Showing posts with label Teresa Wright. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Teresa Wright. Show all posts

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

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) part 2

(click for part 1)

by Bill Hare

An Artful Use of Synchronicity

Teresa Wright was signed out of Broadway after studio boss and producer Samuel Goldwyn saw her appearing in Life with Father. Goldwyn was known to prefer “sweet girl next door” types and Wright, playing the role of a bright, idealistic Santa Rosa high school student in Shadow of a Doubt could not have been a more superb casting choice.

As the story begins Wright is feeling a case of the blues, believing that life in a small town has become hum drum as she longs for adventure. Her idol, Uncle Charlie, appears in her thoughts. His debonair, well dressed, highly traveled existence makes her so eager to see her at that moment and hopefully dispel her gloom.

After talking with her mother, Wright alights for the telegraph office, deciding to invite Uncle Charlie to Santa Rosa for a visit. As soon as she arrives she is told that a telegram has arrived from her uncle, prompting her to ask the lady assisting her if she believes in “telepathy” while she bursts into unbridled joy as the opportunity to once more meet the uncle she loves with equivalent fidelity to that which her mother feels toward her doted upon younger brother.

A Colloquy on the “Art of Murder”

Occupying a major element of the origin of film noir was the success of Black Mask Magazine, which spawned detective authors Dashiell Hammett and the master of the field, Raymond Chandler. In the pre-television era of the thirties and forties Black Mask and other magazines following in the same vein attracted wide audiences or readers with their hard-boiled, no punches pulled style of fiction.

Irony is used in a biting way as the story incorporates the unique devotion of rabid detective fiction readers into Shadow of a Doubt in the relationship between friendly neighbors. Banker Joseph Newton, played by veteran Broadway and film character performer Henry Travers, is the proud father of Young Charlie. He touts her as the “smartest girl in her class” who won the debate against Richmond High “all by herself.” Travers made his acting debut on the stage in his native England before moving to the United States.

After returning from a day at the bank, Travers enjoys smoking his pipe and unwinding with relaxing conversation with next door neighbor Herbie Hawkins, played by Hume Cronyn in his film debut. Jack Skirball, the film’s producer, had earlier told Cronyn, when he lobbied for the part of Herbie, that he was too young for the role. Cronyn was then in his early thirties while the script called for an actor in his fifties.

Instead Hitchcock, upon meeting Cronyn, rather than rejecting him, declared that they would have to “gray his hair.” After all, Hitchcock knew that Henry Travers, cast as Wright’s father along with a daughter and son younger than the beautiful and intelligent high school senior, would turn 69 by the time the film was released.

One of Teresa Wright’s main scenes occurs when Cronyn comes next door for some parlor chat with Travers about their favorite topic of “how to commit the perfect murder.” The timing could not be more shattering for Wright, who by then knows that her uncle is a serial killer of rich widows.

The irony of the situation is compounded as Cotten sits silently at the dinner table, taking in every word as his brother-in-law and the Newton family’s next door neighbor chat about how to achieve the perfect crime. Everyone is jolted when Wright jumps to her feet in an obviously rattled state, berating Travers and Cronyn about their ghoulish hobby of discussing murder.

An astonished Patricia Collinge, playing an innocent throughout the film in sharp contrast to intuitive daughter Wright, jumps to the defense of husband and neighbor. She mildly tells her rattled daughter that the men are relaxing, and that discussing how to commit the perfect murder helps them achieve that state.

While everyone else might be astonished by Wright’s sudden offense at a custom that has apparently existed for some time, one person at the dinner table understands only too well the young woman’s sensitivity over the topic. That person is Uncle Charlie, who feels a mounting pressure to dispose of the niece who can expose him.

Cronyn becomes a hero by saving Wright’s life during the second attempt that Cotton makes on her life, rescuing her from an attempted fatal asphyxiation in the Newton garage.

As for Cotten, arguably his finest scene and perhaps the greatest of his long career as a cinema leading man occurs when he reveals with bilious hatred to Wright his contempt for not only wealthy widows, who have always rated at the top of his list, but humanity in general. He uses the term “pig sty” in delivering his universal mandate as they sit in a downtown bar he has chosen for his private declaration to his niece.

One of the many ironies of a film containing so many is the ultimate effect that Uncle Charlie has on his niece. In the beginning she is delighted by the prospect of her worldly uncle entering an orbit that she finds restrictive in growing up in a small town near worldlier San Francisco. In analyzing the seething hatred within Uncle Charlie, Young Charlie begins to appreciate the friendly, cooperative social structure of which she is a part. She starts to appreciate Santa Rosa in the way Hitchcock did as director of the film.

An impressive element of the behavior of Cotten when he moves from the suave, debonair man of the world to that of enraged killer is that there is none of the shrieking and sometime swinging from a chandelier style of behavior exhibited in films directed by lesser figures than the astute Hitchcock.

A Youthful Greek Chorus

Hitchcock achieved a rare find in the casting of local Santa Rosa youngster Edna May Wonacott as Young Charlie’s younger sister Ann. She speaks in the manner of a one person Greek chorus, reducing human activity to immature foibles as she shrugs off the condition as lamentable but permanent. Considering that she spends her time reading such fare as Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe”, Wonacott comes across in the manner in which Hitchcock described himself during his early years growing up in London.

Charles Bates, portraying Roger Newton, is the youngest member of the family and frowns when reminded about it. Roger’s presence conjures up the image of Uncle Charlie growing up.

Santa Rosa Pays Respects to Uncle Charlie

The planning and spirit of cooperation continued to the elaborate funeral of Uncle Charlie after he meets his demise by falling from a train as he attempts to kill Young Charlie. The staging of the event was so convincing that many of the assembled citizens who respectfully watched the passing parade of limousines believed that an actual funeral was in progress.

The more frequently one absorbs this nifty noir gem directed by a screen master, the easier it becomes to appreciate the brilliantly allegorical, never preachy element of Shadow of a Doubt.

Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie represents the forces of worldly pessimism and ultimate darkness. Teresa Wright’s Young Charlie, in vivid contrast, conveys a spirit of hope and purpose, the determination of humanity to endure.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Steel Trap (1952) and A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

Andrew L. Stone Double Feature

Posted by darkdave

With few readily recognizable titles in his oeuvre, and no flashy signature style to speak of, filmmaker Andrew L. Stone's impact on Hollywood during his lengthy career might be deemed negligible. The serious noirhead will look back a bit more fondly though, recalling the flurry of well-crafted and often location-shot thrillers Stone wrote, directed, and collaborated on with his wife - editor and producer Virginia Stone.

Having spent decades helming musical comedies and biopics, Stone spent most of the 50s immersed in Noir, creating several tasteful pop thrillers that reward viewers with their crisply efficient screenplays, and his blissfully unselfconscious direction.

'The Steel Trap' (1952) Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright.

A crackerjack nail-biter, and Stone's third noir after the harsh 'Highway 301' and little-seen 'Confidence Girl', 'Trap's lean plot concerns happily married bank manager Jim Osbourne's fall-from-grace - the result of his exiting work one Friday with quite a bit more than pilfered paper clips. Long-suppressed temptation finally gets the best/worst of Jim (Cotten), so he sets into motion a contrivance which if successfully executed will land he and mislead wife Laurie (Wright) in balmy Brazil - where the extradition laws will make them untouchable. With obstacles and speed bumps littering his path, the novice absconder narrowly dodges detection while attempting to keep his wholesome Laurie in the dark long enough to get away - but the authorities are not what Jim must fear most..

Perhaps less intrinsically dramatic than noirs featuring protagonists who succumb to self-destructive criminal impulses out of lust or desperation (see 'Try And Get Me'), 'Trap' remains an engrossing slice of audience-friendly noir, and boasts the presence of two immensely likeable leads.

'A Blueprint For Murder' (1953) Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters.

Stone's second collaboration with Cotten resulted in a winner as well. In 'Blueprint' he's Whitney 'Cam' Cameron, a brother-in-law who grows suspicious of his late brother's attractive widow Lynne (Peters) when he learns that her step-daughter has died under shady circumstances - and that the 'untimely' loss of her other stepchild would bring her a big pay-day. Long-smitten with the raven-haired beauty, Cam now struggles with the notion that she may in fact be a sociopathic murderess - with his beloved young nephew in her sights. So fearful of her intentions, Cam goes to extreme and dangerous lengths to cast light on what he believes to be the awful truth, and save the innocent boy.

Another dry, linear thriller from the filmmaker who would go on to make the tense hostage flick 'The Night Holds Terror', and the exiting woman-in-peril yarn 'Julie', 'Murder' hits the ground running and flows in almost real time. We quickly grow to like and support Cotten's urbane Uncle Cam, and feel his bittersweet pain when his longing for Lynne surfaces.

The under appreciated Peters ('Niagara', 'Pickup on South Street') shines here, and her performance never for a moment slips into ham-and-cheese 'bad girl' histrionics. Her measured portrayal complements the low-key Cotten's, and elevates this 'b' production to a B+.

'Blueprint' is now available on commercial DVD,but 'Trap' is a film that can presently only be obtained in bootleg form (not that I would know anything about that.)