Saturday, August 02, 2008

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) part 1

A Mad Killer Hides Out in Small Town America: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
by Bill Hare

Joseph Cotten was in a nervous frame of mind when he asked to see Alfred Hitchcock, the director of his next film.

Ever so casually, Hitchcock, who did not drive a car, asked an apprehensive Cotten to drive him to downtown Beverly Hills. Cotten explained the source of his anxiety; here he was being asked to play a homicidal maniac in Hitchcock’s next film and he was in a quandary wondering how a killer would look and act. What is the prototype of a killer?

Hitchcock, cool in a crisis, the same director who told a nervous Ingrid Bergman, “Ingrid, it’s only a movie”, asked Cotten to pull his car over to the curb. The famous director then asked Cotten to study the faces and behavioral mannerisms of men walking down the street.

Cotten finally wondered if there was a point to what seemed to him like a baffling, if not pointless, exercise. Hitchcock explained that the exercise explained everything he needed to know about his next part.

The answer was that killers “act like anyone else” and reflective of the way people generally act; like the men Hitchcock asked Cotten to observe.

One sometime ingredient of genius is the ability to reduce problems to a simple conclusion, and such it was on this sunny afternoon amid the palm trees, luxurious buildings and fashionable stores of downtown Beverly Hills. Cotten had his answer and was thereupon creatively freed, able to go on to play one of the two memorable film noir starring roles of his career.

Cotten Losing Himself in a Maze of Confusion

There are two striking similarities in Joseph Cotten’s two great film noir roles. After receiving excellent reviews for his work in Hitchcock’s film epic Shadow of a Doubt he would perform with stellar finesse in another challenging role as the male lead in the 1949 noir classic The Third Man.

The first similarity between the two noir masterpieces is that the directorial maestros wielding batons were London born and considered two of the greatest British directors of all time, albeit that Hitchcock moved to America and was in his U.S. phase when he directed Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt while the latter film involved Carol Reed at the zenith of his creative powers.

The second similarity is that in both classic dramas Cotten portrayed a man wandering in a maze of confusion. The beauty in the double challenge for Cotten was that the lead characters resided in dilemma-filled moods for different reasons.

In the case of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt Cotten portrayed a character who had sustained a life-threatening concussion in his youth and ultimately became a dual personality, one side of which represented a seemingly effortless charm, the other a woman hating psychopath who detested the world and everything it stood for, particularly as represented by wealthy widows, individuals he longed to kill for a combination of pure pleasure and financial gain.

Cotten’s role as Holly Martens in The Third Man finds him the friend of sociopath Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, and this time, rather than falling into the maze of confusion of a psychopathic killer of rich widows, he portrays a bumpkin wandering within the black market drug trade of post-World War Two Vienna.

Trevor Howard, playing a frustrated British military officer who simultaneously seeks to capture Welles and his cohorts while attempting to save Cotten’s life, implores Cotten repeatedly to go home and leave the sleuthing that the bungling American does not wish to abandon to the professionals.

While Shadow of a Doubt would remain one of Cotten’s treasured creative experiences, the same could be definitely said about the film’s director. As a matter of fact, it was a second to none experience for Hitchcock for a personally uplifting reason.

Hitchcock’s Favorite Film Experience

Alfred Hitchcock cited Shadow of a Doubt as his favorite film experience, indicating on numerous occasions that from day one of shooting up until the final scene concluded, he was invigorated by a spirit of joint cooperation. He was so impressed by the spirit of the people of Santa Rosa, California that he ultimately bought a home in nearby Santa Cruz that he used as his Northern California retreat away from bustling Los Angeles.

There were two reasons why the kindness and spirit of cooperation on the part of Santa Rosa’s citizenry impressed Hitchcock. The project occurred during the period of World War Two when his beloved London, his birthplace and the city where he grew up and gained initial fame as a director, was under steady aerial bombardment by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Due to the fact that war was raging in and around London, a tortured Hitchcock was unable to travel there to see his mother, who died during that same period.

Given the aforementioned circumstances, it becomes all the more understandable why Hitchcock was so impressed by the people of Santa Rosa. It is during a period of acute duress that kindness takes on the greatest significance, and so it was with the bonds forged between Hitchcock and Santa Rosa during the filming of Shadow of a Doubt.

Joining Forces with Thornton Wilder

When Hitchcock pondered on the prospect of seeking out a writer with the essential credentials to pen a study of small town America he chose Thornton Wilder, who had authored the major theatrical hit “Our Town”, which was and remains the epochal work dealing with that subject. The play was then adapted to the screen in a 1940 release starring William Holden in one of his earliest roles and Martha Scott. Hitchcock was so indebted to Wilder, who needed to rush his contribution through prior to joining the Army, that he gave him a special screen credit of thanks.

Contributing to the writing alongside Hitchcock’s steady scenarist partner from his early London days, wife Alma (Reville), was Sally Benson. It was Benson’s first screen credit. Her stories in The New Yorker became popular in forties’ America and the next great film with which she would be associated was Vincente Minnelli’s MGM musical classic Meet Me in St. Louis one year later, which was an adaptation of her book.

The story was magnificently woven around a dual personality in Cotten. He was idolized by a niece who, after an opportunity to analyze him at close range, realizes that he is a killer. Young Charlie, played by Teresa Wright, recognizes the necessity of dealing with Uncle Charlie carefully for two reasons; the fact that he might well murder her, along with the belief that it would kill her mother should his real identity be divulged.

Playing Wright’s mother, Emma Newton, was Dublin born Patricia Collinge, a Broadway regular eagerly snapped up by Hitchcock. The director would later use Collinge, who by then was an old friend, in numerous segments of Hitchcock’s highly successful television series.

An irony arising from the professional relationship between Collinge and Wright was that they were both nominated for the 1941 release The Little Foxes starring Bette Davis for Academy Awards in the Best Supporting Actress category. Wright won the award and obtained another Oscar in the same category one year later in the stirring World War Two drama Mrs. Miniver starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon.

Two Charlies and a Loving Mother-Doting Sister

Much of the dramatic inner play between the two Charlies in Shadow of a Doubt revolves around Patricia Collinge’s Emma Newton character. It is Emma who reveals the nasty spill that her brother Charlie took, and how it seemed to somehow change him, but she never realized in the manner of the killer he became. Emma freely admitted to having helped “spoil” her brother, the youngest of her siblings.

Teresa Wright’s Charlie is a young woman possessing great sensitivity, reaching ESP at strategic moments. She is so respectful of a mother who deeply loves her that she tells FBI agent MacDonald Carey that she will work with him, but only to the extent of getting her uncle out of Santa Rosa so her mother will never have to deal with a situation she believes would “kill her.”

Part 2


  1. Excellent write-up on this wonderful film! I have linked to it in my TCM Movie Morlocks post on Edna May Wonacott which just went up today, Sunday! Really enjoyed reading it!

  2. "An irony arising from the professional relationship between Collinge and Wright was that they were both nominated for the 1941 release The Little Foxes starring Bette Davis for Academy Awards in the Best Supporting Actress category. Wright won the award and obtained another Oscar in the same category one year later"

    Wright only ever won one Oscar -- the one for MRS. MINIVER. Mary Astor won the award in 1941.


    Also: the link you gave me for that tag-of-Raquelle's didn't work, and I'd love to see your list. Think you can throw it at me again? :)

  3. Wonderful post.

    I'm slowly working my way through Hitchcock, still have about 25 to go, but out all the B&W films he's made, this one may be my favorite!

    Well, I guess this one and PSYCHO, and NOTORIOUS and.......well, they're all great I guess.