Sunday, January 27, 2008

Shadow of a Doubt

The DVD of 'Shadow of a Doubt' includes an affectionate thirty-minute documentary featuring contributions from stars Teresa Wright and Hume Cronyn, film-maker Peter Bogdanovich, and the director's daughter, Pat O'Connell Hitchcock. "This was my father's favourite movie," she explains, "because he loved the thought of bringing menace into a small town."

In his six-decade career behind the camera, Hitch helmed over sixty films. He couldn't have picked better for his personal favourite. Everything about 'Shadow of a Doubt' is perfect.

Consider the opening. Under the credits, elegantly dressed couples whirl across the screen to the strains of Lehar's 'Merry Widow' waltz. The image segues into a series of shots establishing a less-than-elegant locale: vagabonds lounge under the shadow of a steel bridge; a broken-down car has been left to rust; kids play in the street outside a block of unwelcoming tenement buildings; a man - Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten), our villain of the piece - lies on a bed in a dull little room, staring listlessly at the ceiling. The contrast is immediate: this is not at all the kind of place you'd hear waltz music, let alone get dressed up to go to a ball.

On the subject of music, Lehar's sickly-sweet bit of romantic Vienna recurs throughout the film, losing a little more of its romanticism each time you hear it. An hour in, the effect is just plain sinister. (Kudos, too, to Dmitri Tiomkin's score - granted, it's melodramatic, but he cleverly subjects Lehar's waltz to series of dark variations. The waltz thus gets into the fabric of the film just as it lodges indisplacably in the heroine's mind.)

Our heroine, Charlotte ('Charlie') Newton (Teresa Wright) is introduced in similar fashion to Oakley (or 'Uncle Charlie' as she adoringly calls him), lying on her bed and gazing disconsolately upwards. The establishing shots that sketch out her milieu - Santa Rosa, California, tell a different story. The town is picture-postcard stuff; idyllic. Neat houses, well-turned-out townsfolk, picket fences, an avuncular policeman on point duty. It's like the opening of 'Blue Velvet' forty years before David Lynch brought his twisted classic of small town Americana to the screen.

The parallels are obvious. 'Blue Velvet' is son of 'Shadow of a Doubt', Frank Booth a direct descendant of Uncle Charlie but with a leather jacket instead of a suave suit, fedora and walking cane. Not that Uncle Charlie is any less murderous or dangerous than Frank; he's just classier, better mannered and has vocabulary enough that he doesn't need to say "fuck" every other word. What he does say can be shocking, though. Take his tirade against the very women he preys on: "The cities are full of women, middle-aged women, their husbands dead. Husbands who spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave the money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do they do, these useless women? You see them in the best hotels ... eating the money, drinking the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women." Not a foul word in the whole monologue, but it still feels like you've been slapped in the face.

This is a good place to consider the performances. Joseph Cotten quite simply gives a career best. He gets the balance of charm, menace, guile and ruthlessness just right. It doesn't matter that there's something dodgy about Uncle Charlie from the off, or that his guilt is a foregone conclusion, there is something so suave, so commanding about him that it's difficult not to relish the Machiavellian way he insinuates himself into his niece's family and effortlessly becomes the lynchpin of the household. Put simply, the man invites complicity in a way that no other screen villain, save a certain Hannibal Lecter, has ever managed.

Teresa Wright proves an ideal foil. Romantic, precocious and rather too enamoured of her uncle, the film documents a gradual falling of the scales from her eyes. She experiences doubt, fights it with denial, then becomes overwhelmed with a need to find out for herself. Realisation sends her spiralling through a maelstrom of suspicion, fear and resent. 'Shadow of a Doubt' is not just a top-notch psychological thriller; it's also a meditation on the end of innocence. Wright was twenty-five when she made the film; it was only her fourth role. The character arc she describes is (allowing for the mannered style of acting prevalent in the 1940s) damn near flawless.

Henry Travers and Patricia Collinge as Joseph and Emma Newton, Charlie's parents, bring a rumpled humanity to their roles, while Edna May Wonacott as Charlie's younger sister Ann, full of intellectual pretentions, just about steals the show. Hume Cronyn is terrific as Joseph's nerdy friend Herbie Hawkins. The pair are obsessed with murder mysteries and swap ideas for the perfect murder, placidly unaware that someone is actually planning it under their very roof. The scenes between Joseph and Herbie are rich in gallows humour and laced with irony.

Just like the film itself, really. 'A Shadow of a Doubt' is as seductive as its villain, often blackly amusing, but its every scene underpinned by menace, grimy ironies and the expectation of a dark resolution.

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