AMERICANA IN "SHADOW OF A DOUBT"
a commentary by Tony McRae
Hitchcock loved using patriotic symbols in his movies (the Statue of Liberty in "Saboteur"; the Jefferson Memorial in "Strangers on a Train" (1); Mount Rushmore in "North by Northwest"). Equally important are his images of a nostalgic, idealized America (an idyllic seaside village in "The Birds"; an amusement park in "Strangers on a Train"; quiet and innocent towns in "The Trouble With Harry" and "Shadow of a Doubt").
"Shadow of a Doubt" is Hitchcock's first American movie, that is, a story with a decidedly American flavor. Filmed almost entirely on location in Santa Rosa (2) in California's wine growing region, it could exist most anywhere, in the Midwest or even on the east coast. It's a town centered on the family where the home is a haven (3), with values we would go to war to defend, which was exactly was what we were doing in 1943, the year "Shadow of a Doubt" was released.
The story has to do with the visit of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) who has come to Santa Rosa for a family visit. Actually he's been pursued by a pair of policemen who suspect him of murder. The Norton family welcomes him with open arms, especially his sister Emma (Patricia Collinge) and his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright) who's been named after him.
Hitchcock's opening sequence, however, takes place in a nameless large city with its idle factories, rundown tenements, and vagrant population. Crime can and does flourish in such a place. A man is stretched out on a bed in a seedy rooming house, money carelessly strewn about. We soon suspect he is being pursued by the police for a series of crimes the press has labeled "The Merry Widow Murders."
Cut to Santa Rosa, seemingly immune from the world outside, white, middleclass, idyllic, the only policeman the friendly traffic cop (4) who knows people by name. An innocent sleepy town, far from the sordid world we've just seen in the opening sequence. If one were to choose which city might be the setting for murder, Santa Rosa would never be considered. Unless you're Alfred Hitchcock. What better place for evil to show its head than a contented place where crossing the street against the light is the worst kind of law breaking.
Uncle Charlie's arrival in Santa Rosa is quintessential Hitchcock: as the train pulls in to the station it lets off large clouds of black smoke that effectively hid the sun (5). Evil cometh to Santa Rosa.
Uncle Charlie in effect takes over the Norton house. He is seated at the head of the table (6), presumable taking the place of Joe Newton (Henry Travers), the father. At this welcome home dinner he dominates the conversation. Clearly his sister Emma is besotted (7); Uncle Charlie will latter use her feelings to dissuade his niece Charlie when she begins to suspect that her uncle is not what he appears to be.
To further cement his place in his sister's family, Uncle Charlie has expensive gift for all. At first, Charlie refuses hers saying his presence is gift enough, but Uncle Charlie insists, and takes her hand and places on her finger a ring, itself a symbol of family unity (8). When she discovers an inscription engraved inside, he tries to take it back but she says she doesn't care--it's from her beloved uncle and she will not part with it. It's Uncle Charlie's first misstep, and it will eventually cause his downfall.
There's a nuanced tenseness throughout this homecoming sequence. Not only does Charles take over the house and table, he is given Charlie's bedroom (hmmm); he insinuates himself into Emma's emotional psyche, and he tries to do the same with his niece. He becomes--or nearly so--a "home breaker," an old-fashioned term that usually has a sexual connotation, not wholly inappropriate in these early scenes. In point of fact, he does literally break a part of the house by sawing and weakening one of the steps on the outside staircase that Charlie frequently uses. She is nearly killed (9). It is the first of his two attempts to kill her, both by using the house as a means of murder.
It seems for a while that Uncle Charlie will win. The Newton house seems to be his (10); Charlie now fears the very home she lives in, fears what might be in store for her.
It wouldn't be a Hitchcock picture without some comic relief, in this case the conversations between Joe and his neighbor friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn). Their principle, in fact only, subject is murder. They are very inventive, entertaining each other with fanciful scenarios of the perfect crime. Of course they wouldn't recognize a real murderer if he sat with them at the dinner table--which Uncle Charlie does. One of the ironies of Herbie's comings and goings is the obvious fact that Santa Rosa is an open door town. Nobody locks up (11).
In his interviews with François Truffaut, Hitchcock has said, "The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture." Uncle Charlie as played by Joseph Cotten is charming, sophisticated and believable. We're not surprised that everyone is taken in by him. Only his niece is on to him, yet she loves him and in the end destroys him. Only she and her detective friend Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) know the truth. Santa Rosa will not shed its innocence, not yet anyway. But things will change. One of the last things Charlie says to her uncle gives us a hint of a climate change in her own psyche. "Go away or I'll kill you myself," she says with icy determination.
But Hitchcock is if nothing prescient. World War II will change everything. Santa Rosa will grow and prosper. It will soon lock its doors.
One final observation. A favorite Hitchcock technique is the placement of an evil object or person into an otherwise positive or uplifting scene, especially when framing symbols of Americana. (See pictures #1 and #10 at the right.) Hitchcock's placement of a menacing figure in a place of peace induces fears which, in almost all his films, "precede goodness," according to film critic Raymond Durgnat. Catharsis may be at hand but for how long?
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