Sunday, December 19, 2010

Shadow of a Doubt

Title: Shadow of a Doubt
Year: Produced in 1942, released in 1943
Studio: Universal Pictures
Screenplay: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson & Alma Reville
Source Material: From an original story by Gordon McDonell
Running Time: 103 minutes
A black & white picture

Sunday 19th December, 9:30am
I have had two late nights in a row. For someone who goes to bed around 9pm at night, two evenings up past midnight is rather shocking. Still, I have a good excuse - I have been catching up with friends and having a lovely time.
As anyone who reads this blog will know, I sometimes become a little disillusioned and I wonder why I go into so much detail with the plot synopses. Well, today I was thinking about it again as I tried to scribble down various details as the film progressed - pausing when I was pressured for time; I began to wonder if it was affecting my enjoyment of the films? If I am very familiar with the film in question, it seems not to be a problem, but if it is one I am less familiar with (such as this week's - I have only seen it once before) I find the task a chore and makes me slightly grumpy as I would sooner experience the rhythm of the picture and the timing as it is supposed to be witnessed. Still, at least the next time I watch the movies, I will possibly have a little more insight. It is certainly making me more aware of film techniques and screenwriting. The other aspect which is interesting is when I read up on the films in various tomes post-viewing. For example, this week's film left me a little cold, but having read some of the background to it, I came away feeling more generous with my critique. I shan't go into that here though. Let's move on...

Young Charlie - Teresa Wright
Uncle Charlie - Joseph Cotten
Jack Graham - MacDonald Carey
Joseph Newton - Henry Travers
Emma Newton - Patricia Collinge
Herbie Hawkins - Hume Cronyn
Fred Saunders - Wallace Ford
Ann Newton - Edna May Wonacott
Roger Newton - Charles Bates
Station Master - Irving Bacon
Pullman Porter - Clarence Muse
Louise FInch - Janet Shaw
Catherine - Estelle Jewell

A man named Charlie lies alone in a rented apartment in Philadelphia with money scattered around him. He is visited by his landlady who tells him two men were asking after him. Knowing these men are hot on his trail, he decides he is going to leave the State and head west to see his sister and her family. Meanwhile, over in Santa Rosa, his niece is coincidentally thinking about him and wishing he'd come to see them.
He sends a telegram informing him of his plans.
On the train, he travels under a pseudonym and feigns illness so he doesn't have to communicate with anybody who may be a witness to his face and description.
The family meet him at the train station and he turns on the charm immediately. His niece was named after him and she is somewhat besotted with him.
The family love having him stay with them and he is a charming house-guest, providing everyone with gifts (only Ann seems a little nonplussed with her cuddly toy - she probably wanted something more mature like a new book) and he gives young Charlie an emerald ring - she notices an inscription on the inside of the band: To T.S. from B.M.

Emma, Charlie's sister, announces that two men are going to be visiting as part of a National Survey and will ask questions and take photographs so that they can depict the life of a normal American family. Uncle Charlie is unconvinced and knows who the two men really are and refuses to be a part of the charade.
The two Charlies visit the bank where Uncle Charlie arranges to deposit his money whilst making fun of the whole stuffy atmosphere, embarrassing Joe Newton (his brother-in-law) who works there. Upon returning home, they discover the two 'survey' men (Fred Saunders and Jack Graham) who are snooping. One of them manages to take a photograph of Uncle Charlie and he is not pleased - he asks for the film from the camera. The man (Saunders) apparently obliges.

Jack takes the young Charlie out for dinner and they enjoy each other's company but soon she twigs that Jack is really a detective. She questions his motives and he explains that he just needs to keep an eye on Uncle Charlie and may need her help later if the time comes.
Remembering how cagey her uncle had been about an article in the newspaper he was trying to conceal from everyone, she heads to the library where she discovers that the detectives are searching for the 'Merry Widow Murderer' and have two suspects in mind. The last victim was widow of Mr Bruce Matthewson whose name used to be Thelma Schenley - "To T.S. from B.M."

Young Charlotte avoids her Uncle until the next evening where he rants about women in a terribly misogynistic fashion. This unnerves Charlotte even more. She leaves the house in a tantrum and Uncle Charlie follows her - he takes her into a bar where he tries to explain things to her without giving too much away. He then becomes testy and tells her that she knows nothing of this world but also begs her to help him is it comes to it. She is not easily persuaded...

After church the next day, they learn that the other suspect in the Merry Widow Murders has been killed and so the chase if off (?! - see my comments). Jack comes to say goodbye to Charlotte and he professes his love for her whilst they chat in the garage - they almost get locked in due to a dodgy door that sticks too easily.
Charlotte tells Jack that she'd like to think on it for a while as it all seems too soon.

Uncle charlie knows he cannot trust Charlotte to keep his secret and arranges a couple of incidents - one being a dodgy step down a flight of stairs, the second much more lethal. He leaves the car running on the day he is giving a lecture to his sister's Women's Club and he arranges for everyone else to go in a taxi except for him and Charlotte. He tells her to go and wait for him in the car. She goes to garage, discovers the place filled with exhaust fumes, tries to switch the car off but cannot. The garage door is wedged shut behind her and she is trapped, gasping for breath.
Luckily, Joe's friend Herb is passing and he hears her banging and alerts the family who come out and save her. She is fine, but decides to not go with everyone to the meeting and stays home - desperately trying to get in touch with Jack Graham to no avail.
When the family return along with a number of other guests, Charlie announces he is leaving but he sees that Charlotte is wearing the emerald ring and takes this as a sign she is going to tell all...
The next morning, the family take Charlie to the station but he forces Charlotte to remain on board the train as it pulls away from the station. He tries to push her from an open carriage door and in the struggle, he slips and falls before a train passing in the other direction.
His funeral is held in Santa Rosa and the majority are treating him as a fallen hero. Only Charlotte and Jack Graham know the truth and they wonder why Charlie hated the world and its inhabitants so much...

Great Lines
Charlie Newton's younger sister, Ann, is a studious and rather precocious child, but she does come out with some terrific lines.

When telling Mrs Henderson from the Post Office that she can't take the telegram message she explains why:

"I'm trying to keep my mind free of things that don't matter because I have so much to keep on my mind - innumerable things!"

Later, she moans to her father about her mother's telephone manner:

"Really Papa, you'd think Mama had never seen a phone before. She makes no allowance for science. She thinks she has to cover the distance by sheer lung power."

Uncle Charlie's misogynistic speech about wealthy widows is well-crafted and nicely performed.

Uncle Charlie: "Middle-aged widows, husbands dead. Husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working and then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do their wives do, these useless women? You see them in hotels - the best hotels - everyday by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at Bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money. Proud of their jewellery, but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women."

Young Charlie: "But they're alive! They're human beings!"

Uncle Charlie: "Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human, or are they fat, wheezy animals? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old..?"

Methinks this man has issues...

I find Teresa Wright's character a little annoying in this movie. The young Charlotte is terribly sycophantic and sickeningly gleeful for the first half of the movie, almost trying to epitomise the overtly saccharine perfect American daughter. She really needs a damn hard slap. In fact, all the Newton children are need of a back-hander, frankly. (Ooh, I can see some people being appalled at that notion!)
What does seem even weirder is her sudden leaps. For example when she is out on a date with Jack Graham, she almost shows signs of schizophrenia when she realises he is a detective - what triggered that discovery? Odd.
I also find it odd how everyone dotes on Uncle Charlie - he comes across as slimy and wily immediately - I certainly don't understand what charm he may have (Golly, I sound almost as bitter and unsympathetic as he is!)

Anyway, those negative points aside, there is a lot of interesting things to note about this film:
There are myriad allusions to the number two throughout the film - duos, twins, doubles, waltzes, mirrored imagery etc. You could even turn it into a drinking game if you so desired. There are also many mentions of superstitions, some more subtle to others. Try and see how many you spot.

One of the other notable highlights is the variety of camera angles Hitchcock employs throughout the picture to convey uneasiness or a feeling of emotional distance or claustrophobia. My favourite and most effective is when the young Charlie is at the Library and she has just connected the newspaper article about the most recent victim of the Merry Widow Murderer and the ring her Uncle Charlie gave to her. The camera pans up and away on a crane as Charlie rises unsteadily to her feet as the horror sinks in.

My absolute favourite thing about this movie is Hume Cronyn's character of Herb Hawkins - a man obsessed with murder. His dialogues with young Charlie's father about the best methods to kill someone are blackly comic and reeks of Hitchcock's own macabre sense of humour.

One other quibble is this rather bizarre thread involving the other suspect who conveniently walks into a propeller blade and thus gives the detectives an excuse to call the manhunt off. Not the best solution as far as I can see!!

My Verdict
This is famously one of Hitchcock's personal favourites. However it is not one of mine. It is (to my mind) a little pedestrian in places, but at least it has some fascinating touches to raise it above the standard Hollywood fare. My main issue is that I simply do not warm to the cast! 6/10

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