Alfred Hitchcock Day at the Film Experience continues with the return, after a brief hiatus, of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, this time centered on Shadow of a Doubt, frequently identified as Hitch’s favorite among all his own movies, and easily one of his best films – my private Hitchcock Top 10 fluctuates constantly, but there’s never been a time when this film wasn’t on it.
The movie, for the benefit of those who haven’t seen it (and if you have any affection for the director’s work whatsoever, you absolutely must), is about Charlie (Teresa Wright), a girl living in the quaint, WWII-era California town of Santa Rosa, where she is intensely happy to receive a visit from her namesake Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). It’s a life-changing event in the young woman’s life, but even more after a pair of detective inform her that her beloved uncle is the prime suspect in the “Merry Widow” serial killer case.
Thus springs forth one of Hitch’s most intense thrillers, a collision of the warmth and domesticity of suburban America with one of cinema’s most perverse attacks on the all-American notion of family. Wright and Cotten both give absolutely gorgeous performances (among the best in all Hitchcock, one might even say), and the blackhearted glee with which the magnificently unsentimental auteur violates the sanctity of hearth and home makes it one of his very finest pieces of nasty-minded entertainment. For my shot, I’ve perhaps unimaginatively gone to one of the very first moments of foreshadowing, before we in the audience have good reason to believe that Uncle Charlie really is the monstrous killer he’s suspected to be, but in the very instant that we realise, with an unfocused by certain sinking feeling, that he’s hiding something pretty dark.
Uncle Charlie has just given Charlie a present of a ring, one that happens to have initials carved on the inside of the band. The young woman’s confusion is totally guileless and unsuspecting, while the uncle’s carefully-sculpted flat look tells of something more menacing and secretive than anything that Young Charlie might even be capable of imagining at this point in the story. The contrast between their two expressions foreshadows not just the bloody secret that drives the drama, but also the relationship between these two central characters that animates it and gives it psychological depth beyond the mechanical perfection common to even Hitchcock’s worst thrillers. This is, we might say, the emotional inciting incident of the film, which will proceed to explore the tension between the niece who knows nothing and suspects far too much, and the uncle who knows everything and wants at all costs to keep anybody else from finding it out. The way that Cotten takes a split-second too long to come up with a reaction to Wright’s bright, babbling questions lights the fuse represented by this shot, and from there we’re off to the races.
It’s too great a film to have even its central force represented by a single shot, or a single scene, but as it’s the single beat where all of sudden, something very dark creeps into this bucolic setting (even more than the magnificent dinner scene that follows shortly, where Uncle Charlie attempts to prevent the rest of the family from identifying the name of Franz Lehár’s”Merry Widow Waltz”. It’s a great example of why Hitchcock was called the Master of Suspense: who else could make heartstopping cinema out of a man trying to distract people at a dinner table, for reasons we don’t even know yet?), and so it gets my vote as a defining image from a movie rich enough to have almost nothing but defining moments.