If the motives of filmmakers are revealed in the frames of their more obscure pictures, then “Shadow of a Doubt” is a resounding testament to the power of Alfred Hitchcock’s vast creative engine. So much of our admiration for the master of suspense hinders on our desire to explore the common bonds that unite his greatest achievements, but when the occasion comes to visit those that dwell in our peripheral knowledge, they inhabit our minds like lost discoveries. Vicious birds, voyeurism, murder and psychotic tendencies may dominate the groundwork of his most notable endeavors, but it is in the simple notions of suspicion and guilt that the real value of his talent is tested, and this thoughtful 1943 noir – about a mysterious family man with a dark history – emerges, even now, as a watershed moment for those sorts of psychological considerations.
It’s astonishing to think how such concepts had once been reviled in the golden age of reputable cinema. Movies about characters with those sorts of dubious backgrounds had, up to that point, belonged almost exclusively to the world of B-movies, and major film studios dared not touch on subjects perceived as cynical for fear of undercutting broad appeal. But when Hitchcock – a new voice in Hollywood in the early 1940s – engaged in those storytelling tactics through the audacity of technical craftsmanship, those ideas leapt past the notion of being disposable yarns and found a macabre rhythm that undermined nearly every element of a viewer’s personal security. To them, his earliest movies possessed a purity of conviction that acted as a magnet for dogged interest, and despite decades of thematic weathering they more often than not still possess the spark of a mad genius who loves toying with us in the space of disquieting realities.
The central strength of “Shadow of a Doubt” is that it does all of this, and more, under the pitch of deadpan sincerity without ever actually taking the subject matter into the realm of graphic detail. Nearly every scene is shot as a circular suggestion, a moment of pondering in which characters are never seen in the process of something horrific, and yet spend most of their time shooting suspicious glances back and forth as if in contemplation of unseen misdeeds (or worse yet, derailing threats). Apart from an introductory scene that implies some level of corrupt nature, one almost never expects such prospects to unfold in these lives. The early moments between Uncle Charlie (a weary Joseph Cotton) and his relatives are almost sickeningly typical, punctuated by dialogue of passive wonderment; many in the family ask what he has been up to in his recent absence but are too excited to stop for actual answers. He counterbalances those joyous moments with thinly veiled discomfort, especially in the presence of outside knowledge. When a newspaper arrives in his hands one night after a family meal, he peruses the pages in anxious pursuit of something, and quietly sneaks a page away to his jacket pocket when he spots an article he would rather not share with the others.
What does that clipping say? It reveals the latest details regarding the pursuit of a notorious widow killer, who strangles his victims, makes off with their money and disappears for long stretches before once again returning to the murderous pattern, inevitably leaving legal authorities baffled. The movie does not provide this information any earlier than necessary, either; aside from deepening the mystery, it serves to fuel the curiosity of his niece (Teresa Wright), who knows her uncle well enough to suspect a big secret but does not believe it to be anything serious, even after she attempts to snatch the paper away from him and is almost met with physical harm. Other details unravel her confidence in gradual increments, however. There is a critical scene, for instance, when relatives reveal a childhood trauma involving her uncle acquiring a nearly fatal head injury. A visit from a couple of men claiming to be reporters interviewing an “average American family” seems to cloak deeper agendas. Uncle Charlie, now anxious and wide-eyed like a deer in the headlights, refuses to have his picture taken for… who knows why? When her morbid curiosity ultimately results in a cold splash of knowledge, their relationship is put into clout as they both quietly engage in the realization that, yes, their destinies must now walk a tightrope separating loyalty from integrity.
The balancing act of these dichotomous dynamics might have been risky even for Hitchcock, if not for the fact that his screenplay had been co-written by the talented Thornton Wilder. The movie was their only collaboration together, and yet the marriage of their sensibilities seems to narrow the perspective of the characters into claustrophobic precision; the director’s knack for isolating his players is brilliantly matched with the Wilder sensibility of enveloping them all in intellectual dialogue that entrenches them as unobtrusive witnesses to subtle intrigue. Because the story treats the details with progressive urgency, that heightens the suspense of the unspoken. Who is to say, for example, that Charlie’s horrific misdeeds – assuming they are real – are not the precursor to something more sinister? When his niece finally reveals her knowledge in hopes of seeking some kind of explanation, will the formality of a lifelong bond be enough to protect her from his unpredictable reactions? As much perspective as they reveal to one another in verbal exchanges, so too does the surrounding silence agitate our sense of cautious observation on them both.
Nearly every moment of this display is retrained, well-framed and exemplified by stylistic brilliance. The cinematographer Joseph Valentine (who also shot “Saboteur” and “Rope”) sweeps through the action like a participant rather than an intrusive eye scoping for incriminating material, and the faces of the characters are given startling depth by the strategic use of shadows and light, often to emphasize their shifting moods. Some of the key Hitchcock staples – including the notorious “incriminating object” – are utilized to full effect here (the item in this case: the all-important missing newspaper clipping), and the remarkable use of black and white enriches the visual presence; it’s as if we are viewing it all as some part of horrifying dreamscape we seek liberation from. And if the visual touches do not cement the notion that we are deliriously caught up in this foreboding situation, then the chatter of supporting players does: particularly with the dialogue shared between Charlie’s father Joseph and his neighbor Herbie (Hume Cronyn), who are avid mystery readers that banter over what would be the most effective way to murder one other without getting caught.
Invasive or otherwise, there is always an underlying sarcasm in Hitchcock’s perspective that makes his movies so endlessly watchable. As our minds are easily enraptured by the sheer austerity of his themes, we smile wryly at the likelihood of a man standing behind the camera with a grin of smug satisfaction. Against that shameless conviction, we are drawn to his rich catalogue (familiar or otherwise) because there is always something new to discover in it: new details, arguments, perspectives, sometimes intentions. For six decades there was seldom a moment where he strayed from the philosophy that an audience would respond more enthusiastically to the jolts of careful manipulation, and in a career of some 60-plus pictures, nearly every endeavor revealed a unique facet of that intricate persona. What is distinctive enough about that sentiment to make this movie so pertinent in that exhaustive filmography? During his famous 1963 interviews with Francois Truffaut, the filmmaker referenced the “bomb under the table” metaphor as a way to describe the difference between surprise (a momentary thrill) and suspense (a succession of tense moments). “Shadow of a Doubt” is the full-fledged embodiment of the latter sensibility, a movie where the bomb ticks anxiously down to the boiling point of dread without indicating when it might go off or who might get hurt in the process.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Thriller (US); 1943; Rated PG for strong thematic elements; Running Time: 108 Minutes
Teresa Wright: Charlotte “Charlie” Newton
Joseph Cotton: Charlie Oakley
Macdonald Carey: Jack Graham
Patricia Collinge: Emma Newton
Henry Travers: Joseph Newton
Hume Cronyn: Herbie Hawkings
Produced by Jack H. Skirball; Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville; based on the story by Gordon McDonnell