Friday, May 21, 2010

Oscar Noir: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) might not be the first film that comes to mind when considering the Film Noir genre, but it certainly embodies the themes and nuances of Hollywood’s dark drama. Co-written by Americana connoisseur Thornton Wilder, Shadow deliberates on the naïve beliefs of a small-town girl named Charlie (Teresa Wright). Charlie’s bored with her picturesque but simple little world, and yearns for some excitement…the kind of excitement her favorite Uncle Charlie (who she’s named for) sees on a daily basis. Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) is a traveler of the world. He’s rich, he’s charming and – though she may not know it – a little bit dangerous.

It could be argued that Uncle Charlie’s “danger” is precisely the excitement that draws the younger Charlie in, but that isn’t really the point...yet. For all these reasons and then some, the younger Charlie adores her uncle. He is her hero. And when he comes to town to visit, she’s eager for his presence to spice up her dull life.

Of course what WE know – what we learn upon his very introduction – is that Uncle Charlie is a man on the run. We don’t really know why, but we know he is a bad man. And with this knowledge we dreadfully anticipate the shattering of younger Charlie’s innocent naivety.

Shadow is often mistaken as a “did he or didn’t he” thriller, where we believe/label the character in question as either good or bad, but we hold on to our reservations – our doubts – until we learn for sure. Those that view this film that way see a fault in Uncle Charlie’s introduction, where we meet him dressed in black, lying next to a pile of loose cash and invoking vampiric imagery, then ditching the guys following him, mutering “they got nothing on me.” Some would complain that this scene takes away the “did he or didn’t he” suspense. I’d
argue that’s the whole point. I mean, how could it not?

Instead what this scene does is set us up for the downfall of innocence to come. In Shadow of a Doubt, Wilder, Hitchcock and co. establish a darkness on the edge of town, then create a picturesque family home in contrast, and line the two up to crash. The homemaker wife (Patricia Collinge), the kind-hearted banker father (Henry Travers), the three apple pie-eating children – this is 1940s Americana at its pinnacle. And Uncle Charlie is coming to poison it.

This is where Hitchcock finds his suspense, buried in our anticipation and expectations. What did Uncle Charlie do? When will his family find out? How will they find out? And what will happen when they do? In the mean time we study the contrasts, Charlie v Charlie. The latter is corrupted by negativity and faithlessness, a warning of what the younger could become. They share the same name, but are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and THAT is the point of Shadow.

It’s also the eternal struggle inherent to everything Noir. Film Noir digs deep into the good/evil conflict at the heart of most films and stories, but places that battle internally, within the hearts of men…within ourselves. Like Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Cotton’s Uncle Charlie is fighting that battle within, and he’s losing. He loves his niece, and her family. His crimes are justified, at least within his own, poisoned mind. He’s got a good side…but his darker side is our Noir.

The balance in Cotton’s performance is deviously triumphant, and Wright’s counter-performance is equally strong, once she’s finally able to break free of the Americana charicture she’s first painted into. And as always, Hitchcock’s direction is adamantly professional. You can feel the purpose in his every shot, is embracement of Noir, its angles and its shadows (check out the "fit for framing" shot of younger Charlie at the bottom of the stairs).  It’s always great to watch a film made by a director in complete control.

Shadow of a Doubt is less a thriller than a dramatic commentary. It moves at a small-town pace, and doesn’t often play with “Hollywood” stakes. But it is no less interesting, and no less impactful. Watch it and see the influence of this film on those you already know, including the Hitchcock pillaging in Disturbia (2007), which I actually enjoyed. Watching Shadow of a Doubt now helps me understand why.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Nice. I do love this movie and Joseph Cotten is fantastic in it.


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