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.

CITIZEN KANE ON CAMPUS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Tenth Rumination)

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Notes on attending Kane on campus last night….

1)   Watching it for the first time in a while–first time in decades with an audience–I was struck by how little its prescience has been noted by the crit-illuminati and/or their journo-politico fellow travelers re our recent political upheavals. I’ve seen Donald Trump compared to Adolf Hitler, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln (by himself), P.T. Barnum, Huey Long, Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, etc. Never once have I seen him compared to Charles Foster Kane. I’m sure it must have happened. But, as closely as I’ve been following along, I have to believe such comparisons have been few and far between. Now why would that? Hold on, I think I may have an answer way, way further down…

2) The main reason I go to watch classic movies on college campuses whenever I can is to participate in–and gauge–audience reactions. This was one of the rare times FSU’s Student Life Center was running a film in 35mm, so it was extra treat. (The Center, incidentally, is named for Reubin Askew, former Florida governor who was the only Democrat my mother ever considered voting for. In the end, she didn’t, citing her contempt for his running mate, though I always suspected she just couldn’t make the leap to the idea that the “New” Democrats were anything more than the Jim Crow scoundrels who had ruled her Southern childhood dressed up in sheep’s clothing. She was wrong about the thoroughly decent Askew–but had she lived just a little longer she would have spotted Bill Clinton for the smooth, duplicitous son of Pitchfork Ben Tillman he was right off, and taken some gently sardonic satisfaction in noting which one rose to the White House.) Re Kane, though:The reactions this time were….interesting.

3) The film was introduced by a couple of genial, slightly goofy student-age dudes, one of whom was evidently in charge of the theater’s programming, the other the projectionist (this being a rare modern occasion when one was required). They gave us an entertaining five minutes, during which I kept thinking “If this was Moore Auditorium in 1983, these guys would be chum for the sharks.” We won’t win any more wars, but the world was meaner then.

3) The main new thing that struck me in the movie–it’s one of those movies which will always reveal new things–was that when Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland returns his copy of Kane’s “Ten Principles” (along with a $25,000 check torn to pieces), it’s not a comment on Kane’s journalistic or political honor (Leland was the first to know he didn’t have any), and therefore must be meant to strike at his betrayal of his marital honor–the only kind he’s really broken faith with. I don’t think the college kids around me quite got this (though they knew it was a big deal of some sort–it elicited the only gasps and “o-o-o-h-h-h-s” of the night). There’s no reason they should have, of course, marital honor no longer being a thing. But I was ashamed of myself for not noticing years back, when it still was a thing.

4) When it was over,  a girl in front of me turned to her friends and said “It was good.” They all nodded along. The relief was palpable.

5) There was a moment during the film, when the kid behind me said “This is going on right now.” I honestly can’t remember which scene he reacted to, because I was pretty much thinking that about every scene.

6) It became obvious to me for the first time during this viewing that Welles didn’t screen Stagecoach forty times while he was making Kane so he could understand more about deep focus cinematography or how to film ceilings (those being two of many theories, some endorsed by Welles himself, of what he was after). He screened Stagecoach forty times so he could learn how people move and talk on screen and to understand film-rhythm.

7) For all that–and all its technical perfection (one understands why it knocks ’em over in Film School)–it still doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Gone With the Wind or The Searchers, the reasonable competition for Hollywood’s greatest film. It might be a greater film from a purely technical standpoint and it’s certainly formidable as a Narrative. But if Narrative is the prime value of story-telling–and it should be–it still comes a little short. I should add that this says more about the other films than it does about Kane, which is still a moving experience on every level. And more so, I find, with age.

8) I’ve never bought that it was one of the great Hollywood blunders for John Ford and How Green Was My Valley to have won Best Director and Best Picture for 1941. All in all, I might pick Welles and Kane, but it’s a close run. He was robbed of the acting Oscar, though. Gary Cooper–almost inevitably with war clouds looming, then breaking, during awards season–won for a fine performance in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (Ford’s own stated choice for best picture and director). But Welles gave one of the half-dozen signature performances in film. The only greater injustice in the history of the acting category was John Wayne being denied so much as a nomination for The Searchers. Welles was at least nominated.

9) Did I mention kids are so much nicer now? In the bathroom afterwards, three guys were talking about how “It wasn’t bad for 1941.” And another said, “I mean, it’s not something I’m gonna tell my friends they have to see.”

10) I was otherwise occupied, and thus robbed of my chance to share my Citizen Kane story with the younger generation. Had I been able to leave the stall a little sooner, I was planning to say something like this:

So I was sitting with my Dad about fifteen years ago, a few years before he died, and he puts down his newspaper and says ‘John, what is the significance of “Rosebud?”‘ I then proceeded to explain to him that it was a reference to the movie Citizen Kane (of which he had vaguely heard–my dad saw a movie about once a decade). I told him some of the plot and the presumed symbolism of it turning out to be the name of Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled, the one he was playing with when he was taken from his parents.

My dad listened patiently to all of that, and, when I was finished, he looked off into the distance for a minute and finally nodded and said “Oh yeah. Old Hearst’s mistress.” Then he went back to reading his paper.

Mind you I hadn’t said a thing about Kane being based, in whole or in part, on William Randolph Hearst, let alone anything about Rosebud being his pet name for Marion Davies’ private parts and that being the more or less real reason Welles got more or less run out of Hollywood.

The only thing I could ever figure was that in Dad’s Carny days, perhaps through his friend and business partner “Cy,” who was an intimate of Red Skelton’s (they having grown up together in the mob-owned night clubs of the Midwest–there were certain towns in Illinois from which it was necessary for Cy to absent himself from the show for a week or two), he had picked up some piece of stray gossip that stayed with him all those years and flashed to the top of his mind as the shortest, straightest way to sort out all the nonsense I had been babbling on about.

I’m not sure how much of that I would have had a chance to share with my fellow bladder-emptiers last night. But if, by chance, they hadn’t fled, I was going to finish with a flourish and say:

“Now you should probably go watch it again and see what you missed.”

Ah well. Their loss.

And I still can’t blame them because, for all its purported “modernity,” Kane’s fall is straight out of the oldest trope in Western Civilization: Pride goeth before a fall.

Today’s twenty-somethings could be forgiven for thinking that’s all a lot of hogwash.

[Addenda: To answer the earlier question….The crit-illuminati and journo-politicos will catch on to the similarities between Donald Trump and their “fictional” Welles-ian hero when the Security State arranges for The Donald to be found in Mar-a-Lago, with a snow-globe falling from his dying hand as he lies on his big brass bed and Melania is discovered by a maid, locked up in the bathroom, murmuring, “I never wanted it. He wanted it for me!” The reports of the event won’t suffice to awaken them, but the note from the boss will do the trick. You know, the one that begins “Our friends at CIA have requested…”