 2013, 10:29 p.m. CST by Draven

Hey Yo, Draven here.

I ran an introduction to a new column we are going to try out, a couple of days ago. Basically it is going to be like a book club but with films. It is going to be a collaborative effort with a lot of different AICN writers, where we fill in gaps of our film knowledge and then come back here and talk about it. The writer that picks that film will change each week and hopefully we can be consistent in getting this up every week. I will post the movie we will talk about next week at the end of each column and I really want you guys to join along and offer suggestions. It is a work in progress and there isn't any discipline to our conversations, so bear with us these first few weeks as we nail down the format. 

Up first was Papa Vinyard. He chose Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 film, SHADOW OF A DOUBT. He had not seen it and so we all agreed to watch it for the column and then come back and discuss it. Papa Vinyard wrote a great review on the film, which you will see first. This won't be the case every week but again we are still ironing out the details. But here are his thoughts and somewhat controversial opinions on Hitchcock's masterpiece:

Papa Vinyard:

The film doesn't work amazingly as a "edge of your seat" type thriller. You know, from the first shot onwards, that Uncle Charlie is up to no good, and that this family that adores him oh so much is in store for a serious case of disillusionment. The narrative works more as an ode to the sanctity of then-modern Americana, and now, as a time capsule to that era immediately preceding World War II when small-town America was still a novel concept. Smart alecky kids, curious, gossipy housewives, and curmudgeonly, working-stiff husbands hadn't yet become obvious staples in portrayals of the nuclear family.

Little Charlie aching to escape the trappings of small-town life and her eventual embracing of it is more akin to Dorothy's "There's no place like home" arc than the "Anything you can do I can do better" motif in Annie Get Your Gun immediately following WWII. It's said that Hitch made the film as a response to not being able to visit his family in England during the Blitz, and that personal, almost puritanical approach is the most signature element of this film. However, such nostalgia and "hominess" comes at the cost of having a genuine, persuasive threat, or any sort of real mystery.

In Joseph Cotten's performance, you get your only real nefarious presence in the whole film. Sure, the cops lie to the Newton Family when they pretend to be reporters, and Young Charlie doesn't fully out her evil uncle until after he bites it on the train tracks, but those acts are justified by unselfish motivations. Uncle Charlie is a dude that kills women, steals their money, and threatens worshipful members of his own family to protect himself; the embodiment of pure, narcissistic evil. He's the guy bathed in shadow and hiding under his wide-brimmed hat and empty smile, a visual cue that would, very soon, signify shadowy government figures rather than the local hood or murderer.

 It is a testament to Cotten's performance that we buy the idea that his family would not only completely overlook his decade-long absence and his lack of a verifiable story regarding his whereabouts, but that they (particularly his sister) are moved to tears by his mere presence. That legendary speech he gives about the "fat, greedy women" would presumably give him away if anyone at that table were even remotely onto him, but their unabashed worship of this guy completely blinds them, and Cotten is just charming and welcoming enough to make that seem possible.

The effectiveness of his work is such that we don't even question that Uncle Charlie is deeply reverent of a time (late 19th century) that he seems too young to be able to remember. It's a great performance, a complete 180 from his nice-guy routine from Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons, and one that understandably defined his career.

That cheeky side of Hitchcock is represented by Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers discussing various ways of murdering each other, and it's so gleefully macabre for that era that it justifies the rose-tinted portrayal of everything else in Santa Rosa. Variations of their voyeuristic, violence-oriented discussions pop up in Strangers on a Train, Rope, Rear Window, and numerous other Hitchcock films.

It also introduces the idea that this (and Hitch's output, in general) is Hitchcock's attempt to do the same thing as these two gents, to inject humdrum, everyday life with a sense of suspense, danger, and notoriety. That dark sense of humor was a big part of what distinguished Hitchcock's thrillers from the B-movies of his day, and I wish there was more of it and less of the dead-sincere romantic interplay between Young Charlie and the detective.

That love story (if you could even call it that) is somewhat perfunctory and fairly distracting. It has nothing to do with the family whose sanctity is the most major thing at stake, and we don't know nearly enough about this young cad for him to serve as a "good guy" parallel to Uncle Charlie. He's just a good-looking exposition machine, and a vehicle to have a young romance play out in this otherwise suspenseful setting.

Thankfully, Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford are pretty strong in their roles (particularly when they're attempting to pull a fast one over the Newtons), so it's not as detrimental to the film as it could've been, but it seems like a cop out (no pun intended) from an otherwise biting and observational script by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Thorton Wilder, Academy Award nominee Sally Benson, and Hitch's own wife Alma.

We all read Papa V's review and then came back to discuss the film with him. 

Beaks: For starters, knowing that Charlie is a murderer doesn't deprive the film of suspense. It heightens it.

Papa Vinyard: Suspense sure, but mystery?

Beaks: It's not a mystery. It's not even set up as one.

Horrorella: Agreed. Especially as he and Young Charlie start to do their little dance as she begins to put the pieces together. The who knows what, and how far will it all go aspect to it.

Papa Vinyard: Right, and once Young Charlie's on board there's nothing left on the table except whether Uncle Charlie will be exposed or whether he'll kill her first.

Beaks: The idea of the movie is to drop a shark into Thornton Wilder's small-town America, and watch how he operates unbeknownst to everyone but his niece - his namesake.

Horrorella: One of my favorite moments of suspense was actually in the first scene when Uncle Charlie leaves his boarding house and has the brass balls to walk right past the policemen out front. 

Papa Vinyard: The problem is he's not really a shark. He's not a threat to anyone but maybe that widow that his sister introduces him to. He's out of the game; he's done the one last job he's just looking to get out without getting hanged.

Beaks: Sure he's a threat. He's a murderer. Once Young Charlie catches on, his homicidal instincts are re-activated for self-preservation.

Quint: The movie is painted in shades of gray. All the characters are majorly flawed, including Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie.

Beaks: Exactly.

Quint: I get the sense that Uncle Charlie kind of misses his family. He likes to be worshipped.

Papa Vinyard: He's the spoiled one. The youngest ones always are.

Quint: That's the genius of casting Joseph Cotten in that role. You can see him as a human being and not just "the threat."

Horrorella: And in this scenario, he is not only worshiped by the family, but his presence in the small town gives him something of a celebrity status among the locals for being well-traveled and exciting.

Papa Vinyard: As soon as he (Uncle Charlie) grabs (Young) Charlie’s hands with the newspaper he became "the threat" to me. Just another mad dog, irredeemable villain.

Quint: It's the moment her illusion is shattered, but he could have (and probably would have) just left if the cops weren't so close on his tail. To me, Uncle Charlie is an animal backed into a corner. I'm kind of with you a little, Vincent, in that Shadow of a Doubt is not my favorite Hitchcock film. But it is Hitchcock's own favorite of his work.

Papa Vinyard: For personal reasons though. It's so rosy compared to his other stuff. The most interesting interpretation of the film I've seen is that it's a sort of Thorton Wilder spin on Dracula. There are plenty of parallels, and thematically they're basically identical, and there are those Dracula references in the actual dialogue (i.e.) he doesn't like his picture taken...

Draven: Yeah I didn't realize that but it makes perfect sense.

Quint: I can see that being a fun theoretical, but I doubt that's what Hitch had in mind when he was shooting the film.

Papa Vinyard: Even the large investment at the bank is similar to Dracula buying up the London property.

Quint: Perhaps Wilder had that intention.

Draven: What do you think about that theory, Beaks?

Beaks: About Dracula? It's possible. I've never read anyone make that comparison, but it's plausible.

Quint: I think the film is very much a hodgepodge of Hitchcock's particular fetishes.

Beaks: It's really the first time he began to foreground them.

Papa Vinyard: And Cronyn is a slave to his mother! Murder-obsessed mama's boy. Not Hitchcockian at all.

Quint: You (Papa Vinyard) pointed out his humor on display with Hume Cronyn's character... That's my favorite aspect of the movie, the non-threatening suburban husbands deconstructing murder. It's a game.

Horrorella: That was fantastic. Every interaction between the two of them was enjoyable.

Quint: Especially at the dinner table.

Beaks: They're thriller buffs. It's a fun touch.

Quint:  They're geeks!

Beaks: Absolutely.

Horrorella: I also loved the little sister, who couldn't be bothered to be pulled away from her book to take down a phone message. 

Quint: Everybody is given a character trait, even the librarian and the traffic cop who have all of 4 or 5 lines between them.

Beaks: That's Wilder.

Quint: It really makes the personality of the town shine through.

Beaks: I think that's why Hitchcock loves the film so much. It has a realistic sense of time and place. He loved Wilder.

Papa Vinyard: Did Wilder write any other screenplays?

Beaks: Wilder went to fight in WWII right after he finished the script. I don't think he wrote another screenplay.

Papa Vinyard: I think Shadow of a Doubt is the only original screenplay he ever wrote.

Beaks: Truffaut asked him why they never worked again. Hitch's answer: "Because he went off to war and I didn't see him for several years after that.” Another thing that struck me (going back to the characterizations) was that, while Young Charlie may not have fully been in the right when keeping her silence (though she did have her reasons), she was well-rounded and fully-realized. Almost pronto-feminist, in a way. She could easily have been written and portrayed as a silly, inquisitive character that was just too nosey for her own good. 

Horrorella: It definitely would have been in keeping with the time period. Someone who just sort of stumbled through the events of the story. Instead, she is an intelligent, assertive and strong character who seeks out answers, puts the pieces together, and plays an active role in the events of the story.

Papa Vinyard: Horrorella, I think it's because she's so taken by Charlie initially that she has the most to lose by getting disillusioned.

Quint: Teresa Wright is a big reason for that character working, too. Say what you will about anything else in the movie, but Hitchcock struck gold when he cast Wright and Cotten in those roles.

Horrorella: Agreed - she played her so well - a really charming character and performance.

Papa Vinyard: I think the acting up and down is very strong. The cop characters could seem like perfunctory plot elements if the performances weren't there.

Beaks: They got Wright on loan from Samuel Goldwyn.

Horrorella: Vincent, she absolutely has a lot to lose from the disillusionment, but I think the part of her action is driven by protecting her family from the truth as well - particularly her mother.

Quint: Yeah, that's another great moment. It's incredibly touching when the mother bursts into tears.

Papa Vinyard: I think it's a happy ending that Charlie gets his due and the mom never has to know her brother was a killer, he even gives her that loving sendoff.

Horrorella: Absolutely.

Beaks: There's a palpable loss of innocence with Young Charlie. And she becomes protector of the family's name, and the harborer of a terrible secret. Very ambiguous.

Quint: More than him killing widowers or threatening young Charlie that moment made me hate Uncle Charlie. Yeah, it's a not so thinly veiled rite of passage in a way she turns from child to adult. It's a strong arc.

Draven: Yes that ending was brilliant. It closed the story but left so many things to think about. That has become a lost art.

Beaks: It's a darkness in the bloodline. This tendency towards murder. There's the frivolous plotting between the two, and Charlie's actualization. And he does it out of distaste. He believes he's doing society a service. Uncle Charlie's introduction... the first time I saw the film (in college, mid '90s), I swear to god I heard a bit of (Anthony) Hopkins's Lecter. I was like, "That's where he got it!" Not sure if I hear it throughout the film, but in that opening scene? 100%. And we all know how Lecter feels about distastefulness.

Quint: The setting is all about bringing the threat to someplace familiar. It's what Spielberg used so well in Jaws and Carpenter so well in Halloween.

Beaks: Definitely.

Draven: Yeah it busted the door open on a seemingly happy, stable suburban family.

Quint: Not just the family, but that sense of community.

Horrorella: Right. Your ideal small town haven is no longer safe and all sorts of dangers could be lurking behind the white picket fences.

Quint: Nothing bad can happen in small, friendly town.

Beaks: That's the suspense of the film: this murderer in their midst. Sure, he's a serial killer locked in on a particular kind of victim, but he will do anything to ensure his freedom. He'll even kill his namesake.

Papa Vinyard: Especially Charlie's speech about ripping the fronts off of houses and seeing the evil underneath.

Beaks: Exactly. He's been out in the world. He knows. These people have lived in their small town their whole lives. They've embraced a lie.

Papa Vinyard: Imagine this town becoming like the majestic town, post-WWII when all the sons come back in coffins.

Beaks: A lot of them will.

Papa Vinyard: This is like the last glimmer of innocence before the heavy industrialization and commoditization of the 50s

Beaks: And the '50s was a great lie. "The Nifty Fifties". Half the men in this country were suppressing war trauma. Waking up in the middle of the night and seeing corpses of people they killed.

Papa Vinyard: And many others were subjugated to hardcore oppression and societal banishment.

Beaks: Absolutely.

Draven: Yeah this was before they diagnosed PTSD.

Papa Vinyard: "War nerves".

Beaks: SHADOW OF A DOUBT anticipates that façade; that lie.

Papa Vinyard: The threat of "being exposed" is very McCarthy-era, even at that early stage.

Draven: It also came around before our society had become obsessed with serial killers. Before Bundy or the Manson family.

Quint: True, but the public always was fascinated by murderers- Bonnie and Clyde.

Draven: Yeah but Bonnie and Clyde wasn't the pure evil that Charlie or Bundy or Manson had.

Beaks: Well, they were killers.

Draven: That was more of a Jesse James "wild outlaw" obsession.

Beaks: There was also the public enemy era during prohibition.

Quint: We should also talk about the irony of Young Charlie, in a small way, becoming her Uncle at the end of the movie. He (Old Charlie) arrives with a deep, dark secret and she has her own deep, dark secret at the end of the movie.

Beaks: Yep. He's left a stain. She'll carry that with her the rest of her life.

Draven: And ruined an innocence.

Horrorella: But it’s a stain that she will gladly keep to herself if it means sparing her family the harsh truth.

Draven: And that is what we did as a society after WWII.


Papa Vinyard: She was doomed from the start by being that in love with the idea that he was this great guy.

Beaks: Indeed.

Papa Vinyard: He was nothing to her. A postcard every now and again, and yet she treats him like the savior of their family.

Beaks: She's idealized him.

Quint: It feels to me like she got a lot of that from her mother.

Papa Vinyard: Good call, it's all her mother. You see it in how she acts around him.

Draven: Yeah Quint is 100 % right.

Quint: If she only has faint childhood memories of Uncle Charlie it stands to reason that her mother is the one who instilled that idol worship.

Beaks:Right, but to her he's a well-traveled fantasy.

Quint: Hell, the mother named her firstborn after him.

Horrorella: Absolutely. Uncle Charlie is someone who has been built up from within the family. Her darling baby brother.

Papa Vinyard: What about the love story with her and the cop? Any reason for that at all

Beaks: It gives her a confidant.

Papa Vinyard: I've watched the film twice, and the first time, that really turned me off. Second time I just didn't mind it as much but I still find it pointless and distracting.

Beaks: It's a bit of dramatic business that was common back then.

Horrorella: And that's about it. I thought that was the weaker part of the film. It didn't ruin anything, but I was much less interested in that plot angle.

Quint: It's pretty superfluous, but I think it's there to show us that good can come from evil. Without Uncle Charlie's presence they never would have met. I don't think it was handled greatly...

Beaks: And it shows that her natural instinct is morally right.

Papa Vinyard: Do you think she goes back with him? Or that he leaves her to rot in Santa Rosa?

Quint: I think the intent is that she has herself an adoring husband and they start a new life together. That's what I'd like to believe, anyway.

Papa Vinyard: And he knows her "dirty little secret". Not a bad deal.

Beaks: Built not so much on a lie, but a withheld truth.

Draven: The 40's dream for a woman.

Quint: Not only does he know the one skeleton in her closet,  it's what brought them together. He doesn't just accept that, it's one of the reasons he loves her.

Papa Vinyard: Yeah, it contradicts with that feminist element you were talking about before.

Beaks: She's a brilliant young woman.

Papa Vinyard: She even roots out Charlie with the ring move at the end. No help from the cops and even figuried out that he made the newspaper house to hide the story is very astute.

Draven: It just is too bad that as a society back then that had to be the "happy ending". But that is a whole different conversation and really the only point of the romance.

Quint: It can be pro-feminist and still offer its female lead a love life.

Draven: Yes it can and it was for the most part.

Horrorella: Agreed. I don't think that the sloppy love story detracts from the fact that the film gives us a strong female character that was rather atypical for the time period.

Beaks: That's another thing: there's an inference that people like Charlie and young Charlie are too perceptive, too curious to stick to small-town living. They need to experience the world.

Quint: You can spot the people that are too big for small towns in this story. I think even the bookworm sister might take flight.

Horrorella: Bookworm sister will need to find herself a bigger library someday.

Papa Vinyard: That sister's clearly the real gem of her family

Quint: She's like Aubrey Plaza's grandmother.

Papa Vinyard: That ties into the Dracula comparison, Beaks. Dracula wants to live forever with Mina and let the mortals die out.

Draven: So we have come to the conclusion that Young Charlie=Laurie Strode and Old Charlie=Michael Myers.

Papa Vinyard: That would make the cop she falls in love with Donald Pleasance? Yuck.

Quint: Maybe the skeleton of what would come later.

Beaks: Has Carpenter ever mentioned SHADOW?

Quint: Old Charlie is human.Michael Myers is a blank slate for you to project whatever evil you want onto.

Draven: I was just referencing the family/small town element of it.

Beaks: I'm sure it was an influence. It's a clear, acknowledged influence on STOKER.

Quint: It's unquestionably influential. Dollars to donuts, but Spielberg and Stephen King adore this film.

Papa Vinyard: That apple didn't fall as far from the tree. This is like every Stephen King story.

Beaks: King mentions it in DANSE MACABRE, I think.

Draven: What exactly were Hitchcock's quotes on this film?

Horrorella: I know it was his favorite of his films.

Beaks: You can probably find them via Wiki. In the Truffaut/Hitchcock book, he backs off calling it his favorite, but he later recanted.

Papa Vinyard: I haven't read the Truffaut book I bet the juiciest stuff's in there.

Quint: The Truffaut conversation is incredible. It's insanely fascinating.

Papa Vinyard:Wiki says in the audio he confirms it's his favorite but in the book he recants that claimbut then in two subsequent interviews he maintains it's his favorite.

Quint: Make up your mind, Hitch! Jeez.

Horrorella: So he was a little undecided, but it was definitely up there.

Beaks: Here's the quote: "I wouldn't say that SHADOW OF A DOUBT is my favorite picture; if I've given that impression, it's probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about." But, again, he did later say it was his favorite..

Draven: His daughter has maintained it was his favorite too. I was just wondering if he said exactly why it was.

Papa Vinyard: There's a theory that it's because he couldn't travel home to England during the London blitz and so he made this homey, warm environment as a reflection of his idea of home.

 

 

 

Okay so that was our conversation on SHADOW OF A DOUBT. I know it was long and it won't be this long in the future but please give us some constructive criticism and let us know what you liked. We decided on the 1976 classic, MARATHON MAN as our next film and I will try to have something up on it early next week. Please follow along, especially if you haven't seen these films and be a part of the conversation below. 

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