Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the Academy Awards coming this Sunday, we’re highlighting work by master filmmakers who never won the Best Director Oscar.
Alfred Hitchcock’s own favorite movie is far from the flash of his later great efforts. It doesn’t have show-stopping moments like the airplane attack in North By Northwest, the psychological pinwheels of Vertigo, or Psycho’s shower scene. But in a way, it’s more terrifying than any of those, because it points to a menace closer to home and heart: In this case, a beloved family member, who may or may not be the total opposite of who he appears to be.
The Newtons lead an idyllic if dull life in small Santa Rosa, California; as the movie starts, young Charlie (Teresa Wright) is restless and longing for a visit from her namesake, glamorous Uncle Charlie, to charge the family up. Luckily/unluckily for her, Uncle Charlie appears to be on the lam (his Philadelphia is much dingier and more sinister than lovely Santa Rosa). He arrives on a train billowing giant black clouds of smoke, indicating a corrupting of the sweet atmosphere. Young Charlie feels a psychic connection to the man she was named after, and soon finds his large pockets of money, his hiding certain pages of the newspaper, and even the mysterious initials on a ring he gave her suspicious. But Uncle Charlie couldn’t be the notorious Merry Widow Murderer. Or could he?
Hitchcock plays up Charlie’s growing suspicions with some showy yet effective shots, proving he was already a master. Uncle Charlie cheerfully trudges up the family stairs, then turns back to look at young Charlie, who has just come back from church and is awash in light, an angel of accusation. Or she says good night to her young man and turns to find Uncle Charlie standing in the front doorway, guarding the gates like Cerberus. For all of young Charlie’s protests about her family being in a rut, she is not ready for what Uncle Charlie has to show her, dragging her into Santa Rosa’s one cocktail bar of ill repute (“Never thought I’d see you in here, Charlie,” chides the waitress) to school her on life:
You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares.
Charlie’s dad and his friend (Hume Cronyn, in his film debut) read crime magazines and speculate on murder methods as a hobby, because the actual thing seems so far-removed. But it may be much closer than they realize, as benign places like the family front porch or the creaky garage suddenly become deadly. (There’s even a theory that Uncle Charlie’s a vampire: The first time we see him he’s lying flat on his back with his arms crossed; he also hates getting photographed, and he pulls down the blinds a lot.)
Uncle Charlie’s bleak sentiments that “The world is a foul sty… If you ripped the fronts off houses you’d find swine” are not unlike the theme that David Lynch would pull off in the first few moments of Blue Velvet, decades later: the perfect small-town landscape, hiding a festering ear underneath. Hitchcock isn’t that graphic here (with writing help from Thornton Wilder, showing the flip slide of Our Town), but he doesn’t need to be. His message is clear: You may want to scratch the surface of boring paradise, but you may not be ready for what you might find there. Uncle Charlie suggests the evil lurking in each of us, with frequent Orson Welles co-star Joseph Cotten bringing the proper combination of menace and charm to the part, and Wright steadfastly holding her own as the audience stand-in. In the end, anyone, even young Charlie, may be capable of murder. It was one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes, and Shadow Of A Doubt translates it like no other film.
Availability: Shadow Of A Doubt is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.