One of Hitchcock’s favorite films, a quiet little story of small town life and a visit from a larger than life relative who may or may not be a serial killer. Very low key - no chase scenes or fight scenes and all of the suspense is built around whether that adventurous relative is just an interesting guy or a criminal hiding from the police.
Though the pacing may be a little slow for 2010, the performance by Joseph Cotton is still great. Cotton is one of those underappreciated actors - he worked with Hitchcock and Orson Welles and Carol Reed starred in a great technicolor noir film with Marilyn Monroe as the femme fatale. He is not one of those Burt Lancaster larger-than-life actors, and you might think someone like Lancaster might have made a good Uncle Charles - international businessman who has been to Paris and Venice and the Orient. But Cotton’s performance in SHADOW OF A DOUBT is amazingly layered - he is both avuncular and adventurous. Charming and fun... but with an undercurrent of violence. When he smiles, you wonder if he’s ever ripped out someone’s throat with those teeth. He manages to do both things at once - so it’s not like there are two sides to Uncle Charles - he is always both charming and dangerous.
The key to the film is thinking that his character is that cool Uncle who brings you gifts and is fun to be with and tells these amazing stories of his exotic adventures... and also may be a serial killer. There are interesting scenes where he says inappropriate things (like at the bank) and that strange dinner table rant about how the world is really much uglier than it appears. Cotton goes from smiles to barely contained anger and insanity and back to a smile before anyone can react. He manages to give off conflicting vibes in every scene - nice guy and lunatic. Between this film and THE THIRD MAN you wonder why Cotton wasn’t a big star.
Nutshell: Charlie (Theresa Wright) is a young woman in small town Santa Rosa, California who is still living at home with her parents and siblings... and bored. She wishes something exciting would happen, like a visit from her Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotton) - a charming, wealthy businessman who travels the world and has an adventurous life. Her wish comes true when Uncles Charles comes to visit, with gifts for everyone in the family, and a beautiful ring for her. Uncle Charles plans on staying for a while, and has $40,000 in cash he wants to deposit in the bank where Charlie’s father (Henry Travers) works. If having $40,000 in cash in your pocket seems a little suspicious in 2010, imagine what that meant in 1943! Uncle Charles is a man of mysteries - he does not want to be photographed or have strangers know about him... and sometimes he behaves strangely. Charlie begins to wonder what her favorite uncle might be hiding... and when a pair of men show up claiming to be interviewing the family for a magazine article, Uncle Charles begins acting even more secretive. Young Charlie investigates, and discovers the two men are actually FBI Agents on the trail of a serial killer - the Merry Widow Killer - who targets wealthy widows. Is her favorite uncle a serial killer?
Experiment: Though the use of music and shots of people dancing is kinda weird, I'm going to save that for the section on soundtrack...
What is interesting about SHADOW is that it’s all about small town life and small town dreams. Hitchcock had adapted novels by famous writers in the past, and worked with some important writers (like Dorothy Parker) on screenplays, but this was the first of two movies that began with stories by big name writers - in this case, Thornton Wilder who wrote OUR TOWN... and Hitch followed this with a story by John Steinbeck for LIFEBOAT. I think it’s an interesting idea to use a famous writer as one of the “stars” of your movie - and in the case of SHADOW OF A DOUBT Wilder not only gets a story credit, he gets a special up front credit as well. Both SHADOW and LIFEBOAT were not adapted from previous material, they were original stories commissioned by Hitchcock (and the producers) for the film.
The general public read back then - this was before television, and even though there were dramas on the radio, there wasn’t a lunch box in America that didn’t have a fiction magazine inside. This was the pulp era - when some construction worker or plumber or store clerk would read short stories or a serialized novel or a chapter of a pulp novel on their lunch break... and after work, and maybe on the bus or trolley or train on the way to work. And their wives and girlfriends might read romance pulps, plus some upscale magazines like Blue Book or Saturday Evening Post which featured stories by people like Steinbeck and Wilder and other important writers of the time. This was a different world than today - when everyday people who barely got out of high school with a diploma - or maybe went to a trade high school where the focus was on *shop classes* - was still an avid reader. Of course, what they read might be the written equivalent of a Chuck Norris movie or an A TEAM episode, but they were readers. The cliche for a stupid, uneducated woman at the time showed them *reading* a romance or celebrity scandal magazine. The average person knew who Thornton Wilder was, and had probably read one of his stories. He was a *star* in the world of fiction - and that was part of the average person’s world.
So commissioning a story by the expert on small town life, Thornton Wilder, was kind of an experiment. What other movies were using *writers* as stars? This film feels related to THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, another film about small town life... and murder. It has a casual pace, so if you pop it in the DVD player - be prepared. Think of it as a story of small town life with a touch of murder, rather than a thrill ride.
Contrast Concept: Probably one of the reasons why this is one of Hitchcock's favorites is that it's an illustration of his theory that murder should not be in some dark alley but in some suburban kitchen. Contrast is conflict, and using sweet small town America as the location for a dark serial killer story makes the story much more interesting than if it took place in the big city.
Hitch Appearance: Look for him on the train to Santa Rosa playing cards, near the beginning of the film.
Great Scenes: As a story about small town life, it’s set pieces are small as well. This is a film about details. The suspense scenes are realistic rather than operatic. We don’t get crop dusters and cornfields or fights on the Statue of Liberty’s torch, we get scenes where someone hums a tune at the dinner table and can’t remember what it is and scenes where a character needs to read a newspaper story at the library, which closes in 5 minutes. It’s almost like a Hitchcock film seen through the wrong end of a telescope - instead of being larger than life, it’s about those small things in life... like the faint engravings on the inside of an old ring.
Character Connections: In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, villain Belloq tells Indy, "You and I are very much alike... Our methods are not as different as you pretend. I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would only take a nudge to make you like me; to push you out of the light." The protagonist and antagonist are the two most important characters in a screenplay, and showing their similarities is a great way to highlight their differences.
When we first see Uncle Charles he’s sitting up in bed smoking a cigar, maybe remembering a pleasant experience (which may have included murdering someone). When we first see young Charlie, she is sitting up in bed in the exact same position (though not smoking a cigar), dreaming of having an adventurous experience (though probably not murdering anyone). Both shots are the same composition and have slow dolly ins. Even though whether the camera dollies or not is the director’s job - the writer had to come up with the scenes of both sitting up in bed. Creating that similarity for the director to photograph. Our job is to set up the story and characters so that the director can find the perfect shot(s) to show that these two are very similar people. The writer also decided to give both protagonist and antagonist the same name - which makes the audience automatically look for those similarities between the two. There are many other things Uncle Charles and young Charlie have in common... and this helps us compare the two in order to find their differences. Belloq and Indiana Jones may be similar, but it's what makes them different that is important.
Uncle Charles lives a life of travel and adventure, going from one big city to another... and that is what young Charlie dreams about. She wants to get out of boring Santa Rosa and see the world. But all of the similarities between the two just serve to point up the differences. Uncle Charles has seen the world and hates it... hates the people in it. Charlie loves people. The more we see these two together, the more we see that they are not the same at all, but opposites. This is a great way to bring out character, and a great way to create conflict - Uncle Charles does something negative and Charlie does something positive to correct it.
Did He Or Didn’t He? The odd flaw in the film is one of point of view - we begin with Uncle Charles seemingly on the run from the law, and this make him seem guilty from the get-go... and robs the film of some suspense and emotion.
The keyword is *doubt*. The “did he or didn’t he?” plot is often used in thrillers, and we’ll take a closer look at it when we discuss SUSPICION, but since it is the central question in SHADOW it deserves a mention. In movies like MUSIC BOX and JAGGED EDGE (both written by Joe Eszerhas) the suspense is created by the protagonist (and audience) not knowing if the person they are emotionally involved with is guilty of a crime or not. In JAGGED EDGE workaholic attorney Glenn Close is hired to defend hunky Jeff Bridges on charges that he murdered his wealthy wife. Close falls in love with him... and the rest of the script explores that central question by bouncing us back and forth between believing that he's guilty as sin and a lovable hunk falsely accused of murder by an overzealous D.A. (the great Peter Coyote). We hope that he's innocent so that she can find love but fear that he's guilty. Did he or did he not commit the murder? Guilty or innocent? That is the central question in JAGGED EDGE and in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.
At the heart of every screenplay is the central question. It's what propels the story forward and keeps the audience involved. In a romantic comedy, the central question might be: Will they hook up or not? In a disaster movie it might be: Will they survive, and *who* will survive? The story begins with the introduction of the central question and then keeps us wondering how it will be resolved for the next 100 pages. This question is what keeps the story going - and will not be answered until the end of the movie. It is the fuel that propels the story, and the moment the question is answered, there is no more fuel for the story - which is why the opening scene where Uncle Charles seems to be on the run from the law makes this film less effective.
To keep the question “alive” and keep the suspense growing, we need to keep that question in the foreground - and not let the audience forget it. Which is where the doubt comes in. We need to doubt that Uncle Charles in innocent, and then when a dark cloud of evidence casts a shadow over him, doubt that he is guilty. The film is all about doubt!
SHADOW OF A DOUBT accomplishes this by having young Charlie discover evidence that Uncle Charles is guilty... and just when she has no choice but to confront him, counter evidence is uncovered that makes him look innocent. Doubt and doubt. There is also a shadow motif in the story - Uncle Charles seems to always be in the shadows - at the top of the stairs or in the corner of the room... and in the opening scene his landlady lowers the blinds on his window, casting a shadow over his face. When Uncle Charles comes to Santa Rosa on the train (pretending to be an invalid) he is in a dark sleeping compartment the entire trip... and when the train pulls into the station, dark smoke from the smokestack covers the station.
Doubt and doubt: Uncle Charles has gifts for everyone, but gives Charlie a special gift - a beautiful ring. Charlie notices that there is engraving inside the band - and wonders where Uncle Charles got the ring (is it stolen?). Uncle Charles says he bought it from a jeweler - and they must have sold him a used ring! Imagine the nerve of the jeweler! Later in the film Charlie discovers the initials are of one of the Merry Widow Killer’s victims... is her favorite Uncle a serial killer... or is it just a coincidence. We can never be sure one way or the other, because then the film would be over.
Doubt and doubt: Uncle Charles needs to be the first to read the newspaper, and one night *tears a story out* so that no one can read it. But he covers this by making a newspaper castle for Charlie’s little brother and sister. Was tearing out the story part of making the castle, or something else? Later, Charlie spots a torn out section of the newspaper in Uncle Charles jacket pocket... but he’s right there in the room with her so she can not grab it and find out what Uncle Charles doesn’t want the rest of the family to know. Is it an article about a criminal at large... or an advertizement for some fine wine on sale that he plans on buying to surprise the family? We don’t know.
Doubt and doubt: When the two Magazine Guys come to interview the family because they are the “typical American family”, Uncle Charles does not want to be interviewed - he says he doesn’t really live in the house, he’s just a guest. This is a great scene because the two Magazine Guys keep insisting that Uncle Charlie *is* part of the family so they want to interview him, which means Uncle Charlie must keep finding new and better reasons not to be interviewed... and this becomes suspicious.
Later, the older Magazine Guy takes a picture of Uncle Charles, and he *freaks* and demands they give him the roll of film, even though it will ruin *all* of the pictures they have taken (including mom baking a cake). Then he calmly explains that he just doesn’t like people taking pictures of him without permission - isn’t that his right? This ends up being a big moment for young Charlie, because asking for tyhe whole roll of film just seems like overkill. Why not just ask that they not use or print that picture? Young Charlie begins to wonder what Uncle Charles is hiding.
Doubt and doubt. Back and forth throughout the film - one piece of evidence makes Uncle Charles look guilty and then another piece of evidence is discovered that makes him look innocent. Just when young Charlie is *sure* that he’s guilty, the other prime suspect in the case runs from the police... right into the propellor of an airplane! Case closed - they are sure he ran because he was guilty. Charlie was wrong to doubt her Uncle Charles... or was she?
Because we are never sure if Uncle Charles is guilty or not until Act 3, we don’t know if we can trust him... and we don’t know if young Charlie is in danger or not. Throughout Act 2 we go from thinking Uncle Charles is guilty in one scene to believing he is innocent in the next scene. Back and forth - until we get to Act 3 and *know* he is the killer... and know that he will do anything to keep that information secret. Even kill his favorite niece.
The Subtle Art Of Murder: But even the murder attempts may just be accidents - that’s what they seem to be at least. Plenty of room for doubt.
Charlie has taken to using the back stairs of the house to avoid Uncle Charles... and one day on her way to the store one of the stairs breaks and sends her toppling down the staircase almost killing her. The step just broke. Later that night she examines the broken step - was it cut? Doesn’t seem to be, but *might* have been. Lots of doubt. Is Uncle Charles trying to kill her... or was it just an old step?
A couple of days later the whole family is going to an event where Uncle Charles is giving a speech, and there are too many people for their one car. Uncle Charles suggests they call a taxi for the family, and he will ride in the family car with young Charlie. Charlie knows Uncle Charles is planning something - but can’t just come out and say it - all she has are suspicions. The shadow of doubt falls over everything. She tries to get her mother to come with her in the car, knowing that Uncle Charles couldn’t do anything with a witness. But Mom wants to go with the rest of the family in the taxi - how often do they get to ride in a taxi? Charlie does everything to get her to come, finally convinces her, and goes out to get the car... But when she gets into the garage, someone has left the motor running and the garage is filled with exhaust. Big black shadowy smoke! When Charlie tries to turn off the car’s motor, the garage door swings shut and get stuck - accident, or murder attempt? Charlie is trapped in the garage and the exhaust overtakes her.
By this point, we know it’s Uncle Charles... and Charlie is pretty sure he’s trying to kill her, but all of these things seem like accidents. How can you accuse a family member of trying to kill you when it’s a stuck garage door?
Unusual Characters: One of the great things in SHADOW OF A DOUBT are the characters - when we have a story that is about small town life, we tend to focus on the characters... and usually the *quirky* characters. If you read my Script Secrets website, you may be familiar with my “Dog Juice” theory - that all dogs have the exact same amount of energy no matter what size the dog is. A Chihuahua has the same amount of energy as a St. Bernard - but what is too much energy for that small dog is not enough energy for the enormous dog. This is why a normal dog like a Retriever or a Shepard is a perfect match of dog and energy to run the dog. Movies are the same - you need the same amount of energy no matter how big the movie... and that often leads to more interesting and quirky characters being *required* in smaller films. As much as people may bitch about the stylized dialogue and unusual characters in JUNO, remove those elements and what do you have? You *need* interesting characters in a small story.
SHADOW takes many characters that might seem common and either turns them on their head or adds some quirk that makes them fascinating. By taking small town people and showing what makes each of them different and unusual, Wilder has created a story that is kind of a predecessor of TWIN PEAKS.
Charlie’s little sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) is not sugar and spice and everything nice, she is not playing with dolls... she is reading books that are adult in nature and knows all kinds of things little girls just should not know. In one scene she’s playing, and says “step on a crack and break your mother’s back”... then *steps on as many cracks as she can*!
Charlie’s best friend Catherine (Estelle Jewell) is not some sweet small town girl or even some boy crazy 20 year old - she makes a pretty obvious play for Agent Saunders (Wallace Ford), the older FBI Agent... a man easily old enough to be her father and possibly old enough to be her grandfather. She flirts with him big time! Um, WTF is going on here?
Charlie’s father is not some boring small town bank teller, he has a hobby... he and his best friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn) read murder mysteries and try to come up with the perfect way to murder each other and get away with it. Most of their dialogue in the film is about killing each other and avoiding arrest - talk about TWIN PEAKS characters!
None of the characters in the film are cliche - they are as strange and individual as the characters from NORTHERN EXPOSURE and TWIN PEAKS... though they still seem “realistic” members of a small town. They may be exaggerated a little, but film characters tend to be a little larger than life anyway.
Small Suspense: Because this is a small story of small town life, it also has small suspense scene. Charlie searching Uncle Charles’ room while he’s downstairs to find the torn piece of newspaper... and when she can not find the article, she races to the public library before it closes at 9pm... running across a street against a light and almost getting hit by a car. She makes it to the library just as they are closing, but this is a very low-key race against the clock: getting to the library before it closes? But at the library Charlie reads a newspaper account of the Merry Widow Killer and one of his victims... who had the same initials that are engraved in the ring Uncle Charles gave her... and we get a great pull back and up shot making Charlie seem small and vulnerable.
Sound Track: Dimitri Tiomkin - a good score, the highlight of which is Franz Lehar's Merry Widow Waltz. It’s Uncle Charles’ theme song... and when Charlie’s mother is humming it at the dinner table one night and can’t figure out what the tune is, Uncle Charles says it’s the Blue Danube... but Charlie corrects him... which creates an awkward moment that Uncle Charles covers by spilling a glass of blood red wine. Throughout the film, we get the waltz and dancers when Uncle Charles feels murderous.
Hitchcock used music in many of his films, from Mrs. Froy’s tune in THE LADY VANISHES to the Mr. Memory theme in THE 39 STEPS to this interesting signature for a character. Uncle Charlie is not just the Merry Widow Killer, the Merry Widow Waltz is his theme, something he whistles or that plays in the background of some of his scenes.
Unfortunately, by the end of the film you will be unable to get the danged tune out of your head!
SHADOW OF A DOUBT is a nice little film about small town life... and murder. Not the kind of big spectacle movie we might expect from Hitchcock, but an enjoyable film about the truth behind that favorite uncle of yours.
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