STRANGER IN THE HO– USE (Noir, Noir, Noir: Fourth Feature)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
D: Alfred Hitchcock

[NOTE: By now it’s probably obvious that the noir designation is a jumping off point around here. Purists who wander by need not be horrified. I know what the preferred definition is. But noir is one of those terms, like punk, or capitalism, that has slipped its mooring and now goes everywhere. This is the closest it came to Alfred Hitchcock’s singular universe. As usual, modest spoilers included.]

Shadow of a Doubt causes some friction among Hitchcock aficionados. Count  me with those who agree with the Master himself that it’s his best (edging out Notorious [my favorite, but that’s another thing] and Pyscho, the only others that retain their full bite, and Rear Window, which is the most hellishly entertaining of his many hellishly entertaining entertainments).

I didn’t always feel that way. I liked it when I first saw it decades back. But, even though I noted Thornton Wilder’s name in the credits, I don’t think I was prepared for Hitchcock to be both salient and prescient about his adopted land. At least not to this degree and in this setting.

Hiding in plain sight, right there on top of the (for once well-constructed) thriller plot, is the glory and fragility of family life in small town, mid-century America. Hitch knew his limits. You wanted the glory and fragility of life in small towns, you hired Wilder. And, not surprisingly, Wilder delivered. If he wasn’t responsible for every bit of the film’s authenticity (a rare quality in a Hitchcock film in any case), he can doubtless be credited for setting everyone on the right path.

And Hitchcock stalked that path to the end.

All modern accounts to the contrary, America must have had something worth admiring in its deepest DNA for anyone as devoted to keeping everything off his sleeve as Alfred Hitchcock to celebrate it so–to bring it so close to ruin that ten viewings only bring it closer, one by one, so close that each new viewing only makes one fear all the more for that lost world’s safety, and therefore makes the narrow escape (in the shadow of the Big One, as they used to call WWII, no less) all the more harrowing.

In the end, Teresa Wright’s Charlie escapes the physical terror of Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie. But has she–or the town (or, in context, the world)–really escaped the psychological gash his existence left on hers (or theirs…or ours)?

That’s the question that runs through Wright’s performance and that of Patricia Collinge, playing her far more delicate mother.

If you stay here, I’m going to kill you myself. Wright’s Charlie says to Cotten’s. Because, you see, that’s how I feel about you.

This is not modern language. It’s the language of first things–the realization that something primal is lurking under the most bucolic surface. There are none of the Master’s usual distancing mechanisms. This isn’t to do with spies or dream states or show folks or trials or high society types. It’s a young woman–the apple of every eye in her small town–coming to the slow realization she is the only thing standing between her charming, monstrous uncle (the always excellent Joseph Cotten in his greatest role), and his will and ability to manipulate a world like hers until it, too, becomes a place where monsters feel at home.

It’s the delicacy of the social, moral and psychological states involved that lift this beyond even the highest of the very high ends Hitchcock achieved elsewhere.

The purity of nuance and observation begins with the first scene, the only one not set in Santa Rosa. It’s set somewhere in the east, where Uncle Charlie is just another man on the run and very close to being caught like a man in a trap. The scene has overtones of Hemingway’s “The Killers,” which would later be made into two fine movies but with which Hitchcock was probably, and Wilder certainly, familiar. There’s the same air of resignation, the same world-weariness, the same idea of two men stalking their prey, who waits helplessly.

Except that here, with the two hunters being bound by the law and the prey being beyond it, instead of the reverse, there’s a chance for escape. At least in the orderly universe Hitchcock is seeking to portray in full, and if only so he can threaten to upend it, the law must observe the rules. They wait and watch and hope for evidence that will produce a warrant and an arrest. The prey–Uncle Charlie as we will come to know–uses the small window of opportunity to make a mad dash for freedom…and succeeds.

Soon enough he’s getting off a train, shedding a false cane. Soon after that, he’s the toast of the town where the niece who was named for him is the apple of all those aforementioned eyes.

She’s that type every small town always has one of, but never more: the perfect kid who is going places. The dreamer who still embodies every virtue of responsibility. Her mother () is a nervous Nellie who nonetheless manages to be endearing and domineering in equal measure and thus make the world revolve around her–until her charming, somewhat wayward, younger brother shows up. Her father is Henry Travers, being even more bucolic than usual, but without laying it on the least bit thick. Her kid brother and sister are out of central casting (or what used to be called life), rambunctious and opinionated but, when push comes to shove, obedient and respectful. (The moment when the smart-alecky little sister, who has been getting on middle class nerves since there was such a thing, believes Charlie might be taken in death is one of this moving film’s most moving sequences–it’s in that instant you can first feel the crushing weight  of what it might mean to lose her, and I don’t just mean to her family.)

In Western Civilization, certainly as it had developed to 1943, we are supposed to value all lives equally. But, even in the shadow of the Christian God, the heart knows better. Some lives count more than others. Anyone else in the that small California town–or yours–could die and it would leave a scar. For Charlie to die, in the bloom of youth, before her dreaming nature could be fulfilled by even the cruelest destiny, would leave a gaping hole. The kind that never heals.

And for Charlie to be responsible for the death of her mother, which is the dilemma Uncle Charlie finally hangs around her slender neck, would be even worse. It would be like losing Charlie twice and the only surprise is that it takes Uncle Charlie most of the movie to discover this. It’s credible, though, because by then we realize just how far from fitting into the fabric of a small town his criminal past has taken him.

This is the kind of character development that tends to slip past on a first viewing, which is bound to be dominated by the slowly ratcheting tension of the will-he/she-or-won’t-he/she game of cat and mouse which develops between the Charlies as the day-to-day life their deadly game is endangering goes on about them, unafraid because unaware.

Such development does not show up in many other films, certainly not many Hitchcock films. But it’s the essence here.

It’s why familiarity does not abate the terror. The more aware of these characters and their social milieu you are, the more frightening their circumstance becomes. And you will become more aware. Wright and Cotten make it impossible to miss. They weren’t merely two of the finest actors of Hollywood’s great age but among the subtlest. They each had their greatest moment here, in roles that still seem more lived than acted.

Even Alfred Hitchcock–no fan of realism–did not fail to notice.

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