On Tuesday, April 29, for the 12th and final feature of our screening series with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, we’re proud to present Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, a morbid portrait of the rotting underbelly of an idyllic small town that is perhaps the darkest of his early movies. Its ideas and influence are everywhere in pop culture; it’s responsible for a huge chunk of David Lynch’s career and Kim Gordon’s best Sonic Youth song.
To get you prepped, we reached out to a bevy of Hitchcock scholars and a Nitehawk staffer and got them to offer up some thoughts on what’s widely considered to be Hitchcock’s first masterpiece.
The screening will preceded by a taped introduction by Martin Scorsese, whose Film Foundation deserves an extra round of applause for its continued efforts at keeping films on film. At a time when the industry is undergoing a seismic shift in exhibition format and movie theater attendance is dropping, it’s almost unheard of to present a 12-film series all on 35mm.
Though this marks the end of this series of screenings, we’ve always got more stuff going on with Nitehawk. Be on the lookout our Journalists in Film series, presented by VICE News, beginning in May.
-Introduction by Greg Eggebeen
Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s favorite of his films and it's not hard to see why. His perennial theme of menace and perversion lurking beneath the veneer of middle-class civility and decorum is realized here with pitch-perfect precision. Loosely remaking his third film, The Lodger, Shadow of a Doubt is the first Hitchcock work to fully embrace the American idiom thanks to a felicitous collaboration with Thornton Wilder: The small town ironies of Our Town’s unrealized dreams seamlessly harmonize with Hitchcock’s morbidly dark comedy. We perceive the insidiously urbane protagonist, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), largely through the eyes of his double, the restless, spirited Young Charlie (Teresa Wright), who summons him to rejuvenate her boringly mundane familial existence. While Young Charlie slowly and painfully begins to discover the truth about her beloved Uncle, her mother, deliciously played by Patricia Collinge, hangs glutinously upon his every word.
Hitchcock weaves expressionist idioms into the visual design of the work to bestow upon Uncle Charlie the menace of a vampire. The suspense kicks in when Uncle Charlie realizes that Young Charlie is the only one who knows the truth about him, while two old men played by Hume Cronyn and Harry Travers (Wilder and Hitchcock?) provide a delightful running commentary on how to perform the perfect murder. Yet Shadow, as Hitchcock’s French admirers were the first to realize, adds up to more than the sum of its parts to pose a profound and disquieting moral question: How are we ultimately to distinguish Uncle Charlie from his double, Young Charlie, and what are we to say about the small town in 1943 America that seems so ready to embrace him?
William Rothman –author of Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze and Must We Kill the Thing We Love?: Emersonian Perfectionism and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock was profoundly attracted to the moral outlook—rooted in the American Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau—that enabled the Hollywood movies of the New Deal era to achieve their rare combination of popularity and seriousness. The 39 Steps followed the lead of It Happened One Night, the monster hit that marked 1934 as the beginning of the period when the Emersonian worldview was ascendant in Hollywood, by concluding with the union of a man and woman that holds a hope of being a relationship worth having. In turn, the brilliant thrillers Hitchcock made in the few years remaining before his departure for Hollywood followed the lead of The 39 Steps by aligning Hitchcock thrillers with American romantic comedies—but only up to a point. Hitchcock found himself unwilling or unable to abandon himself to the genre’s Emersonian outlook, which was already beginning to suffer repression in Hollywood—as in the nation at large—by the time David O. Selznick lured him to America. For Hitchcock was no less powerfully drawn to an incompatible vision. He never tired of quoting Oscar Wilde’s line, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”
What, if anything, legitimizes killing? How, if at all, does the act of killing change the person who performs that act? Every Hitchcock thriller has its own way of posing and addressing these questions, and of thinking through their implications for the “art of pure cinema” which Hitchcock was both master and slave. But the Nazi menace gave these questions special urgency in Hitchcock’s British films of the late 1930s, such as Secret Agent, Sabotage, and The Lady Vanishes, and the films he made in America during World War II like Shadow of a Doubt and Lifeboat, its less celebrated companion piece.
Lifeboat calls upon us to ponder the moral difference, if any, between the murder of Gus (William Bendix) by the German Willi (Walter Slezak) and the killing of Willi by the American and British survivors on the lifeboat. Nazis are human beings, just as we are. Can we kill them without becoming like them? Shadow of a Doubt brings the issue home. When Young Charlie discovers that her beloved Uncle Charles, scion of a “typical American family,” is the moral equivalent of a Nazi, she threatens to kill him if he doesn’t leave town. Would there be a difference, morally, between his acts of killing and hers? Hitchcock’s judgment is that one is murder, the other not. But Shadow of a Doubt makes clear that the implications of this question are complicated—and disturbing.
For all its philosophical seriousness, it's also one of his most enjoyable films. The opening sequence takes place in a quintessential film noir milieu—remarkable, since it predates the genre—and the action soon moves to a small-town Americana setting reminiscent of Meet Me in St. Louis and Our Town, which isn’t surprising, since Sally Benton (who wrote the stories on which Minnelli’s beloved musical was based) and Thornton Wilder were two of the film’s screenwriters. The third screenwriter was Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife, which is a key, I suspect, to the film’s intimate, warmly humorous and loving, yet also chilling depiction of family life. (In Young and Innocent and Stage Fright, two other Hitchcock films in which family life figures prominently, Alma Reville is credited for “continuity” and “adaptation” respectively, but Shadow of a Doubt is the only film for which she receives a screenwriter credit.) A host of brilliant actors and actresses bring its finely drawn characters vividly and pleasurably—and ultimately movingly—to life. Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Hume Cronyn, and Henry Travers are all flawless, but I rank Patricia Collinge’s inspired and haunting performance among the greatest ever brought to the screen.
Relatives are loaded with surprises. Family politics don’t get documented like public politics, which makes the record easy to smudge as new generations pop up. Drug problems, failed first marriages, arrests, abuse—that stuff can be swept away, forgotten, or obscured over time. We put on our best faces for family, but there’s always something lingering behind it, some detail that puts your family’s perception of you at risk.
In Shadow of a Doubt, wanted murderer Charles Oakley blows into his sister’s small California town to lay low after strangling three widows on the East Coast. A violent, brooding man, Charles wears the mask of the charming outsider, playfully challenging his family’s small-town ways. His sister’s family buys into his act fully—even as he lazily starts to let his mask slip—all except for his oldest niece, Charlotte, who takes to being called “Charlie,” after her uncle.
Charles and Charlie share a special bond. They’re not psychic, like Charlie suspects, but they can see through the other’s acts. Neither of them seems to enjoy the simplicity of small-town existence, but they stick around for different reasons. Charlie loves her family, Charles likes that no one asks any questions.
The two spend much of the first half of the film staring side-eyed at one another. Something’s off. She knows it and he knows it. Once he’s found out, Charles urges his once doting niece to accept his facade. After all, what’s real? Everyone hides something, and in small town life, image is everything. But Charlie is shattered when sees that incriminating headline, “WHERE IS THE MERRY WIDOW MURDERER?” After that, she just can’t stop staring at his hands. (Incidentally, that headline reveal drops like a bomb. Hitchcock apparently instructed that the shot feel like a gasp for breath.)
References to our natural duplicity pop up throughout Shadow of a Doubt. Charlie’s mother doesn’t want a shabby sofa to appear in the newspaper because she doesn’t want the rest of the country to think they don’t have nice furniture. Little Ann calls Charlie out for playing the doting niece to impress her uncle. Charlie’s father and his neighbor pass the time playfully planning to secretly kill one another.
Charles is right: Everyone holds onto secrets, donning different masks day to day. To him, the past is the past, and we should move on from there. The problem for Charlie is how closely she identifies with her uncle, even after she pegs him as a murderer. If Uncle Charlie is a monster, what does that make her?
Preserved by the Library of Congress in cooperation with Universal Studios with funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Film Foundation.
Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.
For tickets, click here. Complimentary drinks will be available from Larceny Bourbon after the screening in Nitehawk’s downstairs bar.
Follow Nitehawk on Twitter for the latest news from the cinema.