CLAP HANDS, HERE COMES CHARLIE: Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt

Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood in 1939 under most auspicious circumstances. Fifteen years of work in his native England had produced over two dozen films, including future classics such as The Lodger (1927), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938), establishing the 40-year old as Europe’s premiere director. The three films mentioned, along with Blackmail (1929), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Young and Innocent (1937) more than justified his future nickname as “The Master of Suspense.”  

What Hollywood would provide Hitchcock was a larger canvas upon which to turn out finely polished thrillers that made his British films appear to be the work of, in Hitchcock’s own words, “a talented amateur.” But Hollywood would take its own sweet time giving his talents and need for supremacy on the set their full support. Contrast this to Orson Welles, who as a neophyte filmmaker in 1941 was given carte blanche by RKO to produce Citizen Kane. Of course, after making one of the greatest films of all time, Welles battled the wrath of the studio system (and the Hearst machine) for the rest of his life leading to a tragic diminishment of his contributions to cinema. Hitchcock may have had his ups and downs in America, but he ultimately won the war. 

For some years, Hitchcock had been chomping at the bit to come to America, and the man who heroically brought him there – and then, ironically, became the villain in this story – was producer David O. Selznick. Clearly, Hitchcock benefited from being presented to the U.S. film scene by the producer of Gone With the Wind, who now sought to repeat that film’s success by nabbing the rights to 1938’s hugely popular novel, Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic romance Rebecca and then hiring the greatest British director to helm it. 

Alfred Hitchcock with David O. Selznick

Rebecca turned out to be the bonus film for our first class. We actually got so caught up in the main film of the week that we never got to talk about Rebecca. I’m not particularly torn up about this because, in many ways, I see this as only tangentially a Hitchcock film. The struggles between the director and his overbearing producer have been well-chronicled. David Thomson, in his biography Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, offers a detailed portrait of the producer’s desire to control every facet of the picture, bombarding Hitchcock daily with one memo after another with every expectation that his grateful would obey his orders. 

The problem, as Elliot pointed out in class, was that both men saw themselves in the role of the film’s auteur and neither one wanted to budge. The result, for me, is a film that only comes to life when Hitchcock’s influence is apparent, particularly in the opening sequence and the scenes between Joan Fontaine’s timid Mrs. de Winter and Judith Anderson’s seriously loony depiction of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The pivotal moment for me is when the two of them meet in Rebecca’s bedroom, which Mrs. Danvers has kept pristinely intact since her mistress’ death, and the servant’s obsession with her employer is given full sway. Everything about this scene, from Fontaine’s entry and exploration to their final confrontation, is pure Hitchcock – in the shots, the lighting, the mise en scene and the performances. Would there had been much, much more of this in the final cut of the film!

Rebecca was a big, hugely successful book, and Selznick wanted to give it the luxury treatment you found in all those MGM literary adaptations. He also had ideas! – such as a final shot of the smoke from the house fire coursing up into the sky to form the letter “R” – that did not jibe with Hitchcock’s taste or desires. In the course of making the film, both men won and lost their fair share of battles, and the resulting hybrid of Selznick and Hitchcock won Best Picture at the 1940 Academy Awards. That it would be the only Hitchcock film to do so in his lifetime, despite the pure Hitchcockian brilliance of at least a dozen future titles, speaks to the cruel ironies of a life spent in Hollywood. 

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again . . . “

Selznick and Hitchcock had a three-picture deal, but it would be five years and six loan-out pictures (by which Selznick reaped a huge profit) before they would directly battle again on a day-to-day basis. In the meantime, Hitchcock wanted America to get to know him, both in terms of seeing the kind of filmmaker he could be and in giving them a valentine that let audiences know he now embraced the U.S.A. as his home. 

This ended up taking a little while. His next film, Foreign Correspondent, which came right on the heels of Rebecca (and actually ended up going up against that ultimate winner at the Oscars), is a delightful espionage film starring Joel McCrea and Laraine Day. Next came a misstep: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which gave him the chance to work with Carole Lombard but otherwise added no luster to his career. Maybe he thought working in the distinctly American genre of screwball comedy would further warm American audiences to him; it didn’t work. 

The next two films, Suspicion and Saboteur, probably have their fans – what Hitchcock film doesn’t? Suspicion is distinctly British, in plot and character, and it has earned the enmity of classic detection fans everywhere for the way the screenplay takes a highly promising source – Before the Fact (1932), Francis Iles’ suspenseful portrait of a woman about to be murdered by her husband – and takes it down a woefully inferior path. Hitchcock blamed the studios for this (you can’t kill Lynn Fontaine, and you can’t make Cary Grant her killer). Donald Spoto blamed Hitchcock. The rest of us enjoy certain Hitchcockian touches and then bemoan what might have been. 

Suspicion: Is that poison in her drink?? No, just a lightbulb.

Saboteur is, for me, the most turgid and overlong of Hitchcock’s “innocent man on the run” thrillers. The fact that North by Northwest is nearly thirty minutes longer and feels more taut and fun says volumes. Saboteur has a good opening and a fabulous climax (atop the Statue of Liberty), but everything in-between is dragged down by the performances of Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane (Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, who both turned him down) and by an episodic cross-country trek of a screenplay that contains more than one episode too many. In many ways, the character arcs of Cummings and Lane match those of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps, and one only wishes that the latter could have replaced the former. 

Saboteur, or Two Guys Just Hanging Around the Statue of Liberty

One Academy Award-nominated film that had gone up against Rebecca in 1940 was an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s hit stage play, Our Town. It ran for years on Broadway, and at some point, Hitchcock went to see a performance. He left inspired. Why not create a film that took, as its setting and theme, the fragile wonder of a small American town, just like Our Town’s Grover’s Corners? Indeed, why not reach out to Thornton Wilder himself to write just such a screenplay as an acknowledgment to U.S. audiences of Hitchcock’s devotion to his adopted home? The result was Shadow of a Doubt. It was born out of Hitchcock’s most emotionally satisfying partnership with a scriptwriter, and it’s telling that while Wilder identified Our Town as his favorite child, Hitchcock would often say the same thing about Shadow of a Doubt

Despite being known for preferring to work in a studio where he could exercise tight technical control over every image and technical aspect of a production, Hitchcock was eager to film Shadow on location. Always a fan of the Bay Area, he decided to select locations in the North Bay’s Santa Rosa, then a prosaic town that you could have found almost anywhere in the U.S.A.. It turned out to be the perfect setting for an domestically epic battle between good and evil that was both purely Hitchcockian and spoke directly to the American people. 

There are images and ideas that one can unpack over and over again in Hitchcock’s films, and they appear in plenitude in Shadow of a Doubt. The overarching theme that Hitchcock will return to again and again is that of love and family. A staunch Catholic, the director held traditionalist views on the importance of marriage and a cozy hearth. Over and over, he would introduce us to heroes (and the occasional heroine) who were emotionally adrift and who had to be radically shaken out of their resistance to social and romantic connections. This is Daisy Bunting in The Lodger and Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps; it’s Alice White of Blackmail, whose fight with her policeman boyfriend leads her to be assaulted, to commit murder, and to come to rely on that same boyfriend to save her life. 

Another major idea of Hitchcock’s that appears here is the trope of doubles, where two people who share many qualities, physical, emotional, or spiritual, also stand as diametric moral opposites of each other. And that is what we find here in A Tale of Two Charlies, beautifully portrayed by Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten.

Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) and Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) in happier times

Except for the fact that she is a teenaged girl, Charlie Newton (Wright embodies the typical Hitchcock hero. She is on the cusp of something important in her life – growing up, leaving her family, getting married – and until she finds it, she will be wracked with a deep sense of dissatisfaction. Lying on her bed in her parents’ shabby, comfortable Santa Rosa home, she complains to her father, “Have you ever stopped to think that a family should be the most wonderful thing in the world and that this family has gone to pieces? We just sort of go along and nothing happens. We’re in a terrible rut.”

Tellingly, nobody else agrees with her. Despite Charlie’s protestations that her mother is being denied a full and happy life, Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) is perfectly happy to be a wife, mother, and civic-minded woman. Her husband, Joseph, (Henry Travers) is a good provider, proud of his position of responsibility (but not too much responsibility) at the bank, patient with his children, and more than happy to sneak off with his socially-awkward neighbor Herb (Hume Cronyn in his debut film performance) to hold forth on their shared love of true crime. (They clearly love classic detective fiction as well, and this Agatha Christie fan smiled broadly when Herb said, “Did you read this one? You can talk all you like about Sherlock Holmes. That little Frenchman beats them all!”)

The crime buffs (Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn)

Everyone tolerates Charlie’s grouchiness as a passing phase that she will grow out of when she figures things out, but Charlie herself will not dismiss it. She means to do something about it, and she proceeds to send a telegram to her favorite Uncle Charlie (Cotton), for whom she was named, and who she is sure will lift the family out of its rut. This is a dangerous wish to make in a Hitchcock film: it is always granted, always to the wish maker’s peril. 

For Hitchcock has let us know things about Uncle Charlie that the Newtons do not know. The film’s opening in Newark, New Jersey shows Charlie on the run from the police, who suspect him of being the Merry Widow Killer, who has so far offed three middle-aged widows for their money. In these early scenes, Cotten creates a perfect portrait of a sociopath – ice cold with his landlady, ruthlessly playful with the cops tailing him, and then transformed on a dime to a benign charmer as he sends his own telegram to his sister in Santa Rosa, informing her of his impending visit. 

Here comes Uncle Charlie – the peril of trains in Hitchcock

Sometimes the link between Hitchcock’s doubles is physical, as in Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest. Here it seems almost psychic, as both Charlies realize simultaneously that they need each other. The highly compelling arc of this story is watching how their dependence on each other proves the undoing of Uncle Charlie and the painful but necessary maturation of his niece from (apologies to Blake) innocence to experience. 

It begins in earnest with a ceremonial moment, the giving of rings. Uncle Charlie has brought presents for everyone, and what he gives Charlie is a precious emerald ring. Charlie doesn’t want any gift, and while she says her uncle’s presence is gift enough, there is a sense that Young Charlie (along with her baby sister Ann) possesses the instinct to distrust her uncle. Ann expresses that a couple of days after Uncle Charlie arrives by, out of nowhere, pleading to her parents to allow her to sit away from him at the dinner table. As for Young Charlie, from the start she peppers her uncle with questions and notices odd little things – like the engraving on the ring that later establishes it as belonging to one of Uncle Charlie’s victims. This all goes into an unconscious file that Charlie will access later when her fantasy world begins to fall apart. 

The damage is initiated by two detectives who show up undercover as magazine journalists writing about the “typical American family.” One of them, played by MacDonald Carey, will fall in love with Charlie and provide her with the traditional marriage that signals (to Hitchcock at least) a happy ending. Much was made in our class discussion of plot issues connected with these two policemen, problems that echoed some sharp observations made by critic Roger Ebert in his review of the film: 

“ . . . you question the absurdity of two detectives following a suspect from New York to California, apparently without being sure of how he looks, and hanging around idly outside his residence for weeks while chatting up the suspect’s niece; one of them eventually even proposes marriage.

It is a clunky plot device, made more so if one stops to think how much Uncle Charlie gives away to the family all by himself through his growing inability to mask his psychopathy. When things go a little wrong, his genial mask slips awfully quickly, revealing a raging monster underneath. Young Charlie hopes her uncle will rescue her from the dull sameness of her hometown, and at first she is mildly frustrated when Uncle Charlie seems to be at odds with her about Santa Rosa. He calls it a refuge and talks of settling down there. His sister Emma greets that announcement with joy, while Young Charlie mutters, “How could you?” 

But gradually, our heroine starts to grasp the true difference between her mindset and that of her uncle. For all his moralizing about the good ol’ days, Uncle Charlie lets his hatred for mankind seep out in all sorts of ways. His gifts are wildly inappropriate: wine for the dinner table, wads of unexplained loose cash put in the bank to appeal to Joseph’s boss, childish toys to keep the precocious Ann a baby, and a hot ring to bind Young Charlie’s loyalties to him. And always these mutterings of the rottenness of society spurt out of his mouth, most notably in a classic moment for both Hitchcock and Cotten at the dinner table, when Uncle Charlie lets his psychotic freak flag fly:

The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge. Playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women… Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”

Throughout, the camera holds close to Uncle Charlie’s head in profile, and when his niece cries out, “But they’re alive, they’re human beings,” Cotton turns his cold, dead eyes directly to the camera and says – to us, “Are they?”

Love turns to fear

The film is full of such visual touches that identify Hitchcock’s mastery of the medium. He repeatedly places the two Charlies in profile to each other and often manipulates lighting to indicate the evil of one and the goodness of the other. He dives into both their minds with POV shots as they behold each other. (Hitchcock often lets us physically inhabit the heads of his villains, giving our willing voyeurism as we watch his films unfold an even darker edge.) One of the director’s trademark ways to illustrate a power dynamic is through the use of stairs. Those at the top possess all the knowledge and, sometimes, the power – although many an innocent in a Hitchcock film has climbed up the stairs to meet a horrible fate. 

Low angle to top of stairs = power
High angle to the bottom of the stairs . . . spells trouble for Uncle Charlie

There are two sets of stairs in the Newton house, and they both do triple duty in conveying the conflict between Young Charlie and her uncle. There is also a train. A lot happens on trains in Hitchcock: Iris Henderson searches for the missing Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes. The heroes of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest meet the cool, beautiful blondes who hold the key to their fate in their hands on a train. Guy Haines and Bruno Antony meet and fall in love on a train (okay, that doesn’t happen, but . . . . just wait!) And in Shadow of a Doubt, the train brings evil to Santa Rosa with a rush of dark smoke and then resolves the problem at the climax. “In the end is my beginning . . . “ 

Goodbye, Charlie

In the end, Shadow of a Doubt succeeding in establishing Hitchcock as a. successful American film director. The next time he worked with Selznick (which will form our discussion in two weeks), the film they produced was distinctly more Hitchcockian than it was, er, Selznick-ian. (And their final film together would, indeed, be their final film together. Selznick would fade into obscurity, while Hitchcock’s best years – and films – were to come.) 

From 1943 to 1950, Hitchcock produced seven films I would like to say that Shadow of a Doubt was the harbinger of a Golden Age for the director, but that would not begin until 1951. And while the 40’s produced a few comparative duds – The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, Stage Fright – there were a couple of real gems which we will cover. Meanwhile, we have a most interesting film for next week, and while our bonus film, to my (Mr.) Memory, is the more entertaining picture, one cannot argue that our main film did not display great ambition, even controversy, on Hitchcock’s part, even if at times the production team was treading water and many critics and fans found themselves feeling all at sea. 

See you next week.