This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Shadow of a Doubt, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1943):
The first time you saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, you knew that Shadow of a Doubt (released when Lynch was three-years-old) was the film he would have made had he been born in a different era. It’s not only that both films probe, with a mixture of excitement and wonder and terror, dark truths behind the bright façade of American leafy-boulevard suburbia. It’s the off-kilter tone, the weird silences, the uneasy sense that there’s no cure for the evil black heart of both films.
Charlie (Teresa Wright) is a 1943-version of Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) in Blue Velvet, all pent-up angst waiting for an exterminating angel to set her free. In this scene, Charlie’s father Joseph (Henry Travers) has come home from work, to find Charlie in her bed, moping:
Joseph: What’s the matter? Don’t you feel well?
Charlie: No, I’m perfectly well. I’ve just been thinking for hours. I’ve come to the conclusion that I give up. I simply give up.
Joseph: What are you going to give up?
Charlie: Have you ever stopped to think that a family should be the most wonderful thing in the world? And that ours is just going to pieces?
Although the scene is played so as to encourage us to identify with the father’s kind-hearted bemusement at Charlie’s teen-angst “thinking,” the shot is framed from her position. The camera is at bed level; the angle assumes her line of vision, not his. This is her dream, as it was Jeffrey’s. Although not explicitly forbidden in the Production Code that governed the content of motion pictures during this time, it’s interesting that the father does not enter his daughter’s bedroom—in fact he hovers at the doorway as if an invisible barrier existed—until his wife returns home. She comes up the back stairs, still in her coat, and enters Charlie’s room, and only then does her father step through the threshold.
She is in love with her Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotton), her mother’s brother. He is the miracle, the fantasy she daydreamed of on her bed, in the privacy of her room, the sun on her wallpaper, her hands on her body. She would like for him to take her in his arms and ravish her. This is the open secret of the movie, you realize. Here, in this frame, they are rushing to see her father at work as a teller in a bank. Her face is radiant because of the man whose hand grips her arm just a little too firmly. You can imagine him murdering all those widows (“fat, wheezing animals” he calls them later) with those hands. You can imagine him holding Charlie’s face, kissing it. She can imagine it too. In January, 1943, when the film was released, the battle of Stalingrad was almost over, the last pocket of German fighters having retreated into the city of Stalingrad itself, fighting from the inside of department stores and warehouses. Uncle Charles is a distant, sour reflection of the stupid evil of murder under the banner of any ideology, even the ideology of greed. It is the Age of Extermination, and Hitchcock’s joke (in this, his first truly “American” film) was to bring this idea home to sunny Santa Rosa, California, to shatter the myth of complacency. The world is burning, fuckers! the movie screams, and here is a taste of it for you!
Herbert (Hume Cronyn) has just presented his latest scenario of the perfect murder (involving a few poisonous mushrooms mixed in with perfectly edible ones) to Charlie’s dad Joseph, only to have Joseph poke a hole in it right away. In their suits and ties, the men talk with smiles about murder. But their talk will upset Charlie, who will leave the table, fleeing from the idea that’s blossoming inside her that her uncle is a serial killer. He’ll follow her and take her to the adult world of the Til-Two club, and when she begins to tell him of her suspicions, he’ll strike hard:
“You live in a dream. You’re a sleep-walker, blind! How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”
Uncle Charlie’s sociopathic nihilism had found expression in the mad world of men across the globe busy in slaughters of their own. The mushroom Herbie holds in his hand is an uncanny premonition of the mushroom clouds of August 1945, conceived by men in suits not as murder but as the antidote to murder. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Hitchcock’s darkest film was made in this Dark Age, and that in permitting such free expression of Uncle Charlie’s murderous philosophy, Shadow of a Doubt turned out not to be a thriller at all, but rather a war movie.