Monday, January 19, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) 10/10
Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten), who is being followed by the police, decides to skip town and visit his sister's family, including his adoring niece, Young Charlie (Theresa Wright). Quickly we learn that Uncle Charlie is a murderer, bringing poisonous hatred to small town life. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Shadow of a Doubt is a difficult movie to review, because it is one of the most written-about movies of all time. It has been analyzed, dissected, and mapped for its construction, hidden meanings, echoes, reflections, symbolism, and structure by the greatest film critics ever. What, then, can I bring to the table? I'm not sure I even understand all the symbolism or the structure.
The basics of it, that everything in Shadow of a Doubt is in some way a reflection and opposite of everything else, is pretty clear. The lovely town of Santa Rosa is the reflection of the dark, run-down town Uncle Charlie escapes. Young Charlie is the twin/opposite of Uncle Charlie. The murder-obsessed neighbor is the twin/opposite of the real murders.

I think it's impossible to view a Hitchcock movie without seeing the "Hitchcock" as well as the "movie." His is a body of work that is distinctive, personal, and interconnected by his presence at the helm. So, while each movie stands alone, each is also a piece of the whole. (He completed 59 full-length films, some of which are rarities, and I've seen 28.)

At some level, all of Hitchcock's films are about misogyny. They examine it (Notorious), laugh about it (To Catch a Thief), revel in it (The Birds), and delve into its depths (Psycho). Shadow of a Doubt is very interested in condemning it, but not without allowing deep hatred, in the form of Uncle Charlie, to be seductive and exciting.

Young Charlie is an innocent teenager, worshipful of her uncle. Her mother (Patricia Collinge) is innocent as well, a somewhat silly and naive woman. Charlie loves his sister, but she is surely everything he hates about women and about the world: She is defined by a small town and a small life that doesn't reach beyond family and friends. As the movie opens, we might easily imagine Young Charlie headed along the same path, and we might even share Uncle Charlie's disdain.

But Uncle Charlie is a poison, and as Young Charlie discovers this, her response is not to retreat into innocence, but to become resourceful, and a worthy match for him. While at first we can laugh, with Uncle Charlie, at small town and small-minded life, ultimately we root, with Young Charlie, for its values. This is truly not Hitchcock's typical take on women, on resourcefulness, or on innocence. Hitch even has us rooting for the blandly romantic cop by the end, which again, not his usual take on cops. Ultimately, the cop places himself in service to Young Charlie's power play with Uncle Charlie, rather than in strict service to the law. Charlie must defeat the demon herself.

All this is kind of conceptual without talking about the movie. It's beautifully filmed, the acting is great, and Hume Cronyn is very funny. It has the kind of lush sense of presence that people mean when they say "classic." The dialogue is sharp, and the screenplay brings tension and surprise.