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Shadow of a Doubt (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on November 24, 2012

“I know a wonderful person who will come and shake us all up!  Just the one to save us!”

Not the greatest quote, I know, but I wanted to use something that wasn’t already on IMDb’s “Memorable quotes” page.  And it speaks to young Charlie’s (Teresa Wright) innocence, about to be shattered, chewed up and spit out.  The film that Hitchcock called his own favorite is a riveting portrait of innocence lost, of big city evil lurking in idyllic small towns.  Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, in what might be his greatest performance) shakes things up, all right.  Menace dwells in unexpected places, and in a couple of harrowing, misanthropic (and wickedly misogynist) speeches, Uncle Charlie reveals the monster hiding behind the charming facade.

In my recent review of The Man With My Face, I mentioned the Filmspotting podcast episode about doppelgangers.  One of the movies that came up was Strangers on a Train.  I felt that calling it a “doppelganger film” was a bit of a stretch… I was persuaded that the theme is there, but it’s far stronger here.  It’s made abundantly clear that Cotten and Wright are two sides of the same coin.  They have the same name.  More than once they’re referred to as “twins”.  They share a kind of psychic bond: Wright thinks of sending Cotten a telegram, not knowing that he has just sent one, and she gets a waltz stuck in her head, not knowing that the same tune has a special, sinister connotation for her uncle.  They’re both forceful, stubborn characters.  But young Charlie’s craving for excitement doesn’t match the lengths her uncle has gone to.  His contempt for humanity makes him a Hyde to her Jekyll, the part of their symbiosis unrestrained by conscience.

It’s also a very funny movie.  The family dynamic allows for a lot of amusing lines and scenarios, best exemplified by the morbid conversations between Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn.  Their armchair assassination plots are an absolute delight, and surely close to the director’s heart, and his macabre sense of humor.

The film does have a weakness for those especially concerned about plotting.  The detectives (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford) are shockingly bad at their jobs.  Let’s see, we know there’s a killer but we don’t know which of our two suspects it is.  Suspect #1 gets killed by a propeller and is left in unidentifiable pieces.  Welp, I guess that was our guy!  Case closed, we can forget about suspect #2 now.  That’s just one instance of their incompetence.  There could have been more logicals to position the characters in the situations they need to be in, but it’s forgivable because the movie is so compelling.  Beautifully constructed shots, a very compelling performance by Cotten, rich exploration of the film’s themes, and fine dialogue and character work.  I would never call it my favorite Hitchcock, but it’s way up there.  Rating: Great (89)


2 Responses to “Shadow of a Doubt (rewatch)”

  1. kevlarcardhouse said

    Yeah, the fact that nobody else really clues in to him being the obvious suspect is kind of hard to swallow. That said, it does nicely set up why he is so full of hubris that he enables himself to be found out by someone who idealizes him so much.

    • I was listening to comedian John Mulaney’s “New in Town” album the other day, and there’s an absolutely hilarious bit about how easy it was to get away with murder in the 40’s. Highly recommended.

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