Tuesday, May 17, 2011

To Banish Evil, One Must Choose Good

At first glance, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is an underwhelming film.
There is nothing in this 1943 effort that matches the director’s murderous shower scene, his flocks of deadly birds or the dramatic confrontation he staged on the stony precipice of Mount Rushmore. Perhaps this is why Pauline Kael wrote the film “isn’t as much fun” as the director’s more ostentatious efforts?

In spite of overt simplicity, Shadow of a Doubt is a remarkable film, one in which a frenzy of psychological activity quivers just beneath the surface and every scene is carefully crafted so that it enhances the greatness of the whole. Hitchcock himself said this is the best picture he made in America – and he may very well be right. So far as I can tell, everything in this film is working exactly as it should, and I can think of no other Hitchcock picture that deals with good and evil as frankly and as poignantly as this one.
It is very easy, of course, to depict evil in its most perverse and grandiose forms.
One need look no further than the James Bond franchise, with is deformed and egoistical madmen, each bent on annihilating something for nothing other reason than to enhance their own sense of self, to see what I am talking about. Nazism and its adherents is another Hollywood favorite – for who among us cannot sneer at the evil Germans and root for their failure? Real evil, the kind of criminal evil each of us stands a greater chance of encountering, is much more mundane, much harder to detect. In Shadow of a Doubt, evil does not lurch onto screen, ugly and scarred and cackling so we know to pay attention to it. Instead, it is quietly invited into the picture’s plot, and for a great deal of time, we are not even certain it is there.

Joseph Cotten as the banal killer.

The inevitable struggle that follows takes place largely inside the mind of Charlie Newton, the film’s youthful protagonist. At the beginning of the picture, Newton is bored with her life in idyllic Santa Rosa and yearns for excitement. In this, she is not alone. Charlie’s father and the family’s next door neighbor are working stiffs who seem incapable of engaging in anything like fun. The pair’s solitary flash of spontaneity and leisure comes when they engage in a macabre verbal game, in which they describe how they will kill each other and then fix it so the police never discover the crime. This foolishness, fired by an overconsumption of mystery novels, also serves to illustrate the innocence of existence in Eden-like Santa Rosa. Actual murderers, intent on committing real murders, could never dwell in such a tranquil place.
When word reaches Charlie’s family that Uncle Charlie is poised to pay an unexpected visit, everyone believes the pivot away from the mundane they were all looking for has finally arrived and life will perk up. The arrival of Uncle Charlie does indeed spice things up, but not in the way anyone intended. Charlie is secretly informed by two private investigators that Uncle Charlie is one of a handful of men suspected of being the “Merry Widow Murderer,” a serial killer who seduces, murders and then robs wealthy widows.

Ominous arrival.

At first, Charlie refuses to consider the idea. At work here is not only familial loyalty, but Charlie’s shared similarities with her uncle. Throughout the film, the two Charlie’s are presented as doppelgangers, in that both carry the same name, the same genes and seem to share a distinct unease with slow-paced suburban living. Uncle Charlie sees much of the same disquiet that drove him from Santa Rosa in his niece, while Charlie correspondingly views her Uncle as something of a sophisticated and well-traveled man of the world. If she shares the same personality as him, the same proclivities and tastes, then the fact her Uncle became a killer is a kind of indictment of her as well.
For his part, Uncle Charlie seems fairly harmless until he tips his hand at dinner one night with a rambling rant about widows being fat animals who deserve to be slaughtered. The remarks are completely shrugged off by the family, but Charlie knows exactly what her Uncle is talking about, and from that point on, the cat-and-mouse game played between the two becomes the film’s dramatic heart. But in order to best her Uncle, Charlie must fully open her eyes and shed her childish naiveté, a point her Uncle makes when he accuses her of being no different than the innocent townspeople in Santa Rosa:
"You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly, inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?"
As I have already suggested, Charlie shares part of her Uncle’s unsettledness and therefore is less surprised by his shocking – but ultimately banal – turn to evil. Charlie is the lone character capable of understanding what the people of Santa Rosa cannot (the only other people in the film who know the truth about Uncle Charlie are detectives who come from the city). In this sense, the film is something of a Bildungsroman, in that Charlie leaves her childhood and matures into an adult during the film’s events. As Paul Duncan notes, she begins the film in a dress and ends the film in a suit. Along the way, she must face down disturbing truths and choose to follow her own nature (and in doing so, wind up like her Uncle) or reject it and help protect the innocent folks around her.

Two sides of the same coin...
That Charlie not only vanquishes the evil in everyone’s midst but then chooses to prevent their knowledge of it by never revealing her Uncle’s deeds is illustrative of both her ultimate choice and her commitment to it. Charlie has left childhood behind, faced the realities of the world and chosen to function as one of the often overlooked and underappreciated guardians who keep places like Santa Rosa free from harm: Good has triumphed over evil – and all because a girl had the strength to ignore her own inclinations and do what is right.
The power of the above is made even greater by this film’s subtle astuteness. There is no proselytizing, no blaze of holy glory. Accordingly, among the Hitchcock cannon, this gem should never be forgotten, overlooked or ignored in favor of its more flashy cousins. Watch it and be amazed. Then watch it again and be even more amazed at how much cleverer the entire enterprise becomes once you know what comes next. Like a well-made piano, all of the requisite parts here are expertly crafted and carefully assembled, so that when the plot calls for a particular key to be struck, the notes sing out, pitch-perfect and resonate for precisely the right amount of time.

1 comment:

  1. Hitchcock sometimes called "Shadow of a Doubt" his favorite of his own films (and he once cracked that it "brought murder back into the home where it belongs"). To my mind, it's Hitchcock's first American masterpiece (I don't discount "Rebecca," but there was a great deal of David O. Selznick in the production, while the story, setting and cast are all very British - maybe I quibble...). As with all of his best films, "Shadow of a Doubt" works on the surface and it works at deeper levels. I sometimes think there are as many layers to the Hitchcock's masterworks as one wishes to explore. This may be part of their appeal.
    Hitchcock told Truffaut and others, "the better the villain, the better the picture," and while that didn't always apply, Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie is masterful villain, both sublime and powerful.
    I noticed something toward the end of your review that caught my attention. You wrote that it had been noted that young Charlie "begins the film in a dress and ends the film in a suit." Something similar happened to 'the second Mrs. deWinter' in "Rebecca." In very different circumstances, that character evolved from an unsure girl to a secure, mature woman in the course of that film.
    Great review of one of my very favorite Hitchcocks.