Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Murder in black and white (Shadow of a Doubt)

I had a genuine moment of mental gear-grinding surprise when I was watching the special features on the Shadow of a Doubt DVD and people started talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s evident fascination with Americana, and I suddenly remembered that Hitchcock was an Englishman. He just seems so much like a figure of Americana himself, a monumentally huge part of the pop-culture landscape, as if he were born on a Hollywood backlot with an old-timey director’s megaphone in his hand instead of a rattle.

So of course I know who Hitchcock is, because pretty much everyone does, right? And I feel like I know him well, almost entirely by virtue of how large he looms. The fact is, I haven’t seen very many of his movies. Not Psycho, not The Birds, not North by Northwest, not The 39 Steps, not Vertigo, &c. &c. Before Shadow of a Doubt, the only Hitchcock movie I had watched all the way through was Rear Window. If I haven’t said it enough already, let me say it one more time: gaps like this are a big part of why I would sign up for something like the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club in the first place.

We end up doubting ourselves most of all.
Shadow of a Doubt is interesting and worth watching for a couple of different meta-cinematic reasons. The first has to do with its time-capsule nature, filmed in 1943 and ostensibly set in that year (or close enough) as well. There’s an old-fashioned theatricality to the performances by all the actors involving penchants for monologues and crisp enunciation and overly broad facial expressions and so on. But ultimately that seems entirely fitting for a story that takes place in an era so distant to us now it might as well be another planet. Crucial plot points hang on technological developments (or lack thereof) available seventy years ago. (Spoilers ahead, but did I mention this movie came out seventy years ago?) Uncle Charles is being hunted based on suspicion alone, because no one is sure how well he matches the description of the Merry-Widow Killer, due to the fact that there are no photographs in existence anywhere of either of them. There is no internet, people get their news from the newspaper rather than an omnipresent sea of information all around us, and therefore Uncle Charles can hide something from his family by tearing out a section of broadsheet and stuffing it in his pocket. An attempted murder relies on a car that can have its engine started and continue idling with the key removed from the ignition. And so on. It’s a story set in a markedly different milieu, and it’s performed in a markedly different way from what we see today, so much so that whenever Hitchcock tried to create moments of normalcy or realism with multiple actors speaking over each other, those were the parts I found jarring.

The other intriguing aspect of the film is the psychological game that Hitchcock plays with the audience. The title, after all, is Shadow of a Doubt, and I found myself meditating on that title throughout much of the running time. Uncle Charles is introduced in a low-key but fairly sinister way, and the implication seems obvious that he’s up to no good … but then there’s that title hanging over the whole thing. Everything in the beginning is ambiguous enough that it’s plausible Charles hasn’t done anything wrong and is being unfairly persecuted. The evidence steadily mounts that Charles is the Merry-Widow Killer, but virtually all of it is circumstantial, so the doubt persists, all of which reinforces the fact that most of the movie is told from the perspective of his niece Charlie, who slowly begins to connect the dots herself. Even when Uncle Charles is actively trying to cover his tracks by murdering Charlie, I still found myself on the edge of my seat not only to see if Charlie would escape but to try to figure out if clues were being dropped which would allow the ending to deliver a colossal twist in which Uncle Charles was innocent all along, the homicidal incidents were accidents, and the creeping paranoia had always been a trick of shadows and smoke. The doubt persisted long past the point it probably should have, largely due to the carefully selected words Hitchcock chose to put at the beginning of the credits. That’s not a half-bad trick.

1 comment:

  1. Hitch had a narrow band, but sweet holy jeebus, he was the absolute master of that band. His best ones (Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window) are brilliant movies, and even his second-tier stuff (North by Northwest, The Birds, To Catch a Thief) is entertaining.

    Francois Truffaut interviewed Hitch several times and rolled up the interviews into a single book: Hitchcock by Truffaut: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock. The man was a fascinating cat, and his explanations of his own work reveal a lot. I can loan it to you sometime if you'd like.

    There's a spiritual successor to that volume that's even an even better read: Cameron Crowe's book of interviews with Billy Wilder, Conversations with Wilder. Wilder was a more rounded and humane man than the bizarro Hitchcock, and his understanding of what makes for a good movie is quite different. Plus, Wilder's tales of screwing with Cary Grant are comedy gold.