Saturday, 1 October 2016

Masterpieces of Cinema (2): Rochelle and Simon tackle Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

RS: Right, full disclosure time: I have a slightly disturbing and vaguely inexplicable love for Joseph Cotten.  Actually it’s not inexplicable, the man was a fox.  However, this is not the reason why I think that Shadow of a Doubt is Hitchcock’s best film (Hitchcock himself thought the same, by the way, but I’m not expecting anyone to take that wily bastard’s word on anything).  When I was re-watching it for the umpteenth time last week, I realised that its genius hinges on the subversive and often downright inappropriate relationship between Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) and Little Charlie, his niece (Teresa Wright).  On previous viewings I’d picked up on the dodgy incest subtext, which is difficult to miss since so many of their scenes are staged to echo the standard romantic clichés of the time.  There’s the usual joyful reunion at the station, complete with them running into each other’s arms, as well as all those adoring glances and passionate declamations of mutual admiration, to say nothing of Uncle Charlie’s present to Charlie, that emerald (engagement) ring, engraved with someone else’s declaration of undying love.

What I noticed this time, though, was just how much mirroring Hitchcock creates between these two namesakes.  In fact, each of the Charlies is introduced in exactly the same way (lying on their bed staring vacantly into the middle distance) in similarly composed shots, just with the staging reversed.  The film appears to be asking, if they’re so similar, why is Uncle Charlie such a murderous psychopath, when Little Charlie is an apparently blameless and intelligent young woman? Was it nature or nurture that made him this way? Or is it that Little Charlie has the same potential for violence, if circumstances require it?

ST: I would suggest the latter, to be honest: Uncle Charlie’s violent tendencies are given some kind of contextual gloss – there’s a suggestion that a childhood accident might have unlocked some previously dormant side of his personality – but it’s perfectly clear to me that we’re meant to read his sociopathy as essentially innate, given free play by a combination of upbringing (over-indulgent parenting is definitely in this movie’s sights as a subject ripe for critique) and opportunity.  Young Charlie, meanwhile, is perhaps not indulged to the same extent as her uncle, but she has a restless, refusenik quality in common with him, which simply finds different outlets. 

When reading Hitchcock’s movies, it’s often instructive to see where they fit in his chronology, and Shadow of a Doubt falls slap in the middle of a really interesting run of films Hitchcock made in the 40s after having emigrated to the States.  With the exception of Mr and Mrs Smith (1941), which I don’t think Hitch was 100% satisfied with, his films from Rebecca (1940) through to and including Notorious (1946) follow the same pattern: nominally apolitical psychological thrillers about a family hiding a dark secret (usually a murderer), interspersed with more overtly, though ambiguously propagandistic films about the growing threat of European Fascism (this agitprop component of Hitchcock’s output’s most overtly on display in Foreign Correspondent [1940], although Saboteur [1942], Lifeboat [1944], and Notorious [1946] all qualify as ‘anti-fascist’ to a greater or lesser extent). 

Why ‘nominally’ apolitical?  Why ‘ambiguously’ propagandistic?  Let’s take Shadow of a Doubt as a case in point, as it’s the best of his 40s films, and the most troubling from a number of standpoints.  The apolitical reading would ground this solely in the familial narrative: yes, it’s undergirded by some really troubling Freudian connotations; and yes, it suggests the wholesome Rockwellian all-American family might not represent the untroubled Eden of the Eisenhower-era mythos; but even taking these facets of the narrative on board, it would be possible to begin and end your reading of the film within the limits of the family homestead, and not have to worry about what Hitchcock might be saying about the historical moment.  But what if we did bring specific political events into play?  What if we accept Uncle Charlie as an explicit representation of Fascist threat – some of his speeches about the ‘bestiality’ of rich women suggest we’re definitely meant to read the film in this way – and Young Charlie’s gradual realisation of her uncle’s misogynistic perfidiousness as an analogue for the awakening of the American people to the scale of the threat waiting for them on the other side of the Atlantic?  Then we’re wading into much murkier and interesting territory, right?              

Joseph Cotton (far right, next to the horse), in Horse Eats Hat (1936)

RS: I think so, because there is the distinct suggestion that Little Charlie is prepared to overlook her uncle’s murderous habits just as long as he leaves quietly and doesn’t cause an embarrassing scene.  The film questions the limits of what a decent person is able to put up with when it’s other people rather than themselves that are under threat.  The merry widow that Uncle Charlie encounters in the bank is a case in point: there doesn’t seem to be much overt sympathy for her imminent peril; rather it’s the family’s reputation that Little Charlie is worried about.  What’s interesting here, though, is that she tells Uncle Charlie that if he doesn’t leave she’ll kill him herself, which corresponds with the idea that such behaviour is innate, but also considerably raises the narrative stakes: the audience becomes aware that this is likely to be a battle to the death, rather than a straightforward pursuit of hunter and prey.  Perhaps this chimes with the idea of the historical moment too, in that Little Charlie’s worldview has been completely and irrevocably altered at that point, as though she’s realised that it’s up to the person in the street to oppose the kind of fascistic threat that Uncle Charlie represents.  There’s just such a contrast between Uncle Charlie and Little Charlie’s father, the latter being endlessly fascinated with plotting the perfect murder, while the former actually carries them out.  It feels as though the film is capturing that moment when comparatively innocent game-playing switches to something far darker.

ST: I would read it as more directly political than that: that Little Charlie’s father is able to treat murder as a game or a past-time because he’s a ‘civilian’ in this world, whereas the two Charlies are in effect combatants, well-versed in what violence actually entails – a knowledge that bonds them together, however monstrously – and incapable of communicating that knowledge fully to their friends and compatriots.  I think the reason I read Hitchcock’s wartime movies as radically ambiguous in their propagandistic motives – both the overt and covert pieces detailed above – is precisely because they keep foregrounding these moral questions in a manner that’s inevitably (and unusually) unsettling for an audience more acclimatised to morally black-and-white accounts of anti-Nazi derring-do.  In short, Little Charlie – like the ragtag gang of shipwreck survivors in Lifeboat, for example – must become the monster in order to defeat the monster.  There’s no real sense of catharsis in her defeat of her murderous relative in the final moments of this film, at least in part because Hitch is very careful to render Uncle Charlie’s death in decidedly uncertain terms – leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether his niece pushes him from the carriage door with malice aforethought, or whether he tumbles to his doom due to the caprices of accidental fate – but primarily because we’re asked to contemplate what comes after.  Here’s a young girl, remember, whose journey into the vagaries of adulthood has taken the form of a struggle to the death with her serial killing uncle, and her success in this grubby endeavour is predicated on the fact that she’s taken a human life, however necessary and ‘moral’ that act might have been in the grand scheme of things.  Raising the spectre of Lifeboat again, there’s a very similar moral journey made by the characters in that film, too, for all of the major differences in narrative structure and setting: both films belong much more readily to the ethical universe of film noir than to the more crowd-pleasing cinematic war efforts that Hitch’s British compatriots were producing at the same time.        

RS: I see what you mean about the two Charlies being ‘combatants’ rather than ‘civilians’.  In that final scene with Little Charlie telling Detective Graham about how they are the only ones who know the truth about Uncle Charlie, there’s a camaraderie that is quite unexpected.  It reads more like two war buddies rather than the (slightly peculiar) romantic relationship that has been developing over the second half of the film, and it’s another moment where Hitchcock successfully exploits and then undermines the audience’s expectations regarding Little Charlie’s future.  Rather than discussing marriage (like they were earlier in the film), Little Charlie and Graham are talking about concealing the identity of a serial killer, whose plaudit-filled funeral is still in progress.  I suppose long-term relationships have been built on less.

In terms of the noir tradition, Little Charlie is a strange character.  She’s no femme fatale, and she’s not really the wholesome girl-next-door – at least, not by the final reel.  I’ve always assumed that she does push Uncle Charlie from the train, simply because if his death is accidental it makes the ending neat and tidy rather than subversive and disturbing, and Hitchcock is more about the latter than the former.  In fact, that scene always reminds me of the end of Sabotage (1936), another film about an unseen, anonymous threat to democratic society (with added puppies), when Mrs Verloc stabs up her treacherous terrorist of a husband after realising he inadvertently killed her little brother (and the aforementioned puppy).  You’d have to be a cold-hearted bastard not to be hoping she gets away with it, but the fact that she does is still something of a surprise.  Hitchcock seems to be interested in capturing that moment of conflict where the audience both identifies with and is horrified by the protagonist, and there’s something similar happening in Shadow of a Doubt.  Little Charlie becomes almost monstrous and definitely alienated in order to preserve her community’s innocence, and while we don’t necessarily want to see her fail, it’s a profoundly uncomfortable feeling when she succeeds.

Hitch enjoying a modestly sized pretzel at the Psycho premiere

ST: It’s something Hitchcock keeps coming back to, even later on, isn’t it?  Witness, say, the scenes in Psycho (1960), where the audience is drawn into Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) attempt to cover up ‘Mother’s’ murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh): we watch him clean up the bathroom, remove the infamous shower curtain, and dispose of the incriminating triumvirate of Marion’s corpse, baggage and car in the nearby swamp, at all points horribly aware of how we’re being manipulated into some kind of warped empathy with this morally repugnant man.  In Rear Window (1954), too, Hitch repeats to trope of ordinary citizens stepping over the line of acceptable legality to bring a miscreant to justice: Jimmy Stewart turns voyeur [1], Grace Kelly gets involved in a little light breaking and entering, and they both collude in an act of fake blackmail, all in an effort to entrap Raymond Burr’s hulking ‘voluntary widower’. 

But even in these instances, Hitchcock never full-bloodedly returns to the truly murky moral universe of his British and early American films, to my mind anyway (although the troubling collusion between protagonist and antagonist in Strangers on a Train [1951] is probably the closest fit in terms of mood and moral implications).  It’s precisely this murkiness – which has a distinct Patrick Hamilton / C S Forester [2] flavour to it – which provides these films with their strength, and guarantees them their premier position within Hitchcock’s output, with Shadow of a Doubt the grubby jewel in a deliciously tarnished crown.  I do feel generally that the 30s and 40s get a little neglected in coverage of Hitchcock as a director, though, with his later films (Vertigo [1958] in particular) tending to garner the most critical and audience attention at the expense of the earlier movies.  Do you feel that’s the case?   

RS: Most definitely.  My favourite Hitchcock film used to be Rear Window, which I still love, but although it is so smart and visually inventive, there’s nothing like the same level of unsettling confusion that makes Shadow of a Doubt and the other earlier films so memorable.  Discussions of Hitchcock’s later films can sometimes seem to reduce his work to a succession of grisly deaths and foxy blondes, as though his points of obsession became more pronounced in the second half of his career.  Shadow of a Doubt was a revelation because it has to operate within the most extreme strictures of the Hayes code, and yet still produces the most cold-blooded psychopath of Hitchcock’s entire back catalogue.  Perhaps it’s those restrictions that promote his creative inventiveness, or perhaps it’s just Joseph Cotten kicking ass, but Shadow of a Doubt feels like a leaner, more upsetting film than any of those later examples, and as such deserves more recognition than it gets.

ST: Indeed, and I’d argue that genius in any artistic field resides not in total freedom and creative control on the part of the artist, but rather in the capacity of the artist to work within the codes and restrictions of his/her period and still produce a series of masterpieces (Hitchcock and his peers are no different to the painters and sculptors of the Italian Renaissance in this respect).  In curtailed and more controversial terms: creativity is constraint.  (That might be material for an entirely different series of posts, however.)  More broadly, this period of Hitchcock’s – running from, say, the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 to Notorious in ’46 – feels like an untapped resource, a hidden treasure-trove, which, precisely because it doesn’t get the same kind of coverage as the acknowledged classics that came later, is yet to fully yield up its secrets.  I’d urge anyone who’s even slightly interested in film to delve, and there’s no better place to start than Shadow of a Doubt.         


[1] Although the film’s real interest lies in the suggestion that the voyeuristic impulse resides in all of us: Stewart’s character is simply using a natural yet morbid human leaning to some kind of societal good, albeit a deeply morally troublesome ‘good’. 

[2] I’m referring to Forester’s excellent trio of seedy, proto-Graham Greene crime novels, by the way, not the Hornblower series of books, which are decidedly unmurky in character.

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