Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

My mom loves classic movies, especially stuff from the 30s and 40s. Growing up, my siblings and I weren’t into them at all so she’d give us the Old Movie Alert anytime she was watching one. Eventually anything shot in black and white was an OMA, the mere mention of which would send my brother, sister and me running out of the room. Had she just explained some of the quaint customs showcased in movies like Shadow of a Doubt – blowing cigar smoke at little kids, handing your luggage to teenage girls and old men so you can stroll along unencumbered, wearing funny hats – we might have had more interest.

I’ve heard Shadow of a Doubt referred to as a masterpiece, but that word gets thrown around too casually when dealing with Hitchcock. The man strung together an impossibly long series of movies that are accurately described as masterpieces, but this isn’t his one of his best. There’s plenty to love – including a script by none other than Thornton Wilder, disturbing ruminations on the nature and source of wickedness, and, as usual, perfectly timed injections of comic relief – but a masterpiece, especially when held up against some of his later work, it is not.

Gross dude, shoes on the bed?

The story: Poor Charlie is not happy. Despite the fine cigar in his hand and a pile of money spilling off the nightstand, Charlie, it seems, is dealing with some pretty dark stuff. He notices a pair of suits camped out in front of his boarding house, waiting for him. He says to himself, “You’re bluffing, you got nothing on me,” before deftly giving them the slip. Mysterious!

The next thing you know, Charlie’s off to visit his sister’s family in a small town in California. Something’s definitely amiss as Charlie spends the train ride acting sick, only to emerge full of vim and vigor. The reunion is ecstatic all around, at least at first. Charlie soon begins to oscillate between charismatic gallant and brooding antagonist. Eventually his favorite niece, named Charlie after him, comes to suspect that something might not be quite right with her beloved uncle.

No really, don't offer to help. She loves carrying things.

Biggest letdown: It’s a very good movie so letdown is a relative term. The third act does act does seem to drag a bit, especially after such a juicy second, but that may be more a product of modern sensibilities than anything else. If one thing sticks out as truly ungainly, it’s that everyone is far too willing to overlook the aggressive, even violent demands made by Charlie and the agents tracking him. Obviously it’s hard to assess the actions of loved ones – or authority figures, for that matter – with much objectivity. But they don’t even acknowledge that Uncle Charlie’s idea of pleasant dinner conversation is a morbid monologue about how some people deserve to die like animals. He’s all, “Now I’ll explain my utter disregard for human life to your children in graphic detail.” And they’re like, “More potatoes?”

How does she transition from "stop, you're hurting me" to giggles in less than a minute? How abusive must the average American family have been for this to make sense to them? The 40s were fucking terrifying.

Why you should watch: Alfred Hitchcock didn’t make many bad movies, especially from the mid-30s on. Even if it’s not among my personal favorites, Shadow of a Doubt is certainly a goodie. If you need specific reasons, let’s go with the sharp dialogue, perfect stage direction and subtly unsettling waltz theme. Even better, see it for the fine work of a company of top flight character actors. I particularly enjoyed a memorable early role for the ever-charming Hume Cronyn (who, at 32, already looked like he was on the set of Cocoon) and one of the first child actors I didn’t immediately want to murder. Oh, and I suppose Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright are okay, if you’re into the whole gorgeous and talented thing.

Recognize the profile of the random extra with the full run of spades in his hand? His name rhymes with Schmalfred Schmitchcock.

Memorable Moment: The one that really stands out is when Young Charlie goes to the library late at night to find a copy of the newspaper her uncle had so carefully kept hidden from the family the day before. I admit I’m crap at predicting where a movie plot will go, but when she finally locates the article and the audience gets to read for itself what her uncle is suspected to have done, the revelation literally gave me chills. And then an alien came and ate her face. (Not really.)

Even without aliens, after-hours at the library are SCARY.

Choice quote: “A telegram? Well, I don’t see a pencil so maybe she’d better call you back. I’m trying to keep my mind free of things that don’t matter.”

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3 Responses to “Shadow of a Doubt (1943)”

  1. […] Shadow of a Doubt – Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve heard of him. […]

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