#230) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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#230) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

OR “The Wright Man”

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Thornton Wilder & Sally Benson & Alma Reville. Story by Gordon McDonnell.

Class of 1991

The Plot: The Newton family of Santa Rosa, California is surprised by a visit from Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). Family matriarch Emma (Patricia Collinge) is delighted to see her younger brother, but niece/namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright) notices something off about Uncle Charlie. He gives Charlie a pawned ring, he clips stories out of the newspaper, and he goes nuts when his photo is taken. The younger Charlie tries to put it together when two reporters (Macdonald Carey & Wallace Ford) show up wanting to interview everyone in the family. Are the reporters what they appear to be? Is Uncle Charlie who he appears to be? There’s a lot of mystery in the air, but if you’re a fan of classical music, the clues are right in front of you.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Hitchcock, and calls the film “intense” with “underscores that are incredibly dark, even for Hitchcock.” There’s also an essay by Thomas Leitch, Hitchcock expert and teacher of something called “Wikipedia U”.

But Does It Really?: It’s quite surprising that “Shadow of a Doubt” made the NFR before the likes of “Psycho”, “Rear Window” or “North by Northwest”, but on its own merits the film does not disappoint. Hitch had a grasp on well-plotted suspense from the get-go, and “Shadow” creates its drama not from its chases and murders, but rather from a purely psychological place. I’ll argue that Hitch’s later films are better paced, but “Shadow” is the springboard that takes Hitch to bigger and better movies. Perhaps Hitch’s reputation precedes this film too much for its own good, but “Shadow of a Doubt” is still a well-crafted suspense thriller that continues to shock 75 years later. Definitely worth a watch if you’re looking for terrific underrated Hitchcock.

Everybody Gets One: Playwright Thornton Wilder (whose “Our Town” helped give this film its small town quality), actor Hume Cronyn, and future soap opera star Macdonald Carey. And while she provided feedback on many Hitchcock films, this is the only credited appearance for screenwriter Alma Reville, aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock.

Wow, That’s Dated: This film’s main story points hinder on such now-dated things as telegrams, newspapers, and passenger trains.

Seriously, Oscars?: 1943 was a weird year for the Oscars. Very few of the films honored that year would be considered “classic” today, but the Academy did manage to give “Casablanca” its due as Best Picture. Despite critical praise, “Shadow of a Doubt” only received a single nomination: Best Story for Gordon McDonnell. He lost to William Saroyan for adapting his own novel “The Human Comedy”.

Other notes

  • “Shadow of a Doubt” was filmed on location in Santa Rosa (though I’m here to tell you the city has changed quite a bit). A few scenes had to be reshot months later at Universal Studios, and those sequences stick out like a sore thumb.
  • It’s fair to say that Teresa Wright would one day evolve into Eva Marie Saint.
  • Charlie’s bookworm sister Ann is played by Santa Rosa native Edna May Wanacott, who went on to write “Little Women” if I’m not mistaken.
  • Without planning to do so, I have now watched all five of Henry Travers’ NFR appearances within a span of only seven months. This is the movie where he discusses hypothetically murdering Hume Cronyn. Atta boy, Clarence!
  • Ann doesn’t want anyone to speak ill of the government. What a cute little nationalist you are.
  • Our director makes his cameo playing bridge on the train. Hitch’s appearance impedes on the scene that’s happening, something he was careful not to do in his later cameos.
  • Putting a hat on a bed is bad luck? We have too many superstitions.
  • There’s some weird chemistry going on between Cotten and Wright. You’re related!
  • Here’s my question: If you’re Joseph Cotten and you’ve got a newspaper clipping you don’t want your host family to see, why would you throw it away in a wastebasket in their house? Why not throw it away in a public trashcan, or set it on fire, or literally anything else?
  • This is one of the rare Hitchcock films where he doesn’t let the audience in on the secret before the main character finds out. Not that there should be any shock; Charlie is giving red flags left and right!
  • Does anyone else notice that Mom occasionally flubs a line, but just keeps going?
  • How old is the younger Charlie supposed to be? Teresa Wright was 24 when they filmed this, but it’s implied that Charlie is a teenager. That being said, she goes to a bar and several older men make eyes at her. What am I missing?
  • An off-screen Hitchcock trope: somewhere on the east coast is a man who may or may not be wrongfully accused.
  • It helps that Charlie’s parents are both conveniently myopic. Especially Mom, she’s so happy Uncle Charlie is back you can get her to go along with anything. Are we sure a streetcar didn’t hit her too?
  • My new favorite film character is Louise Finch, Charlie’s classmate/the waitress at the bar, as played by Janet Shaw in a thoroughly unenthusiastic performance. One can only imagine what she’s like when it’s a customer’s birthday.
  • At first I was grossed out by Macdonald Carey hitting on Teresa Wright, but then I learned that he’s only five years her senior. He looks way older and she looks way younger.

Legacy

  • Of the over 50 films Hitchcock directed, he repeatedly called “Shadow of a Doubt” his favorite.
  • Hitch enjoyed working with Hume Cronyn so much, he cast him in his next picture: “Lifeboat”. Cronyn also penned the screenplays for two Hitchcock films: “Rope” and “Under Capricorn”.
  • While watching this I suspected this movie was overdue for a shitty remake, and it’s got two! 1958’s “Step Down to Terror” and the 1991 TV movie namesake with Mark Harmon.
  • The 2013 “Stoker” takes its inspiration from “Shadow of a Doubt”, but then goes in a very different direction.

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