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Jan 12

Movie log: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Posted on Monday, January 12, 2009 in movies

Viewed three nights ago (Jan 9, 2009): Shadow of a Doubt directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey, with a supporting cast that includes Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers.

This – purportedly one of Hitchcock’s (and Wright’s) favorite films – is billed as a suspense picture, but there really isn’t a lot of suspense to it. The story centers around the relationship between Charlie Newton (Joseph Cotten) and his niece – also called Charlie Newton (or “young Charlie”) (Teresa Wright) who is named after him (more or less; her name appears to be “Charlene” but she is called Charlie most of the time).

The movie opens with uncle Charlie and two men who are obviously chasing after him. Charlie manages to duck them in the streets of his city, and leaves town to visit his niece Charlie and her small-town family. From the start we see that young Charlie adores her uncle, in a way that seems a bit extreme, almost unsettling. As the movie progresses she learns a bit more about Charlie’s true character and the adoration gradually fades and turns to something darker. The uncle, as we find out early on, may be involved in a string of murders “back east,” and she learns that he does not share her small-town optimism about the world and the people in it. The world is a sty, he tells her, filled with “horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.” Charlie and Charlie are at odds, and as she learns more about him, he becomes threatened by it and something has to give.

We quickly see how the stage is set. Uncle Charlie the misanthrope and young Charlie the youthful idealist; the evil of the big world encroaching on the cozy little town and the tight loving family. A running gag has father Joseph (Henry Travers) and family friend Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) obsessed with thinking up interesting ways to kill each other. They are playing at evil, unaware of the real conflict between the two Charlies unfolding around them.

Frankly, though it’s a top-ranked Hitchcock film, it just didn’t grab me. It’s well-executed, and there are a lot of interesting elements, including the relationship between young Charlie and a police detective (very well played by Macdonald Carey) who is investigating the uncle. There is the occasional jump in continuity where it looks like a little too much was chopped, and that was a bit distracting. Likewise for a bit of potential misdirection that was never really fulfilled. One might think that it’s got something to say about US isolationism leading up to WWII, making some sort of commentary on small town self-centeredness vs an outside world that can’t be ignored when it intrudes, but the movie is set in 1942 when the US was already in the war. The small town vs outside world aspect does parallel young Charlie’s naivete vs big world harsh reality; given that Thornton Wilder was involved in the screenplay, I imagine small town life is deliberately given a bit of a knock. But I’m going off the tracks here a bit.

All in all a mixed bag for me. It’s not clear that there are any real lessons learned by most of the characters here, nor any huge change in the small town and family (other than a couple that I won’t spoil, even though there’s not much that is spoilable – as I say, it’s not really a suspense). But it was eminently watchable, with some interesting parallels and contrasts. Perhaps on a repeat viewing some day I’ll find more.